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More Than Skin Deep: FX's 'Black. White.'

Brian Sparks gets the ultimate makeover on the new FX documentary series, in which two families share a house and trade races.
Brian Sparks gets the ultimate makeover on the new FX documentary series, in which two families share a house and trade races. (Fx)

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By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Walking a mile in someone else's shoes seems so retro in the world of reality TV. Why not walk a hundred miles in someone else's skin?

That's the premise of "Black. White.," a six-part documentary series premiering tonight at 10 on FX. In the show, two single-child families, the Sparkses of Atlanta and the Wurgels of Santa Monica, Calif., trade places -- or, more accurately, trade races -- while sharing a home in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana.

The Sparks family -- Brian, Renee and son Nick -- is black; the Wurgels -- Carmen, daughter Rose and Carmen's boyfriend Bruno Marcotulli -- are white. And through the magic of makeup artist Keith Vanderlaan, all that is changed. Vanderlaan's efforts are mostly successful, and in the first episode, at least, nobody is found out as the participants appear on racial focus-group panels, attend classes and apply for jobs.

It's an interesting premise -- remember "Black Like Me" was one of the more widely read books of the '60s -- but from the very beginning, the hour-long program is marred by the grating naivete of Bruno and Carmen.

"I have no idea what it's going to be like to live with a black family," Carmen says early on, as if the experience is sure to be totally different from sharing a home with complete strangers who are white.

Bruno is a flaming know-it-all. It should seem either funny or pitiable when he lectures Brian on the proper reaction to racism, but somehow it's just annoying -- and a little embarrassing. Bruno's contention is that Brian looks for racist rejection everywhere he goes, and in fact Brian is an angry guy -- but from the sound of it, he has some reason to be. Certainly listening to a sanctimonious jackass like Bruno would be enough to infuriate anybody.

Bruno's idea of racism, which he hopes and expects to encounter, is to have a white person hurl a racist slur at him as he strolls down the street using his new "black" walk. He looks forward to that, because he's positive he can defuse the situation by not getting angry. Bruno blows off Brian's observation that racism tends to be subtler and more insidious than shouted epithets -- that stuff, Bruno replies, exists only if you look for it, and he's too joyous and positive a fellow for that.

Clearly this country could have solved its racial problems 400 years ago if only Bruno had been around.

Bruno loves -- loves -- to use the slur himself; clearly he feels entitled, and convinced that his motivations are pure. Through it all, Brian watches impassively, at least for a while. Later he admits to his family, "When I hear the N-word, my jaws clench up."

It's a shame so much of the show is annoying, because it offers occasional small moments of enlightenment. At one point, the whitefaced Brian announces that for the first time, a shoe salesman actually put shoes on his feet and fitted them with a shoehorn; always in the past, the seller handed the box to him and moved away. The story has the ring of truth.

In the premiere, it's unclear why it was necessary for the two families to live together. Certainly there are tensions, but those seem to belong to another reality show altogether -- you could put any two unacquainted families in the same house and, regardless of color, there probably would be a touch of strife.

The show does offer implications of a happier future: Nick and Rose suggest that people their age tend to base their opinions of others on the individual rather than on skin color. Unlike their fathers, they're neither smug nor mired in anger, and they're far quicker to learn.

You can't help thinking that if there are enough others like them, the country is going to be in good hands when their time comes.

Black. White. (60 minutes) debuts tonight at 10 on FX.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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