TO THE daughter who loves him, he is a "shiftless, no-count, horse-playing skunk." His mother-in-law settles for a "crawlin' scaly yellow rat."
The charactor, Ray Ellis, in CBS' "Baby, I'm Back" ran out on his wife and two children and suddenly showed up after seven years intending to move back into his wife's bedroom. Would you want your son to be like Ray?
Perhaps you would prefer that he pattern himself after J.J., the frenetic exclamation point of "Good Times," now graduated to family head after both the father and mother characters were put out to pasture.
No? Well, there is always Rerun, the larded teen-ager of "What's Happening," ABC's successful view of the happiness of the have-nots in this land of plenty. Or maybe you'd rather pal around with George Jefferson, the petite bigot who stomps around his shag-carpeted penthouse spewing venom like a cobra at everyone in sight.
For the 11 million blacks in this country, these characters are all there is to regularly relate to in TV's four black network shows - shows that for stereotypes and stock characters make some of the racist movies of the 1930s look like enlightened social commentary.
Black children, who unfortunately watch television even more than white children, are the special victims. (Blacks as a whole watch 10 percent more television than the general population, according to a 1976 Arbitron report.) Many identify with this quartet of shallow, ad-libbing Superflys who crack jokes' but never a book. And whites, meanwhile, have their most exaggerated misconceptions fed and reinforced by these negative male images - sad distortions of blacks and the black experience.
One would think from viewing George Jefferson, J.J., Rerun and Ray Ellis that black men's dignity, wisdom, economic stability, even their marbles - all the ways our society measures worth - range from going, going to gone. And the plumpness of most of the women is a clear reminder of the movie mammies of old.
Why can television only produce blacks in negative stereotypes? S.F. Yette, author of "The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America," responds that such depiction is designed to achieve "negative reinforcement for whites. This is done largely by image manipulation in such a way as to make black people feel powerless and white people feel powerful." Is television the technological age's medium for keeping blacks in their place?
But of course all situation comedy, black and white, is by nature exploitative. Why should blacks expect less inane treatment in "What's Happening" than everyone else gets in "Joe & Valerie"?
But the deadly trap is that the sit-com is today the only network vehicle in which blacks are regularly seen. Occasionally black guests appear on dramatic shows such as "Lou Grant" or "Policewoman" and there are a few black stock characters on ongoing shows such as "Welcome Back, Kotter" or "Carter Country." Network television soon will get its first black anchorman. The soaps also have made a begrudging nod of recognition of the fact that their nonwhite viewers wash with Tide, brush with Colgate and wax with Glocoat by including 19 blacks among the estimated 382 characters in daytime serials (although fewer than half of the 19 have story lines and contracts).
But the only regularly scheduled black appearances on the major networks today are in situation comedies. Whites, however negatively portrayed in sit-coms (and there have been some exceptions here, too), also appear in a wide variety of other kinds of shows - drama like "The Waltons" or "Family," for instance. For blacks, such balance simply doesn't exist.
The absence of a serious black dramatic series during the more than three decades of television was pointed out frequently during the "Roots" fever that hit the country over a year ago when a whopping 130 million Americans watched at least part of the eight-segment series.
NBC's six-hour "King," a year later, failed dismally. Whether due to network executive Paul L. Klein's explanation that American viewers find the subject "so threatening as to be unwatchable," or to the assertion by blacks, such as ACTION associate director John Lewis, that parts were "a distortion of history," the result seems to be a kind of moratorium on serious subjects.
The common factor in the current situation comedies is that most of the writers of black shows are white (although never the reverse) and the most rapidly rising commodity is the dialect joke.
"We don't buy by color, we buy by script," said Mort Lachman, co-creator of "Baby, I'm Back." "We're not color-coded, never bought that way and never will. I just have the feeling that in writing, nobody cares where it came from. All we're dying to get is the script. I understand at IBM you need pressure, but certainly it never was needed in the writing business."
In "Baby, I'm Back," the clear message from the writers is that good guys don't win. The deserted wife Olivia is increasingly cooling to her solidly employed suitor - "You're about as romantic as Post Nasal Drip!" she told him in one episode - and warming to the charms of her wandering former mate.
The argument over whether "Baby, I'm Back" is accidently or intentionally racist claptrap will stop here, however - probably permanently. CBS canceled the show last week.
George Jefferson, whose main virtue may be that he is TV's only black middle-class father who supports his family, has lately become a caricature of his original character. The air in his penthouse is thick with arguments, put-downs and empty invectives.
Esther Rolle left "Good Times" a year ago shortly after the father character was killed off because, she said, she had taken the part with provisions that the show would have a complete black family. "I had a good father. I wanted the characters to potray a family where the father stayed with the family like mine did." She also felt the show was no longer true to the original concept and that she should have been consulted on the story line as were some series stars.
She is returning to the job for which she made an estimated $30,000 per segment, because she will now have script consultation and can eliminate some of the things she personally found offensive. There still will be no father. "It's a compromise for her," her agent said. "In the end, she's an actress."
Norman Lear, the producer responsible for "Good Times," "The Jeffersons," "Sanford and Son" and "All in the Family," has consistently defended his creations, insisting that they have done "a lot of heavy subjects." When Soul magazine asked him recently why producers never put a strong, contemporary black prime-time drama on the air, he responded, "I never thought of it, but I'm thinking about it now. You gave me an idea. It just never occurred."
Black parents, teachers and even students have begun increasingly to blast this programming. The Hilltop, of Howard University, wrote in a recent editorial, "We contend that this constant and consistent degradation of black men is dangerous. It is dangerous because a people's strength and weakness lies with their men. If black men are failures, black people are failures."
Georgia state legislator David Scott, 31, told UPI, "There must be a revolution, focused on television, to take the works of Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Robeson and other notable black artists off the dusty back shelves . . . Until 'Roots' there wasn't much for black youths to see on television that could acquaint them with their heritage." He tried to fill that void with a show he created and produced on poet Langston Hughes on Georgia public television.
As minorities, blacks are forced to know a great deal about the dominant culture in order to live, work, get an education. (An estimated 12.2 percent of all nonwhite households watch daytime dramas compared to 7.7 percent of all white households, to use a particularly grim Nielsen indicator of crosscultural pollination.) But white Americans rarely know about the culture and heritage of this country's other minorities.
The powerful medium of television partly fills this void, and fills it largely for ill.
Television clearly needs to urgently upgrade the quality of its programming in general, and black programming in particular. Time magazine suggested recently that maybe it was time to apply higher standards to black shows than are applied to white shows in order to reverse the 30 years of damage done.
There is a saying among blacks that when the economy sneezes, blacks get pneumonia. If the same analogy is applied to television programming, the patient is quite sick, but black programming is at death's door.