The first problem with Black. White. (FX, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET) as a serious documentary about race relations is also its first asset as an uncommonly charged bit of reality TV: The show's central figure, Bruno Marcotulli, is a regular guy with a big mouth and a closed mind. While he's a lousy lab rat—too stubborn and dumb to produce anything that might be described as a "thought" about race—he's an excellent jackass, and his personality is as good a mirror as any for reflecting some of the grotesque curlicues of American society.
Bruno and his family (partner Carmen Wurgel and her 18-year-old daughter, Rose) are the white family participating in a two-way project about passing. They share a house in the San Fernando Valley with a black family, the Sparkses (father Brian, mother Renee, and son Nick), and each of the six climbs into the chair of an Oscar-nominated makeup artist for a convincing racial makeover a few times each week. The producers then loose them upon greater Los Angeles—Beverly Hills to Baldwin Hills, Santa Monica to Leimert Park—tracking them on cameras that are hidden within handbags or present under the pretense that the filmmakers are simply doing a project about "family."
Grinning, good-humored Bruno is creepy on several levels. You could chalk up the fact that he is plainly turned on at first seeing Carmen in her makeup to universal perversities about sex and color, but how to account for the tear streaming down his blackface? He signed up for the show in a confrontational spirit. "I just wanted to really poke into the issue of race and see if any flames would emerge," he tells the camera near the top of tonight's episode. Elsewhere, he's kind of bummed out upon leaving a black comedy club, "I wish they had done more white jokes, frankly." And when he says, "I'm kind of waiting for somebody to say, 'Hey, nigger!' " he does so in a tone that others might use to say, "I can't wait to see V for Vendetta."
The idea of having the slur flung at him is a recurrent fantasy of Bruno's, a bit of masochism rather like Catherine Deneuve's Belle de Jour daydreams of being pelted with dung. And yet, as if looking for license to feel more comfortable with whatever his prejudices are, he is also on a mission to prove that white racism does not exist. Unsurprisingly, he decides that he doesn't discover much of it in the four episodes I screened, not even finding anything peculiar about the all-white bar where, it seemed, he needed to produce a credit card to get a cup of coffee. If Black. White.—the title of which is annoyingly punctuated, by the way—were a drama, the network would be sending producers' notes about Bruno's lack of character development. Since it's nonfiction, his mulishness just gives you the sense that Carmen will be leaving him soon—and she's no slouch in the dippiness department herself. Tonight, she says of her epidermal dye job, "It's nice. I love black. … Somehow, heart-wise, there's that warmth." It is left to Rose—humming with collegiate earnestness, a guilty liberal on training wheels—to do the family's introspecting and then write bad slam poetry about it.
On the other side of the racial divide, the drama's of a different type. Brian is also feeling horny for his wife after her initial makeover, but what's most notable about the scene is his first impression of his newly white son: "They gave you dimples and everything." It falls to Renee to tell him that Nick has always had dimples, a neat enough indicator of the distance between the two that emerges as a subtheme. The socially conscious father is bringing up a son who's unconcerned with race as a social problem. The middle-class striver is a little tense that his kid is into thug style. The Sparkses perhaps aren't the most successful parents anyhow. Nick is fantastically unengaged with much of life, this show included; we mostly see him scowling through a program of etiquette lessons in the 90210 and futzing around with a camera in a photo class.
His parents have their own experiences in the reverse-minstrelsy—Brian chats up a bigot in a bar and says, far too simply, "I'm relaxed when I'm shopping," after hitting the pro shop—but the Sparkses are mainly around to serve as antagonists for the other couple. The show is edited so that their dramatic purpose is to try to explain to Bruno that nobody's going to call him bad names and to talk to one another about These Crazy White People. Brian on the dashikis Carmen buys to wear to church: "Why don't they just dress like Aunt Jemima on the syrup bottle and get it over with?" That's a funny line, and an apt one, and Black. White. plays it for nothing more or less than a wisecrack. The show's an entertaining provocation, but it's also only skin-deep.