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UPN's 'Desmond Pfeiffer':
A Bad Idea Gone Wrong

By Esther Iverem
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 1998



That is the only question that skeptical viewers will ask after last night's premiere of UPN's controversial and asinine new sitcom, "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer."

Of all the history-based story lines that could have been used to create a sitcom – Betsy Ross modeled after Ally McBeal, "Those Crazy Robber Barons" or "Life in the Soup Line" – UPN decided to touch on slavery, the Civil War and the supposed sexual adventures of Abraham Lincoln.

That decision alone, setting the show in a Lincoln White House served by a black "butler," drew the ire of thousands across the country, including those who marched recently on the network's Hollywood headquarters. Accusing UPN of racism, the protesters declared that the network would not have so cavalierly created comedic material from the Depression, the Holocaust or the Bosnian conflict. In response, UPN executives pulled the episode originally scheduled for the program's debut, saying it would be reviewed. They did not, however postpone the premiere, instead broadcasting the second episode.

The program dismisses the brutal enslavement of Africans with buffoonery and a handy laugh track. Its premise, more than its content, is what is offensive. On its face, the premiere of "Desmond Pfeiffer" was not so much racist as it was stupid.

Pfeiffer, the butler, played by Chi McBride, is actually supposed to be an English nobleman who has been forced into servitude. To compensate for his debased position, the writers make his white sidekick, Nibblet (Max Baker) a hapless, dimwitted "evolutionary cul-de-sac." The show also offers a weak ebony-ivory buddy story pairing Pfeiffer and Honest Abe (Dann Florek), who is depicted as a sexually frustrated man engaging in "telegraph sex."

Using the White House as a prop, the show goes for even cheaper laughs with frequent references to the current sex-perjury scandal. Pfeiffer tells the president, "You're acting no better than a horny hillbilly from Arkansas." It's about as funny as getting your teeth cleaned.

Every television show these days must give viewers a reason to keep tuning in. This one doesn't. It just makes you ask "Why?"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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