Colorblind or Just Plain Blind?

'Race not being an issue makes it an issue,' says David E. Kelley of an unspoken topic on 'Ally McBeal.' But others say he's being irresponsible.

By GREG BRAXTON, Times Staff Writer

In a season where series ranging from CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" and ABC's "The Hughleys" to Lifetime's "Any Day Now" and NBC's "ER" are openly tackling race relations, tensions and hardships, "Ally McBeal" executive producer David E. Kelley is giving prominence to one of television's rarities--a blossoming romantic relationship between a black man and a white woman. Kelley has managed to create an environment ripe for a culture clash--but in Ally's world, the clash is not only silent, it's invisible. Yet Kelley is not going about telling this story quietly. For instance, in Monday's episode, there was no mistaking the hypnotically sensual gleam in Ally's eyes. The music is casting a romantic spell and the lighting in the club is low. "I have a New Year's resolution," says Ally (Calista Flockhart) in a sultry tone to her date, handsome doctor Greg Butters, played by Jesse L. Martin. "Less fantasy. More reality." Greg's eyes widen as Ally melts into him, kissing him with a passion-filled softness that leaves no doubt what kind of reality she is thinking about. Fantasy has played a key part in the simmering relationship in the Fox hit comedy between Ally, the neurotic title character of "Ally McBeal," and her beau Greg--most notably in instances where Ally's tongue flicks out like a love-struck reptile when his back is turned. The couple, who have reunited in recent weeks after a brief and tentative romance last season, have agreed to take it slow, but the heat is rising. Fantasy aside, the reality the couple has not faced--or even remotely acknowledged--is right before them. Ally is white. Greg is black. And they are carrying on a very public and openly affectionate relationship in Boston, one of the country's most racially torn cities. But in the whimsical Boston of "Ally McBeal," race has no place, said its creator. "We are a consciously colorblind show," said Kelley in an interview last week. "In the history of the show, we have never addressed race. The reason is simple. In my naive dream, I wish that the world could be like this. Since Ally lives in a fanciful and whimsical world, there is not going to be any racial differences or tensions. All people are one under the sun." Making good on that philosophy, since the beginning of their romance last season, Ally and Greg have never mentioned their racial differences. The subject has never come up at Ally's predominantly white law firm, and no eyebrows are raised whenever Ally and Greg dance or kiss on the street or in the mostly white nightclub that is the after-hours hangout for the firm. Most notably, Ally and her single African American roommate (Lisa Nicole Carson) have never brought the subject up in their girl talk. Race also is not mentioned in the subtly kinky interaction between the obsessively litigious client Ling Woo (Lucy Liu) and law firm partner Richard Fish (Greg Germann). But that has not stopped fans of the show from speaking out on the unspoken. Some praise Kelley for making race a nonissue. Others say he is irresponsible and setting an unreasonable precedent. Racist messages have popped up on "Ally" Internet boards. Kelley said he realized that the tactic might provoke some reaction--pro and con--from viewers. "Race not being an issue makes it an issue," he said. "Here, it's conspicuous by its absence. But this has never been a show that has clung too tightly to reality." No political agenda is at work, and Kelley said he is not out to create groundbreaking TV. The writer-producer often has dealt with race relations and prejudice on other shows including "The Practice," "Picket Fences" and "L.A. Law." In fact, the character of Greg was not originally conceived as being of any particular race. "Jesse was the best actor for the role," Kelley said. "On the page, he was just described as a good-looking doctor. We were not looking specifically for an African American. "This all just fits in with my idealism," said Kelley, adding that the relationship will continue without any racial references. "Both Greg and Ally, and Ling and Fish, will have their ins and outs and ups and downs. But their problems will be organic to the couples, and to being men and women."

Is Interracial Romance a Big Deal or Not?

Still, Kelley's approach with the romance has provoked some emotional responses for viewers who say the show's treatment of interracial romance is unrealistic and irresponsible. "Whenever white people get so liberal that they think race doesn't matter, then everyone is in a lot of trouble," declared actress Lorraine Toussaint, who stars in "Any Day Now," about a black female Washington, D.C. attorney (Toussaint) who moves back home to Birmingham, Ala., and finds herself grappling with many of the racial tensions she encountered during childhood. Her best friend in childhood and adulthood is white. "But race does matter, and it pisses me off that what they're doing on 'Ally McBeal' is a boldface lie," Toussaint added. "When you're in an interracial relationship, you deal with that [expletive] every day. I've been involved with white men, and society still looks upon it as an oddity. It is something to embrace, not ignore. We should be able to stand tall, look each other in the face and say, 'We're different, and some of those differences scare the hell out of us.' " Callie Crossley, a Boston-based television producer who frequently comments on race and gender issues, called the relationship between Ally and Renee, as well asAlly and Greg, annoying. "It's just not authentic," said Crossley, who has done stories for "20/20" and commentary on National Public Radio. "David Kelley is so on point when he deals with gender issues, I think, 'Oh my God!' It's just so brilliantly done. But I find it offensive when he chooses not to deal with race on this show. It's like the 300-pound white elephant in the middle of the room that no one talks about. It's insulting. Ally and Greg definitely would have had a conversation about this." But director Anita Addison, a former senior vice president for drama development at CBS, finds Kelley's colorblind approach to the romance intriguing. "It's like you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Addison, who directed this Sunday's CBS film, "Deep in My Heart," which examines the circumstances after a married white woman is raped by a black man. "This is refreshing. David is writing what he knows and what he feels. He's showing a relationship that can be of substance and can go beyond race. The objections against this are dated. We've got to get on to more substantive issues." Addison pointed out that the on-again, off-again romance between surgeons Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle) and Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston) on NBC's "ER" already has dealt with tensions associated with many interracial relationships. "This is already being covered on TV's most popular show," Addison declared. "Been there, done that!" As for Martin, he finds the spin on the relationship enlightening. "The race card is not being played here," said Martin, who appeared on Broadway in "Rent" and was a regular on Fox's "413 Hope St." "For the most part, I find that really, really positive. It's nice to work in a way that we don't have to hold that weight where I'm trying to get hip to her culture and she's trying to get hip to mine. Here, I'm just a person, I'm not a black person." Martin said he has gotten mostly positive reaction: "No one has said any awful things to me." But even Martin says he believes the cultural differences will have to appear at some point. "It will be interesting to see how David handles it," Martin said. "But right now, it's nice. It just, 'Let's us be human.' "

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