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Television Review

Message of BET shows gets lost in silliness

The Internet is teeming with bad behavior — or, in the case of some cheeky submissions to this week’s YouTube/CNN presidential debate, bad behavior posing as high-minded fare. So it is with the website ‘‘Hot Ghetto Mess,’’ run by a young black lawyer from Washington, D.C. The site features photos and videos of black people dressed poorly or barely at all, with the stated aim of shaming the greater community. It’s that old trick of trying to have it both ways: Show the trashy stuff, tsk-tsk vigorously, and hope people get the message.

That’s tough to pull off, and a lot tougher on TV, where you lose the veneer of a renegade act and gain the imprimatur of a network. So when BET announced that it was making a series out of ‘‘Hot Ghetto Mess,’’ it’s not surprising that anger x ensued. Protesters complained that the network aimed at black viewers was about to air a minstrel show. State Farm and Home Depot pulled their ads. A few days ago, BET dropped the name altogether and started calling the show by its subtitle, ‘‘We Got To Do Better.’’

Producers have defended the show itself, saying it speaks in a language that 18-to-34-year-olds understand. Which might be a good argument if ‘‘We Got To Do Better,’’ which premiered Wednesday night, didn’t turn out to be deathly boring. But even if you accept the producers’ intentions as sincere, the show suffers in translation from the Internet to TV. It’s one thing to watch a three-minute video clip of somebody acting stupid. It’s another to have to sit through a half-hour of them.

Is it a minstrel show? Not exactly, since the clips seem divided almost evenly by race. (The guy who puts a condom over his head, then blows it up like a balloon? He’s white.) But it’s also hard to figure out what the show is trying to prove. Even the ‘‘Street Walkin’.’’ segments, in which comedian Sydney Castillo asks strangers such questions as ‘‘Who’s richer, Jay-Z or Bill Gates?’’ only repeats what Jay Leno regularly demonstrates on network TV: that ignorance knows no racial bounds.

Wednesday’s premiere also included a brief reminder of the existence of Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks, as well as some forced mini-lectures from host Charlie Murphy, a player in Comedy Central’s keen, controversial ‘‘Chappelle’s Show.’’ Standing in a parody of an upper-crust drawing room, he donned a smoking jacket and an ascot and declared, ‘‘Hopefully, you saw something here that will make you think twice about how you live.’’

But it’s hard to know if people featured here have truly been shamed, or if they’ve just fulfilled their goal of getting on TV. Even the ‘‘Hot Ghetto Mess’’ website now trumpets an advertisement: ‘‘Submit your craziest home video for a chance to be on BET!’’ So much for discouraging fools.

No, it’s far easier to air them, then pretend you’ve offered something more than entertainment. BET tries for the same with ‘‘S.O.B.,’’ its new hidden-camera show that precedes ‘‘We Got To Do Better.’’ Hosted by D.L. Hughley, it aims the ‘‘Borat’’ shtick at race relations. On Wednesday, it filmed unwitting victims as they wandered into a restaurant that seated its patrons by race, and a nail salon whose workers disparaged their black clients’ feet.

Since it takes these folks a while to protest, the show touts itself as proof that black people accept prejudice too readily. But these situations are so patently absurd that stunned paralysis seems a reasonable reaction. Indeed, ‘‘S.O.B.’’ — like ‘‘Borat’’ — says less about its victims’ tolerance for racism than it does about their general good manners. They want to give bad behavior the benefit of the doubt.

It’s tempting to offer BET some good will, too, to assume that the network is merely overreaching in its effort to be socially relevant. And there are signs, amid this noise, that programmers have the capacity for good taste. During a commercial break in ‘‘We Got To Do Better,’’ the network aired an animated short called ‘‘Bid ‘Em In,’’ featuring spoken-word vocals by jazz artist Oscar Brown Jr.

It was as brilliant and disturbing a portrayal of the slavery experience as I’ve seen anywhere — bold enough to stop an 18-year-old YouTube addict in his tracks. And proof that education doesn’t have to be wrapped in stupidity. It can be artful, too, without a whiff of shame.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at