On TV, the extinction of the black man

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NEW YORK Cable-news viewers may already know that the actor and comedian DL Hughley has developed into a political commentator. Four years ago, he headed a short-lived CNN show. These days, he's an occasional talking dreadhead on MSNBC. The producers of ‘Countdown With Lawrence O'Donnell’, which is the thing that you are watching when Rachel Maddow signs off and you can't find the remote, may even have memorised his phone number. (They definitely know by heart the digits of Martha Plimpton, apparently our foremost expert on abortion policy.) Fine by me. He fights the good fight concisely and never takes himself too seriously.

Now, with ‘DL Hughley: The Endangered Lis’ (Comedy Central), the star is presenting think-tank material for the ‘Daily Show’ set and taking himself serio-comically. ‘The Endangered List’ is a mockumentary so intriguing that it entertains even with its misfires a one-hour special about the systematic problems of the black underclass. Sharp barbs and rote yuks mingle with repackaged muckraking and sober headshaking as Hughley lobbies the EPA to have the African-American male declared an endangered species. It's a coast-to-coast, tongue-in-cheek, uplift-the-race quest. Plus there's stand-up.

While the show's format owes something to the Michael Moore school of docu-provocation and also borrows a few tricks from Sacha Baron Cohen, its tone suggests that Comedy Central's fake news division has drafted Hughley as a special correspondent. The first scene juxtaposes images of uptown Manhattan with a voice-over from the outer Attenboroughs: "Dawn breaks over one of the most inhospitable places on earth: the hood”. Foregrounding the show's extinction conceit and analytical bent, the narration envisions the inner city as dangerous terrain.

We get the point but maybe we can't get over the fact that they're showing us the heart of Harlem, 125th Street, where Magic Johnson invests and Bill Clinton HQs and you pay $60 for the prix fixe at Red Rooster if you can get a table. After we're done not getting over that, we start supposing that Comedy Central can't very well go around depicting abjection directly. Despite the show's explicit concerns with gang violence and disintegrated family structures and regardless of its thoughtful, brief treatments of those issues its default setting is tonal brightness; a brief mention of Trayvon Martin is jarring. It's clear from the go that ‘The Endangered List’ clowning around while juggling weighty matters, tossing out big ideas about social reform and small un-PC jokes at once has set itself an impossible balancing act. Its unevenness is inherent in its nature.

Nature: Early on, concerned citizen Hughley has a brainstorm, and a visit to a California preserve solidifies his faith in his idea: "We about to save this species like a ‘Oedipal expletive’." He returns to the rhetorical conceit at regular intervals, most funny-sadly when talking about black-on-black crime. The black male would be, he says, "the only species in history complicit in our demise. The passenger pigeon . . . didn't have sh-- to do with making himself extinct”.

Hughley just kind of looks the other way at the obvious flaw in the conceptual metaphor: It takes more than one sex to make a species, if I remember AP biology correctly. You may be willing to give him a pass on that after recovering from laughing at his most absurd scene. To gather signatures in support of his cause, Hughley sets loose in downtown Manhattan a passel of clipboard-armed young "white chicks" the kind that nonprofits dispatch to cities in warm weather for you to dodge in your commute. The scene has zilch to do with the show's concerns, which helps to flavour its candid-confrontational farce about white guilt. "Their habitat is being oppressed”, one of the clipboard chicks says of black males. "By who?" a pedestrian asks, fairly enough. She responds, "Jeremy Lin”.

The meat of ‘The Endangered List’ is a series of interviews Hughley conducts with experts, blowhards, model citizens and random gangbangers, ostensibly gathering data to present to the government. The best explores crime; the host attempts to talk some sense into two teenaged Crips, then talks to a policy guy about the prison industry, then buys the Crips shares in a company that operates for-profit prisons. The irony when he hands them their stock certificates is almost as vicious as the nature of mass incarceration itself.

Elsewhere, Hughley uses a Daily Show-style ambush to make a buffoon of a homophobic church leader and a light touch to revisit a case of environmental racism in Dickson, Tennessee. Less profitable is his sit-down with a very polite representative of the Nazi Party. Why bother? One rather doubts that nonviolent Nazi activists certainly not the type game for going on Comedy Central pose a threat to black America. I suspect that Hughley invited this fringe figure on simply so that they could share a black-and-white cookie. The bit slightly cheapens the project, which is something of a dessert itself a healthy snack of food-for-thought, half baked in parts, with a strange balance of bitter and sweet.

Troy Patterson is Slate's TV critic.

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Published Oct 31, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm)

On TV, the extinction of the black man

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