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Black-ish gets back to the basics

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Well, that almost made me forget about last week’s major misstep. “What Lies Beneath” is a great episode of Black-ish because it accomplishes two of the show’s major objectives. First, it pays tribute to the history Black-ish has built over three seasons. Pops is back and he gets to play off of Ruby and Dre’s sister, Rhonda. Dre is given the opportunity to focus on his own upbringing rather than meddling in the lives of his children. Second, the episode focuses on the growth of Zoey and Junior.


A few weeks ago, I hoped we would see more of this duo outside of the constraints of their family, and “What Lies Beneath” delivers. Zoey and Junior don’t feel like children anymore and their growth has felt realistic. Unlike the kids of Modern Family, it doesn’t feel forced when Zoey casually mentions going to a party. Marcus Scribner expertly plays Junior’s constant shock at the “rager” so that it never becomes irritating.

The kid dynamic of Black-ish is wildly different from other family sitcoms currently on TV. While the children of The Goldbergs and Fresh Off The Boat have robust lives and character dynamics outside of their family, Black-ish has always felt more isolated. We see Zoey’s high school friends in passing and Junior had a short girlfriend stint, but otherwise the show has always relied on telling and not showing when it comes to their actual interactions outside of the Johnson clan.

We only hear about Zoey spitting on Junior while walking the halls in his cape, but “What Lies Beneath” feels like they actual pay off. While the show could’ve done any number of typical “cool sibling/nerd sibling” plots––Zoey could pretend she doesn’t know Junior at all or in a twist, Junior could be a party hit––Black-ish centers their relationship around the realistic, supportive dynamic we’ve seen for three seasons.


While Zoey has always been a great big sister, seeing her care for Junior outside of her parents’ gaze gives the moment more weight. Alternatively, Dre’s storyline does a great job exploring his role as the son of two people who have committed multiple felonies against each other. But it would’ve been nice to see more of Pops’ relationship with Rhonda. It’s clear that Dre is jealous of his sister’s relationship with their father and they enjoy excluding him, but those jokes would’ve hit harder if we had some history of Pops and Rhonda’s relationship.


Instead, Raven-Symoné’s appearance feels fairly random, like Pops popping up again after disappearing for so long. Has Pops just been hanging in the guesthouse this whole time? Why did he miss the baby shower or Dre’s big commercial showing last week? Episodes have aired out of order, so the show has had some continuity and scheduling issues when it comes to the cast, but these problems haven’t felt incredibly noticeable until now. Pops is more important than Bow’s brother, so his disappearance and random reappearance just brings up questions that distract from a great plot.

Last week’s episode didn’t just highlight the sometimes confusing morals around the show’s political message, it also made it clear that characters like Ruby flounder when the A-plot isn’t tight. For multiple episodes now, Ruby has been locked in a pointless gridlock with Bow. While it makes sense that Bow’s pregnancy would make her reconsider her parenting choices, Ruby’s criticisms have felt like the same old banter they’ve had going since season one.


Ruby’s character is better served when Pops is in the picture. Finally, “What Lies Beneath” digs into Dre and Ruby’s weird relationship and places some of the blame for Pops and Ruby’s relationship issues on her. Of course, Ruby isn’t a saint and it’s nice to finally see her character get dragged through the mud a bit. Ruby sleeping with Dre’s teachers is also a hilarious bit.

Overall, “What Lies Beneath” is a great episode of Black-ish that furthers the dynamics between characters while expanding the possibilities each character has. It’s an episode that proves the show doesn’t need to rely on stunt casting or a weekly, political special episode to succeed.


Stray Observations

  • Dre really thought he passed gym by running a 30-minute mile.
  • Marcus Scribner deserves a shout out for his work this season. He has been KILLING IT as Junior. His realization that the party was a “rager” was the biggest laugh of the night for me.
  • Poor Jack and Diane. Their entire “we’ve been forgotten” story felt too meta. They haven’t been worked into the main plots very well for a few weeks now, but the show is starting to address this.
  • I really missed you, Pops. I hope you stick around.

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