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Fall '01: "One on One"

It is not always an easy thing to be a black person in America. You have to face the daily slights and indignities that are monstrous largely because they're offered up so casually and routinely. You have racial profiling, of course, and a playing surface that isn't always level. And even if that doesn't bring you down, there's always the minor annoyance of having to read articles by dopey-if-well-meaning white guys that start out "It is not always an easy thing to be a black person in America."

Add to that list of affronts television and the thrice-heated leftovers it regularly serves up to African Americans. There are roughly three hours of weekly prime-time programming geared toward what the television industry charmingly calls urban audiences, all of it consigned to a life of obscurity on UPN or the WB. By and large, the shows are loud, inane and -- if the writing is really crackling on a particular week -- sporadically funny.

One on One, which premiered on UPN earlier this month, doesn't figure to change that equation any. This is the kind of show to which the lofty ambition of "Sporadically Funny" is best set aside for the more realistic goal of "No Longer Puzzling to the English-Speaking World." In fact, if One on One constituted one-sixth of the programming that network TV had deigned to target at me and others of my race, it wouldn't be long before the Triniton was tossed in the dumpster and I was off to Kinko's to print up copies of my pamphlet denouncing The Man.

One on One, the 2001 TV series, is not to be confused with "One on One," the 1970s movie starring Robbie Benson as a highly recruited college basketball star. No -- here the premise is only slightly less ridiculous. Flex Alexander plays Flex Washington -- since Alexander is apparently a silly surname that must be changed as it does not carry the gravitas of the name Flex. He's a divorced sportscaster who lives in Baltimore and is always macking on the ladies... except when his 14-year-old daughter is around. And she'll be around a lot from now on, what on account of her mother moving to Nova Scotia for a year. The characters make it sound like she's relocating to the far side of the sun as oppposed to a mere time zone away. The scene in which Flex and his one-time bride agree to change their long-standing custody arrangement took less than a minute in the pilot episode and wrapped itself up before the opening credits even rolled with nary an attorney, paralegal or family court judge in sight.

Again, I repeat that the show is set in Baltimore and not, as you might suspect, Magic Fairyland.

We can tell that it's Baltimore, see, because some of the characters are wearing Baltimore Ravens caps. Oh, and the exterior shots of Flex's spacious apartment bear more than a passing resemblance to the precinct house from Homicide. Fans of the late, lamented NBC series needn't tune in anticipating cameos from the likes of Bayliss, Meldrick and Munch. The only homicide taking place during One on One is the murder of laughter.

None of this is the fault of the actors, with the possible exception of Kelly Perine, who, in the role of Flex's buddy Duane, is basically responsible for standing around and wearing a hat and registering differing degrees of bemusement at the supposed hilarity taking place. But Flex acquits himself nicely -- a definite step up from his last stint on TV in the remarkably wretched Homeboys in Outer Space. And Kyla Pratt, as the daughter, does not instantly set off the "See Moppet/Gouge Out Own Eyes" stimulus-and-response mechanism I apparently have implanted in my brain. So that's progress of a sort. No, the actors do what they can with the material they're given.

And that's where the problem lies -- the material is simply lousy. It's Sitcom-by-the-Numbers. Insert Set-Up A into Punchline B. Take a Comical Misunderstanding, add water, and viola -- instant comedy!

Or a damp script. Take your pick.

Near as I can tell, One on One is going to focus on an irrepressible horndog forced to take some measure of responsibility now that his whip-smart kid has moved in with him. If that's your idea of quality entertainment, dig in. Me, I've seen it all before -- I know how this story plays out.

And so do the writers and producers behind One on One, apparently. Because every creative decision seems culled from the sitcoms that have come before it. The Flex character is an irresponsible horndog on the make because that's what other shows do. The daughter is a sassy back-talker because all TV children are sassy back-talkers. Duane wears a hat because... well, I'm not sure exactly. Maybe it's a shout-out to Michael Nesmith. But the point remains -- One on One is a warmed-over rehash of ideas, characters and jokes you probably stopped watching after the first dozen times it aired. So why bother tuning in now?

Then again, maybe the sameness and blandness that pervades One on One is a cause for hope. Yeah, it's not a very good show, another addition to the roster of not-very-good shows the networks target at black audiences. But it's no worse than the not-very-good shows that networks have targeted at white audiences for years and years. That's no reason to take to the streets singing "Ebony and Ivory," but in this day and age, you take your encouragement where you can.


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