ABC’s Black-ish always begins the same way: with framing voice-over from Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), while an instrumental version of Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)” plays in the background. The song, from Snoop’s debut Doggystyle, argues that under ideal circumstances, a woman who has sex with a man should be cajoled into also having sex with his friends. It seems like an unusual choice for a network family sitcom, but it’s actually the perfect grace note. “Ain’t No Fun” is exactly the type of song Dre would have listened to as a knuckleheaded youngster, and is to Dre like a warped, years-old nudie magazine. It’s the youthful transgression Dre would love to pass down to his sons, but can’t do so in good conscience now that he has daughters.
Nuances like this are what makes Black-ish such a beguiling show, one that broadly addresses the slings and arrows of modern parenting, but incorporates the elements of the struggle particular to black parents. Though there have been many black family sitcoms in the two decades since The Cosby Show ended, Black-ish is the first genuine heir apparent, which can be traced to how the show came to be. Networks have tried for years to reconstitute Cosby’s bottled lightning by replicating its development, drafting the promising black stand-up comedian du jour, and soldering their sensibility onto a palatable family sitcom whether or not it was the appropriate format. Black-ish was built from a novel pitch by its creator, relative unknown Kenya Barris, in a rare example of a black television project driven by a good idea rather than a marketable name.
Speaking of marketable names, Black-ish has earned its rightful place beside Cougar Town and Trophy Wife on the list of charming ABC sitcoms saddled with off-putting titles. But of the three, Black-ish has the best rationale for a title that sounds like the kind of inarticulate slur most often found in anonymous Internet comments. Dre, a successful marketing executive, is raising four children with his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), an anesthesiologist, and struggling to imbue his children with a black identity while simultaneously shielding them from the burden blackness carries. Being a black man in 2015 is and isn’t what it used to be, so how does a couple like Dre and Rainbow split the difference?
Black-ish mines most of its best material from this cognitive dissonance. In “Colored Commentary,” Rainbow bristles at a white announcer’s play-by-play when the Johnsons turn out to support youngest son Jack (Miles Brown) at his little league game. “This kid was born to steal!” says the commentator, and Rainbow calls it out as insensitive in front of white parents who can’t hear the dog whistle and assure her she’s overreacting. Dre, too, thinks Rainbow is making a mountain out of a mound, triggering an argument about how she doesn’t feel like he has her back in public settings. The episode isn’t the funniest one Black-ish has done in the first half of its debut season, but it’s the most representational of what the show does well. Most post-Cosby black family sitcoms flatten the challenges of domestic life and portraying the Johnsons as just another funny family who happens to be black. Black-ish shows that, to riff off Tolstoy, all happy families are alike, but each family experiences unhappiness in its own way.
The cast is key to the show’s success, and Anderson and Ross are appealing leads. Black-ish is well cast across the board, including Marcus Scribner as Andre Jr., Dre’s tragically uncool 13-year-old. The gawky but handsome Scribner can spin gold out of average lines. In one episode, Dre chides the children about forcing him to watch a Justin Bieber DVD during a road trip, pointing his eyes in his daughters’ direction. “I’m allowed to have interests,” says Andre in his own defense, and Scribner’s line reading is fantastic. But no one rises to the level of Laurence Fishburne, who recurs as Dre’s boorish father; the intermittence of his hilarious appearances are a blessing in disguise, as it gives the rest of the cast the opportunity to flourish in his absence.
Barris has shrewdly resisted the urge to filter all of the show’s humor through the politics of identity. After all, if Black-ish is to go the distance, it can’t have blackness on its mind at all times without burning through material it could be saving for later in the race. Still, the show’s worst episodes are those in which Black-ish most resembles any other single-camera sitcom. “Big Night, Big Fight,” for example, follows Dre and Bow on one of their typically disastrous Valentine’s Day outings. It’s a beautiful episode to look at, but when stripped to its barest essentials, it’s an episode of a family sitcom about the fact that married couples fight sometimes. It doesn’t have anything especially fresh to say about marital squabbling.
Black-ish also struggles with a subtle gender disparity that tends to keep Rainbow and the couple’s daughters, Zoey (Yara Shahidi) and Diane (Marsai Martin) on the perimeter of the show’s most interesting material. To a certain extent, this is understandable, since Dre is the main character and his consideration of what it means to be black in America and how to address those issues are specific to what it means to be a black man in America. Rainbow isn’t quite as consumed with such things, partially because she’s biracial, but also because Black-ish doesn’t seem like it has its arms wrapped around how to tell stories about the experiences of black women. That’s a problem that will likely be ironed out soon, if only because Black-ish has Living Single creator Yvette Lee Bowser in its writers’ room. The sooner the better. Black-ish has a richly rewarding premise, but it ain’t no fun if the homegirls can’t have none.