It’s no secret that Modern Family has been experiencing a creative drought for the two seasons. While still a well-produced show, it no longer reaches the peaks of its glorious first two seasons. Characters have been broadened into caricatures and talented comedians have been reduced to mugging. The writing has also been remarkably lazy, mining jokes and themes over and over again, with hopes that the viewers’ good will may somehow hide the fact that Modern Family has become rather stale.
In its wake, Black-ish has outpaced it as the best sitcom on ABC right. And though that sounds like faint praise, it’s not. Starting off with a surprisingly solid pilot, it has managed to remain consistent so far, and has proven to be a more reliable source of the kind of smart, if middle-of-the-road comedy, that Modern Family was (rightly) praised for in its first few seasons.
And on top of being very funny, Black-ish also gives network television a much-needed dose of diversity (there was a time when all of the shows featuring black casts seemed to be shunted to UPN). Black-ish is a universal sitcom with issues that anyone can relate to, but it doesn’t ignore race. Lazy comparisons to The Cosby Show has some critics say that Black-ish is Cosby for our generation (it feels a bit strange to talk about Cosby given the recent renewed outrage over Bill Cosby’s alleged rapes). But aside from featuring a successful, upper-middle class black family, Black-ish doesn’t have much in common with Cosby. The classic 80s sitcom was meant as propaganda, intent to prove that race and class doesn’t matter.
Black-ish does deal with race and class in ways that are often ignored on Modern Family. On the latter show, the families are almost-aggressively middle-class, and money never seems to be a problem. And race does assert itself at times on Modern Family – Manny, Gloria, and Lily all disrupt the gallery of blindingly-white faces. And race is merely used as yet another source of humor (Gloria and Lily are often the butt of ethnic jokes), but not much introspection goes into what it means to be a person of color who is inserted into a homogeneous family. Because as modern as Modern Family likes to think it is, it’s pretty traditional in its vision of family, despite the presence of a gay couple (more on Mitch and Cam in a bit).
On Black-ish, we get some decent discussion about cultural issues. In “Crime and Punishment” the Johnson family have to figure out if corporal punishment is still appropriate. And an ongoing theme has Anthony Anderson’s patriarch, Dre, worry that his children are alienated from black culture. In “The Nod” Dre’s worried that eldest son, Andre, Jr., is deprived because he has no black friends and in the excellent pilot, he’s nonplussed because Junior wants a bar mitzvah. And as the irascible grandfather, Pops, Laurence Fishburne represents an older generation’s perspective on social mobility and racial progress.
Aside from all this cultural studies talk, Black-ish also scores because it’s often hilarious. The show’s innate social message is couched in a sharp and witty context, that only occasionally dips into schmaltz. The writers – Kenya Barris and Corey Nickerson are responsible for the funniest episodes – are largely responsible for the show’s excellence. They steer clear from the unfortunate cliches of family sitcoms without alienating the show from its mainstream trappings.
And along with the excellent writing, Black-ish benefits from a n amazing group of actors. I always knew Anthony Anderson was a funny guy, but he’s clearly an excellent sitcom lead, too. And as mother, Rainbow, Tracee Ellis Ross has emerged as one of TV’s greatest comediennes (I still laugh out loud at her miserable wailing when she fails to find one of her kids at the mall and thinks he’s been kidnapped). As for the kids – I have a natural aversion to child actors. Often kiddie thespians are hired more for their cuteness factor, and recite their lines in monotonous drones; or even worse, they’re gifted with sassy, precocious characters and drop catchphrases all over the place.
But with Black-ish we get sitcom kids who are funny but realistic. As oldest son, Junior, Marcus Scribner easily steals all his scenes. Few teenagers can accurately portray the weird, awkward place in adolescence, when a teen beings to assert himself, while at the same time, seek acceptance and assimilation. Junior’s a nerd, who seeks his father’s approval, but is still able to maintain a sense of self, which includes endearing idiosyncrasies like an affection for role-playing games. And though initially I was on the fence with the twins Jack and Diane (Miles Brown and Marsai Martin, respectively) because they are eye-gougingly cute, buuuuuuuuuuut, they’re really funny kids and the cuteness is used almost ironically and not to simply pander to its audiences (yeah, I’m looking at you Full House).
But we can’t dismiss Modern Family just yet. It’s still got the best cast in TV sitcomdom today (save for the geniuses who are acting the hell out of Parks and Recreation). The show’s got some real comedic talents – Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet, and Sofia Vergara haven’t run across a line that they couldn’t make hilarious, and their respective straight men Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Ed O’Neill all anchor the show wonderfully.
Come Emmy nomination time, Modern Family will undoubtedly be up for best comedy again. It doesn’t deserve the honorific anymore (it hasn’t for the past three years). At this point of the season, Black-ish has already produced a strong slate of episodes that makes a strong case for it to be crowned the best comedy series (and Tracee Ellis Ross should swipe Lena Dunham’s Emmy nomination for best actress in a comedy series). Hopefully, Black-ish will keep on growing.