ABC vs. The Tastemakers

Have you ever seen political correctness eat itself? In its latest lame attempt to package a "reality" show, ABC asked a group of neighbors to choose the new owner of a big house available on their block. The hook: in the process, these rich, white, conservative bigots would learn tolerance, acceptance, understanding, and the error of their nasty ways. But irony of ironies, political-correctness lobbies stopped the show before it could preach its political correctness.

The show was called "Welcome to the Neighborhood," and its "educational" message oozed out over the last few weeks in promos during the hit ABC show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." It promised to follow three white, Christian, Bush-voting families living near Austin, Texas, who were awarded the chance to choose, from a list of pre-selected groupings, who would move in to a 3,300-square-foot home in their affluent cul de sac.

These stereotypically uptight whites were subjected not only to one black family, one Latino family, and one Asian family, but also wilder combinations: the two gay men with an adopted black baby; the Republican couple covered in tattoos; the supposedly normal white family whose mom is secretly a stripper; and a Wiccan couple who met at the woman's initiation as a witch.

Welcome to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood....on acid.

This list is stacked with enough stick figure types to make a mockery of the very notion of "reality." And the neighbors, predictably for the genre, had appropriately stereotypical reactions on cue, making jokes about the Latinos having too many kids popping out of the car, mocking the tattoo-parlor addicts, and expressing disgust at the gay men. It's all a nice setup for everyone to learn a little Hollywood-style tolerance and understanding.

The first lobbying group who lobbied for the show's cancellation was the National Fair Housing Alliance. They claimed the show's premise would lead Americans to conclude neighbors have the ability and the right to exclude neighbors based on race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability. They hated the show so much that they're still lobbying against the show being sold to anyone, anywhere on the cable or satellite dial.

The second lobbying group that expressed its displeasure was the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. They insist that positively every televised depiction of homosexuals has to make them look lovable; every negative encounter has to end with the "bigot" quickly arriving at the Nirvana of acceptance.

Once the plug was pulled, GLAAD protested that they hadn't protested to kill the show. But they were clearly uncomfortable with showing the neighbors' initial discomfort with the gay couple, even if they later "grow" into acceptance. Spokesman Damon Romine quibbled that "while the spirit of the show was admirable, the episodic nature of the series created serious issues in terms of depicting the neighbors' journey from intolerance to acceptance." GLAAD demands that the whole "journey" has to occur within one hermetically sealed program.

Both groups were allowed to pre-screen episodes before the series aired, and yet the TV writers, so eager to denounce "censors" and their "chilling effect" on "artistic expression" before a TV show even airs, said nothing about these potential critics doing precisely that.

In fact, it sounds like GLAAD received copies of the show from friendly TV writers. In a press statement, the group explained: "GLAAD was alerted to the show on June 16, and after watching the first two hours - review copies of which were sent to TV writers - expressed its concerns about those initial episodes to ABC executives." ABC then allowed them to preview the other four hours, too.

Some Christian conservatives complained as well, based on the promotional spots. The Family Research Council snuck into a few news stories concerned with the Christian-bigot portrayals. But within a day of their expert Charmaine Yoest speaking to the Associated Press, ABC pulled the plug. (It should be noted that the FRC wasn't welcomed in by ABC to screen the episodes for any evidence of defamation of evangelicals.)

More irony, with a dollop of hypocrisy for good measure: the same newspapers that decry the dangerous tide of parental intolerance that might curb the "creativity" of Hollywood had no problem dumping this show overboard. For example, New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley cheered: "ABC was right to pull the show. There already is plenty of bigotry on reality television, let alone in real life."

In the final analysis, the shelving of this show is probably a win-win, just one less lame "reality" show in a summer with shows where some contestants aspire to be just like Paris Hilton (God forbid!) and others have plates of food thrown at them by an abusive, cursing British chef. It's almost welcome to see the P.C. police put the tastemaker smackdown on at least a few tasteless items on the "reality" show menu. But it's also evidence that Hollywood has a much closer and hypersensitive relationship with politically correct lobbyists than they do with traditional-values folks across the fruited plain.