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Love American-style plays out on TV

Friday, September 10, 1999

By Tony Norman

Enough already about the fall television season's excess of vanilla flavoring. These days, "keeping it real" consists of cramming six young, affluent whites into one apartment season after season.

Fine. Who needs CBS, NBC, ABC or FOX to affirm one's value in the universe, anyway? It's far more dignified to forgo whining and vote with your channel changer. While you're at it, skip network wannabes UPN and WB, too. The only thing worse than being invisible on the major networks is being visible on one of the imitators.

Anyone hungry for quality programs featuring blacks, Hispanics, Asians or various species of women is better off with HBO's original programming all year round.

But for the most thought-provoking series this year, PBS takes top honors with its 10-part, five-night installment of Jennifer Fox's "An American Love Story." Beginning Sunday on WQED-TV from 9 to 11 p.m., Fox, the acclaimed director of "Beirut: The Last Home Movie," unveils a nuanced exploration of what was once America's greatest taboo: interracial relationships.

But instead of lining up statistics any sociologist would be proud of, Fox introduces us to the Sims-Wilson family of Queens, N.Y. Bill Sims is a traveling blues musician and Mr. Mom. Karen Wilson, his wife of two decades, is a corporate manager.

In keeping with the theme of interracial love, Bill is black and Karen is white. Cicily , their 20-year-old daughter, is mostly confused at Colgate University. Her 12-year old sister, Chaney, is blossoming under their parents' watchful eyes.

While Cicily sorts through the demands of her "conflicting" racial identities during a semester in Nigeria, her parents are constantly assessing the pros and cons of their 30 plus-years straddling America's "color line."

Bill and Karen don't have an "easy" relationship, but it's a loving one. They deal with the complications caused by their love with grace and humor. Having wrestled with society's intolerance from the day they met in 1967, their marriage has survived the ravages of life-threatening illness, alcoholism, underemployment, children from previous relationships, naiveté and mutual suspicion.

Though far from perfect, the subjects of "An American Love Story" are the most fully realized family you're likely to see on television for years. The depths to which they're willing to open their lives to the invasive presence of the camera seem both astonishing and foolhardy.

Filmed primarily in the family's apartment over a two-year period in the early '90s, Fox's interviews are excruciatingly honest. I winced a couple of times. My wife couldn't resist comparing me to Bill Sims when he was less than ideal.

Some critics have already compared it to the 1970s documentary series "An American Family" in which the Louds literally fell apart in front of the camera. If anything, the Sims-Wilsons manage to fall in love all over again.

Had "An American Love Story" been pitched to the networks, I'm sure it would've been renamed "Swirling" and recast with an albino couple from Beverly Hills. Thank God, Fox went to PBS.

Tony Norman's e-mail is: tnorman@post-gazette.com.

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