Anthony Anderson, men men men

One of the biggest criticisms about Black-ish, on a character level, is that Dre’s overzealous nature makes him difficult to relate to or even like. He has tunnel vision, whether it’s because his children aren’t black enough and don’t understand how easy they have it in a hard world or because of his parents’ strange, passionate, angry relationship. Everything he does is at 125 percent, even though he truly has the best of intentions. Rainbow can also be like this too, but it’s rare for them to both behave like that simultaneously and be at odds with each other because of it.

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However, in “Big Night, Big Fight,” it’s difficult to see the road to romantic Hell being paved with any good intentions on Dre’s or even Rainbow’s part.

As a part of ABC’s Valentine’s comedy line-up, this episode of Black-ish sadly doesn’t shine with the holiday-appointed mandate. The writing is on the wall from the moment the episode opens with a war metaphor that frames the entire A-plot—and one that even leads to one of the stranger scenes in Black-ish’s short life. According to Dre’s voiceover, “Some of history’s most brutal wars were set off by a tiny wrong move at the wrong time when tensions were jacked through the roof.” In an instance, World War I is equated with Valentine’s (or Valentime’s depending on which sitcom character you ask) Day, and it’s mostly all uncharacteristically downhill from here, even though Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross do their best with the material they’re given.

What surprisingly isn’t brought up in this episode is how Dre and Rainbow’s interactions in this episode are scarily similar to those between his parents. Both “Oedipal Triangle” and this episode were written by Vijal Patel, and while the the former episode nailed the contentious relationship between Rainbow and Ruby (and Dre’s ability to keep digging himself deeper and deeper), the direct battle between Rainbow and Dre in this episode is too much. It’s really not a flattering episode for either character.

Rainbow: “This is what you do. You ruin things. You are a ruiner. … You take the special moments and you kill them dead.”

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And the problem isn’t so much that this episode frames Dre and Rainbow as a bad couple out of nowhere as it is Black-ish falling into the dangerous pattern set by the schlubby husband-“too hot” wife brand of sitcoms (or, to broaden it more, the brand of husbands and wives who hate each other in all of television). The restaurant men’s restroom scenes are the biggest example of this, with all of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus nonsense they feature. (At no point does anyone address the fact that the stories these husbands are telling involve them being dumb and their wives not being fans of that.) Dre learns to manipulate the situation with Rainbow to get “special sex” (a chant that would be very disturbing to hear anywhere, really), and at that point, it feels like there’s almost no redeeming the episode plot-wise from the cliche sitcom marriage nonsense. Quite frankly, Black-ish is above material like a husband with “SEAL team of emotional manipulation” on his wife.

Thankfully, the A-plot does pick up steam from the “mutually assured destruction” argument on, but by that point, the jokes and conversations feel like an attempt to dig the characters and episode out of the hole the incredibly tense “battle” got them into. Having Rainbow and Dre eventually claim that they’re just so passionate that it’s their way is all well and good, but for the first time in 13 episodes, they spend so much time seeming like they absolutely hate each other and it packs a punch.

Then there’s the episode’s B-plot, which feels more tacked on just because an episode of a sitcom on network television is required to have a B-plot (except when it’s not). The children are home alone for the night, and instead of the subplot being a public service announcement for child safety (which it feels like it should be when that “mutant” pizza guy shows up), it’s about teaching Diane how to be nicer. After all, you catch more flies with honey, even if you’re not telling the truth. Like the A-plot, this one does have nice moments and quotable lines—“longhead” will probably haunt Junior forever—but it falls slightly more on the side of precocious television kids being precocious, a fine line Black-ish has walked since the pilot. The fact that the plot is put away as an afterthought (with Dre just telling the kids to fix the child they “broke”) is just a bullet point on how inconsequential it really is. It’s all perfectly funny, but Black-ish has proven on more than one occasion just how funny it can be (and make it matter); mattering isn’t really the case in this episode, unfortunately.

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Stray observations:

  • One thing that remains in this episode and will probably never go away: The episode is stylistically on point. Despite the stereotypical framing of men versus women, everything from the war footage to the marking down of the steps to the dream sequences make it all visually pleasing to watch. I can’t praise Black-ish enough for that.
  • Diane: “I’m sorry. There’s just too much baggage between us.”
    Jack: “She’s not wrong.”
  • Hello, character actor Richard Riehle as the bathroom attendant. Perfect casting, regardless of the material.
  • While the second half of the episode is so much better than the first, the major saving graces of this episode/A-plot are Hoodfellas (and Hood Will Hunting) and the following exchange:
    Dre: “It WAS Gene Hackman at the roller rink!”
    Rainbow: “You think everyone’s Gene Hackman!”
  • One final note: Happy Valentime’s! (And thanks again for letting me cover this week’s episode, Pilot.)

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