BET's racially barbed new reality shows.

What you're watching.
July 20 2007 5:49 PM

The Black LagunaBeach

And other new BET shows that joust with race and class.

It's a date from Hell 
Click image to expand.
It's a date from Hell 

BET—previously best known for an ardent devotion to music videos starring girls who shake what their mommas gave 'em—is at the outset of an overhaul. In the next six months, it will debut an animated sketch show by Orlando Jones, a court show starring the great Paul Mooney, and a serious nonfiction series about ministers. But this is July, and July means reality trash. The reality trash of Black Entertainment Television—loathsome or darling, cute or cutting—is a fine window onto some weird twists in the African-American consciousness.

Let us start at the bottom. Hell Date (weekdays at 7:30 p.m. ET) represents the convergence of Blind Date and Punk'd and proves fiendishly entertaining if you turn off your conscience. One person turns up for the rendezvous smiling innocently and hoping to make a love connection. This is the mark. The other half of the couple is a con artist whose goal is to incite horror. Thus, in a segment titled "Kinda Pregnant," polite Michael introduces himself to the camera by saying he'd like to meet someone ambitious and attractive. Then we meet an actress named Sabrina: "Have you ever been on a date where you thought you were gonna get some, only to find someone got there first? Well, today I'm with child." At the end of each date—the moment after, say, one party has convincingly pretended to vomit on the other—a dwarf in a devil costume shows up to reveal what's what: "You not on a real date. This is Hell Date." Often, the dwarf dances, and dances well.

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Not all Hell Date segments work a racial angle. The scenario depicted in "The 25-Year-Old Virgin"—wherein the suitor first appears shy to the point of catatonia, then seems to ejaculate in his chinos during a salsa lesson—would work just as well with Inuits or Maoris. But others traffic in stereotypes that bring the program to the edge of minstrelsy. The grossest yet is "Momma's Boy." I didn't mind the bit where, during a cooking class, the actor-dater called his mother to ask about a fried-chicken recipe. But then he brought his date home. Momma had a red bathrobe on and a pick in her hair, and there's no way the producers didn't use the term "nappy-headed" when planning her coif. "I've got $100 in my pocket," Momma told the date. "I just want to know if maybe when you get to know my son a little better, that you can, you know, maybe do the thang with him." She was duly appalled, and the richly awful hostility between the black middle class and the underclass—between suburban strivers and ghetto queens—was exploited for the sake of a giggle.

Baldwin Hills (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) gets at this class tension with more force, more nuance, and considerably less stench. Set in an expensive black neighborhood in Los Angeles, Baldwin Hills is simple to tag as "the black Laguna Beach," which doesn't do this decent show any favors: While its shots borrow from Laguna's voyeuristic middle-distance vocabulary, the cinematography is by no means as luscious, and its narrative focus is split between the kids' social status and their career ambitions. Also, the scenes play at numbing length, and the stars' parents get too much screen time, and these faults sometimes combine and multiply: When a 16-year-old boy named Moriah endures a string of maternal questions about a party he wants to attend, the grilling drags on longer, impossibly, than the vintage interrogations of your own youth. The linchpin of the series is Staci, who lives not in the Hills but somewhere much closer to Crenshaw Boulevard. While the girls who live up the hill think nothing of charging $500 to Daddy's plastic for a single party outfit, Staci has to borrow a Jackson from her mom, and then spend $41.10. At the register, she asks if they're hiring. Can Staci hang with the rich girls? Are the rich girls willing to kick it in South Central? If you don't find such questions absolutely riveting, the show will put you to sleep.

For a pick-me-up, try S.O.B. (debuts Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET)—that's short for Socially Offensive Behavior—hosted by D.L. Hughley, who is possibly trapped in a Studio 60-related shame spiral. "Everyone wants to believe they live in a politically correct world," Hughley says in the first episode. "Well, guess what? You don't!" S.O.B. represents the convergence of Candid Camera and Borat. Thoughtfully barbed, it offers the spectacle of innocents reacting, or failing to react, to outlandish scenarios. The funniest yet involves two actors, playing priests and wearing collars, passing the time at a bar by flipping through lad mags and leering at women: "You lookin' to party tonight or what?" The most unsettling—that's a compliment—involved a segregated restaurant. An Asian hostess asked diners their ethnicity. A white waitress said, "Our bottled water is complimentary for white people, so do you want sparkling water or flat?" A black manager explained that this was a theme restaurant and the theme was separate-but-equal. Only two people, a pair of upper-middle-class white guys, walked out.

As depicted on S.O.B., Americans are sometimes a sorrily subservient lot, and sometimes a proud bunch of stand-up guys. We'll see next week what they make of Hot Ghetto Mess, a video-clip show adapted from a Web site of the same name and already under fire as a disgrace. The meat of the satirical site is its lurid depiction of individuals who aren't quite a credit to the race—hoochies doing as hoochies will, that kind of thing. One of its mottos is a quote from Charles Hamilton Houston: "As long as ignorance prevails, blacks will be the tools of the exploiting class." It's easy to see why BET, with its fresh focus on class and modern manners, would be interested to exploit some of that.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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