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June 16, 2009

What If Nurse "HawthoRNe" Were White and "Nurse Jackie" Were Black?

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17866_01114_R Tonight will mark a little bit of television history.  That's because "HawthoRNe" starring Jada Pinkett Smith will premiere on TNT.   "HawthoRNe" is an hour long drama about a widowed, single Mom who's the Chief Nursing Officer at a Richmond, Virginia hospital.  She's caring, compassionate, and though a little unconventional, she's a woman who follows the rules but doesn't take any crap.  Nurse Hawthorne is black.

A couple of weeks ago I did a review of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" starring Edie Falco.   It's about a caring, compassionate, more than a little unconventional nurse who also doesn't take any crap, but has no problem breaking the rules.  She's addicted to pain meds, has illicit sex at the hospital and is not above forging the odd organ donor card, among other things if she thinks it's for the greater good.  Nurse Jackie is white.

The history comes in because Jada Pinkett is only the third black woman to headline her own television drama.  Diahann Carroll was first black woman to headline a television show with the 60's half hour sitcom, "Julia,", but the first TV drama was the 70's cop show, "Get Christie Love," starring the late Theresa Graves.  Then there was this year's "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" starring Jill Scott, and now "HawthoRNe."  The show is also being co-produced by Pinkett's production company, 100% Womon Productions. 

Now of course we're used to seeing black actresses in ensemble dramas like "Law and Order" and "Grey's Anatomy," but usually when it comes to television, black women and black men for that matter are relegated to comedy.

After seeing the first few episodes of "HawthoRNe" I'd say it's a decent enough show.  It's all Jada, all the time and since Jada is a charismatic screen presence and a very solid actress, that's mostly okay.  The problem comes when characters like the Chief of Surgery, Dr. Thomas Wakefield (Michael Vartan) has so little screen time, all he does is stand around in a white coat looking important.  Meanwhile we see more than enough of Nurse Candy (Christina Moore) who's the sexpot on the nursing staff.

17866_00965_R What we also don't see enough of is Christina's personal relationships.  There's her cute, socially conscious, only slightly rebellious, teenage daughter (Hannah Hodson) and her snobby, disapproving former mother-in-law (Joanna Cassidy).  Both characters are ripe for some good plot lines but after four episodes, neither has developed very much.  I was also frustrated that I still didn't know what really happened to Christina's husband who died of cancer.  It's implied that Christina might have pulled the plug on him or had some other hand in his death but no other clues are given.

What is great about the show however is some very good guests stars including Malcolm Jamal Warner as a patient who thinks Christina is his wife, Cloris Leachman as a crotchety patient you just want to pull the plug on, and Susan Ruttan as a patient who monopolizes one nurse's entire shift.

The other great thing?  There are minorities up the wazoo.  You can tell there was a real effort by the producers to showcase a rainbow of races right down to the last extra.  Thank you Jada, and Hollywood, please take note.

But back to the question in my title.  After seeing these two nursing shows so close to one another and thinking about the history of black women on television, I got to wondering what would have happened if "Nurse Jackie" were black and Nurse "HawthoRNe" were white.

Let's start with Nurse Hawthorne.  If "HawthoRNe" starred a white actress, it would be just another in the latest trend of women-centric TV shows like "The Closer," "Saving Grace," and "In Plain Sight" produced by basic or pay cable.  Keeping the rest of the cast and the same plots, the show would be fine enough, but nothing to write home about.  Without the star power of say someone like Edie Falco--and let's face it, this isn't her kind of role--the show would probably run one season, maybe two and then be done.  Nothing wrong with that since if it's a quality, leading role for a woman, that's a good thing. 

It would be a whole other story however if "Nurse Jackie" were black.

Every black organization from the NAACP on down would be writing, emailing, twittering and facebooking TNT to protest the depiction of a black nurse who snorts ground up pain meds, flushes patient's ears down the toilet and forges organ donor cards for dead people.

Boycotts would be called, sponsors would be pilloried and the black blogosphere would flock to their keyboards en masse to voice their displeasure and feelings of insult at the depiction of such a black character.

To be perfectly honest I'd probably be one of them.   Do you know why? 

Because if a black "Nurse Jackie" existed alongside a Nurse "HawthoRNe" starring Jada Pinkett, it wouldn't be nearly as offensive as if the only leading black woman was the morally flawed "Nurse Jackie."

The scared sh*tless TV executives who took the chance to cast a black actress in such a role would never do it again.   Black actresses would be relegated once again to the supporting role back burner and whatever characters they were offered in the future would be as sweet and innocent as Snow White

To bad too, because wouldn't it be nice if black actresses had the choice of a range of characters:  cheating wives, bitchy executives, shy kleptomaniacs and scifi superheroes?  Not as back burner supporting cast members, but leading characters who carry the show?

Or Asian actresses?  Or Native American actresses?

Hollywood, are you listening?

"HawthoRNe" will air Tuesdays at 9/8c on TNT.


Related Links:

Bet on Black:  Are Sisters Finally Bringing The Drama?

Black TV Shows, Why So Few Dramas?

Mom in the City's thoughts on "HawthoRNe."

Here and There:  a look at the HawthoRNe series premiere.

From Melissa's Desk:  More Great TNT TV Premiering June 16th

Did Showtime Hope Nurses Would Hate "Nurse Jackie?"

Only "Ghetto" Black Women Make Good TV

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