Black-ish is an interesting sitcom because unlike every other on network television, it looks at race and identity, as well as class. These are topics that people don’t like to talk about: polite society freezes up whenever someone raises the issue of race. Fear of offending coupled with white privilege makes for a not-so-great combo that leaves lot of problems unexamined. On Black-ish, the questions of racial identity are voiced by its lead character, Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson (Anthony Anderson), a high-powered ad executive who works crazy hard to provide his family with a lush and comfortable life. He’s married to Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), a successful doctor. The couple have two teens, Andre, Jr. (Marcus Scribner) and Zoey (Yara Shahidi) and a pair of adorable twins, Jack and Diane (Miles Brown and Marsai Martin)- yup, Jack and Diane, and nope, we don’t get a John Mellencamp joke. On the side is the grumpy grandfather, Pops (Laurence Fishburne).
Because the episode’s a pilot, I gave it some slack. Some stuff I didn’t like – I don’t like voice-over narration, and unfortunately, Dre narrates his story. In the first episode, the Johnson family is abuzz because Dre’s up for senior veep at his marketing firm. He knows he’s going to get the job, and when he struts into the office the morning of the impending promotion, his success also is a thing of pride for all the other black employees at the firm. Unfortunately, when Dre does get his promotion, it’s mitigated with a suffix – he’s going to be SVP for the urban division. “Did they just put me in charge of black stuff?” he groused in the voice-over.
At home, things are just as eventful. Andre, Jr. is joining field hocky and not basketball as Dre would hope. Andre, Jr. also wants a bar mitzvah – even though he’s not Jewish. I wish the script explored this a bit more. Ross has a Jewish father, so maybe Rainbow’s dad is Jewish, too, but we don’t get any of that, so it feels a bit random that Andre, Jr. wants to be bar mitzvahed. Not only that, he wants to change his name to either Schlomo or Schmuel. All of this is too much for Dre and he browbeats his son and the rest of the family, insisting that his kids start “keeping it real” and embrace their black heritage.
Because this is a family show, none of the characters get too angry, sad, or hurt – and the resolution slides in, wrapping up the pilot’s plot a little-to neatly. And though no one could call Black-ish edgy or cutting edge, it’s a lot smarter than most of what’s on TV nowadays.
As the show’s lead, Anthony Anderson is very good. He’s very funny and he’s able to portray his character’s blustery frustration hilariously. Even better is Tracee Ellis Ross, who has become one of television’s most underrated comediennes. She works as a withering counterpart to the broader Anderson, and the two share a great chemistry. As Andre, Jr., Scribner is an appealing and funny presence, and is poignantly awkward and smart with a way with one-liners that is on par with his onscreen parents. The rest of the child actors are good, but none get a chance to show off distinct talent at this point (hopefully that’ll change as the show progresses). Fishburne, the biggest name of
Black-ish is good, but sorely underused, as he merely strolls into a scene, spit out a funny punchline, and then disappear.
At this point, Black-ish isn’t a great show. Dre is a likable protagonist, but the writers have to be careful not to make his intolerance too one-note. Nor should it indulge in Modern Family sappiness. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and the pilot succeeded for the most part until the end, when characters learn their lesson, hug, and return things to order. I don’t like these kinds of rushed endings to wrap plots up neatly, but the intended audiences of Black-ish may not like ambiguous endings.
There have been too many lazy comparisons to The Cosby Show, because Black-ish features a highly successful and functional black family with two strong parents and a gaggle of happy, smiling children. The comparisons should end there, because the message behind Black-ish is that race and class differences do exist and they can inject themselves in everyday life. Black-ish is great at pointing out micro (and not so micro) aggressions that black people have to face daily.
When Dre walks into his office, his white colleagues approach him throwing around slang loosely, one even going as far as asking Dre how do black people say good morning. In a very funny bit, during a meeting, a large conference table is divided by two – one the one side is senior/executive management (all white), and the other side of the table was populated by the rest of the staff, a much more diverse group. As Dre starts to daydream, he sees the executive staff members revel in their privilege, and in his imagination, they’re enjoying a bacchanalian feast, while he and his peers were given Cheetos and grape soda.
But Dre’s views don’t go unchallenged, and Rainbow acts as a life coach, highlighting hypocrisies that finds themselves in his rants, and suggests that once he figures out how he feels about race and class in his work place, he may not be as aggressively opposed to his son’s self-identification. Thanks to the great chemistry between Anderson and Ross, these scenes are very smart and show the potential the program has.
Hopefully, Black-ish will find its place because if it gets rid of some of the bugs (Fishburne’s role needs to be expanded; there should be a moratorium on the phrase “keeping it real”), it could easily be the best sitcom on ABC.