Colored But Canceled: South Central
After spending months combing the internet for a short clip or photo, all I turned up was this measly title screen shot. So I’m going to talk about South Central as best as I can and hope that you all help fill in the blanks with your memories in the comments section (yes, Malcolm and jazzfan360 I am talking to you)!
The Premise: Joan Mosely (Tina Lifford) is a single mother struggling to make ends meet and raise her children Andre (played by a tenderoni Larenz Tate), Tasha (Tasha Scott), and Deion, a foster child born addicted to crack who never speaks because of the things he’s seen as a child (you know this is a realistic depiction of black folks right off the bat when a woman who is just getting by takes on an extra mouth to feed). The entire series was set in the shadow of the death of an older brother Marcus, who’d been killed years earlier livin’ that gangsta life.
How Did This Get On Television?: Remember when South Central Los Angeles was the template for exposing the realities of black urban life? Between Menace II Society, Boyz N’ The Hood, South Central the movie, and the deluge of West Coast hip-hop, you’d have to be living under a rock to be clueless about life in the streets of Compton. Think about it: there are only a few black spoof movies, and Don’t Be a Menace While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood is up there with I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in it’s accessibility and accuracy in poking fun of black cinematic tropes. But I digress. The bottom line is that in 1994 South Central LA was the place to be, the cast was credible, and Fox hoped that placing this show in the Tuesday night lineup with Roc would lead to success.
Why It Was Good: Tina Lifford played the mother figure with a gentle, cliché-free approach, a performance that was often overshadowed by the danger surrounding every plot-twist in the series. The subplot about Deion, the mute crackbaby, was a mystery just begging to be unraveled. The love story between Andre and the siditty Nicole, played by Maia Campbell, was a latter day Romeo and Juliet throwback. South Central was chock full o’ black C-listers (Glenn Plummer, Clifton Powell, Earl Billings, Shar Jackson, Lamont Bentley…) and Jennifer Lopez had a small recurring role. And most importantly for me, the dialogue was authentically black.
Why It Was Bad: I don’t have an answer for this in the literal sense, but maybe the reasons that this show was good are the same as the reasons that it was bad – white people did not want to see a show about struggling black folks during the booming Clinton years. Maybe South Central was too real and scary to attract that necessary handful of white viewers that Living Single and Martin could, and since Fox was already doing well with those shows on Thursdays they reached for higher ground by replacing Roc and South Central with the inevitably weak but dependable “Tuesday Night Movie.”
Best Episode: I distinctly remember the episode “Dad.” Andre and Tasha’s father, played by Vondie Curtis Hall, breezes into town a la Raj’s pop on What’s Happening? – giving gifts, making promises, the whole deadbeat dad nine yards. Although Andre’s anger at his father’s drop-in is predictable, the real tastiness of this episode is in the love story subplot. At this point in the series Nicole has stopped speaking to Andre because her parents have forbidden it, and a new girl, Candi (played by Malinda Williams), tries to push up on him, saying “I’ll make you forget all about that bougie girl.” This was the first time I’d ever heard that word used on television, and the first time I realized that there is a black vernacular outside of slang that thrives well beyond the quips of my down-south grandparents, considering that Indian-haired Maia Campbell was the epitome of what I took the word “bougie” to mean. I credit moments like these for making me so stuck on black language.
What Happened and Where Are They Now?: South Central only made it through 10 episodes from April 5, 1994 to June 4, 1994, yet because of its very recognizable cast, groundbreaking subject matter, and fairly entertaining content, most of us remember it at least a little bit. Airing right after Roc on Fox Tuesday nights, both shows were canceled when ratings started to drop (if you ask me, it never had a fair chance, but that’s a rant for a different day), and South Central was gone faster than you can say “crossover vehicle”.
Larenz Tate got cuter and more famous but not much taller. Maia Campbell kept working but I’m kind of worried about her these days especially since she’s from Philly so I hear some pretty nasty rumors about homegirl. We know what became of Jennifer Lopez. Vondie Curtis Hall, Glenn Plummer, Malinda Williams, and Earl Billings are still acting. Lamont Bentley and Shar Jackson went on to Moesha before he died tragically and she became the poster-girl for miscegenationistic babymomma-hood. The child actors playing Tasha and Deion have now all but disappeared, but Tina Lifford still has a lo-key career and a personal development business called “Totally Fabulous Woman.” Of course, not one episode is available on DVD, so maybe we’ll have to just remember it as a great career venue for some of our most dependable actors.