Black-ish often deserves praise simply for its ability to zag where one might assume it will zig. Because going into “Any Given Saturday,” there’s a sense of dread: Dre going full Dre as a helicopter parent who wants to live vicariously through his baller son. The cringe-worthy moments write themselves, and the Dre-isms plague the brain. But then something else happens. Yes, Dre does go full Dre (making this the second night in a row I’ve reviewed a sitcom where a main character threatens to murder someone) and all of that helicopter parent nonsense; but that’s just a small part of the episode, and that’s really not the point. That’s apparent from the very beginning even, as the episode opens up with an unexpected 30 For 30-style opening and a voice-over from Diane Johnson, of all people.

Yes, “Any Given Saturday” avoids the pitfalls of Dre Johnson being “too much” by almost completely changing the format of the series for an episode. (Plus, everyone else is also at that baseline.) And despite being the return of Black-ish from a short break, that change in format is actually a great way for the show to come back. It’s an episode that’s very focused on the Johnson family and their lives, to the point where Dre’s co-workers don’t even show up in this episode, and the only work-related thing is kind of brilliant.

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Black-ish is very much a by-the-numbers ABC family sitcom in a lot of ways (which actually says good things about ABC family sitcoms), but it’s also a show that can get away with being experimental—because it does experimental very well. That was true of the first season finale, that was true of the previous episode, and that is true now. It’s part of the reason I can be so hard on the show, since its potential really is through the roof.

And perhaps the final zag is that Jack decides to stay on the travel ball team, instead of going back to being a big fish in a small pond, the easier answer. As a television fan, in general, it’s actually really great to see Jack stick with the team and his need to be better at this, to be better at anything. Sure, it might seem like a small thing now, but when that doesn’t happen, you end up getting youth characters like Luke in Modern Family.

Within the episode itself, every character is cranked up to 11 with their roles in this “documentary” format, and Black-ish expertly treads the line of funny and cringe-worthy throughout. As usual, Tracee Ellis Ross kills it, going from “Jack’s mom” to “snack mom” and even losing it with Dre as they celebrate their son’s initial success. And in a fascinating turn of events, this version of the show provides a Ruby that’s even more funny than upsetting. From her work as “team spiritual leader” to her eventual bonding with Bow over Dre’s life as a failure, Ruby is on fire in this episode.

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As this is technically a Jack episode, Black-ish makes a bold and smart choice not to make it all about him and spread the wealth, but Miles Brown is still very good in here, especially when it comes to the physical comedy aspects. His other half, Diane, manages to still be every bit as commanding while mostly behind camera, while also reminding the audience she’s still a child in the moment where she first interviews Zoey (with her reflection in Zoey’s mirror). And Marcus Scribner’s tunnel vision with Junior’s latest nerdy obsession—refereeing—reaches the same level of weirdness as the show typically provides for him, to the point of the kid creating his own referee playing card.

Unfortunately, the Zoey plot with her boyfriend Derek is the most “miss” part of the episode. The story treats it as though Zoey’s in a long distance relationship with a character who has yet to be introduced to the show* (if at all—”Black Nanny”was originally supposed to air as episode 17)… just because she has to go to her brother’s games on Saturday. While Yara Shahidi nails the moments that are all about her (totally acceptable) boredom with the world of Jack’s basketball games, that’s not the meat of her part in this episode.

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The plot then takes a detour to Zoey briefly dating one of the travel ball boys—nay, men—because she’s invisible to her parents in this instance. With my own personal hang-ups about teenager/adult couples in television (and this guy is barely an “adult” in this instance), this part comes across more uncomfortable than funny. And it’s not made any better by pointing out that he’s a “junior” who was “double-held back for sports,” as that brings up the question of a guy being held back to be good at high school ball not actually being good enough for college (and eventually pro) ball. Then it’s completely reset with the end tag and the mysterious Derek getting her Kendrick Lamar tickets, because it really doesn’t matter.

But it doesn’t weaken it too much, as this is a strong, well-written episode (written by Yvette Lee Bowser) that easily adapts to the 30 For 30 style without betraying the show’s own way of doing things. There are so many good lines in this episode that it’s hard to point out all of them without just directing people to the script . In fact, there’s a lot in this episode as a whole. And that’s, as Dre would call it, “the truth.”

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Stray observations

  • As expected, “Hope” was a phenomenal episode of Black-ish. I laughed and I cried, as cliched as that sounds. I’m still cursing the flu for taking the episode away from me, but I’m grateful for Pilot covering for me.
  • *There was a Derrick in “Andre from Marseille,” but this is Derek. There’s a difference.
  • Janine sneaks into this episode to discuss how travel ball is all about “cross-cultural exchange,” and then she “boop”s two black women. Because this is also an episode about basketball being “our game,” despite being invented by a white man. It’s pretty great.
  • As good as Miles Brown is good in this episode, he should watch out for Yara’s real life brother, Sayeed Shahidi, who plays Adonis Culpepper and will be in ABC’s upcoming Uncle Buck series. That kid knocks his role out of the park with his line readings, and they are some very darkly funny lines. I really hope he gets his family out.
  • The episode (directed by Gail Mancuso, by the way) does a very good job of keeping the premise of camera-person Diane realistic, with a few exceptions: the Dre/Bow bedroom scene (why would they allow her to film that conversation when she should be in bed?), the scene right Dre breaks her lens, and a couple of television-specific cuts in that scene. But who cares when it comes to the montage of “periphery characters”?
  • Zoey is still hoping that Rick Fox is her father. One day she’ll get the answers. (Although, if she’s just waiting to be able to buy his hair off the internet, she could cut out the middleman and use Dre’s hair as a DNA sample to prove or disprove his parentage. Yes, I know I just poked a big hole in that one. Here: Have Rick Fox’s take on all of this.)
  • As much fun as Diane’s villainy is—think about when she makes Jack cry so she can get the money shot—the first half of the episode has her insults about basketball quickly reach sour grapes level. I’m surprised the episode doesn’t include a part about her being terrible at the game and even frustrated over that. But luckily, the episode includes Diane’s two favorite things (according to Jack): chips and S’mores.
  • Actually, what child doesn’t like chips or S’mores? You’re on the wrong side of history, Gurkel.

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