“White people do things like this, but black people do things like this.”
It’s an age-old joke, the type that bypasses an actual joke in favor of making an observation based on stereotypes. It would be easy for a show titled Black-ish to fall into that trap, but instead, it realizes that being black isn’t just one thing. Especially not when black culture has become so mainstream over the years and labeled as “urban.” Black-ish is as mainstream as it gets (but don’t call it urban), part of the handful of new series on ABC that allows the network to boast on-screen (and behind-the-scenes) diversity. But just like the Huxtables or the Winslows before them, or even the Dunphys or the Hecks now, the Johnsons of Black-ish are just like any other American family.
The series follows advertising executive Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson) and his family as they try function as “the mythical and majestic black family” in a predominantly white neighborhood. Dre’s father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne), is always around to talk about things back in his day, while Dre’s doctor wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), is just happy that their family is living the American dream she and her husband always dreamed of. After a series of events at home and at work lead to Dre realizing that his own children don’t even know that Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States, he decides that the kids need to be more black and not just “black-ish.” But even Pops—who marched on Washington and constantly reminds everyone of that—wants no part of this new, “keeping it real” agenda. Being true to yourself is universal, and Black-ish attempts to address what it means to be black, on an individual level, not just based on pigmentation.
In a post-Tyler Perry world, there’s even more of a stigma that comes with having a cast of primarily black actors: However talented the cast is, the writing leaves way too much to be desired; from that point on, no other black show, apparently, has a chance. Black-ish isn’t relegated to OWN, TBS, or BET (or, in a past life, UPN); it’s a sitcom on a broadcast network, just like The Middle or Modern Family. The only major difference between Black-ish and the other family sitcoms on the network right now is the fact that it’s a family sitcom with a black cast, created by a black writer: Kenya Barris, who helped develop America’s Next Top Model and has previously written for Girlfriends, The Game, and Are We There Yet?
All of this makes Black-ish sound more dramatic than it really is. This is a show that tackles issues but doesn’t lose the funny. Unsurprisingly—given the presence of Larry Wilmore—the particular brand of humor on Black-ish is reminiscent of The Bernie Mac Show. (Wilmore helped create the show but left to helm The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore.) There are also flashes of other deceased “ABC funny” shows like Suburgatory and Don’t Trust The B—— Apartment 23, but Black-ish is ultimately its own entity.
Dre’s increased frustration with his family’s supposed loss of their cultural identity throughout the pilot is the type of “parents just don’t understand” attitude of someone who didn’t get the memo that his generation isn’t the young, hip one anymore. It happens to everybody: One day you know what’s going on—the next, you’re old. As for the young ones: Child actors can so easily reach annoyingly precocious levels, but the pilot features just enough of each Johnson child (there are four, not counting the best friend who’s always hanging around) to prevent that from happening. In fact, eldest son Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) is a highlight of the pilot, and his chemistry with Anderson is a good litmus test for what’s to come. (It’s a shame Laurence Fishburne has to split his time between Black-ish and Hannibal, because he steals every scene he’s in with his good-natured ribbing.)
In between the laughs, Black-ish brings up a lot of good questions, especially in regard to what it means to be “black.” How does one maintain cultural identity in the face of peer pressure and minority status? What is black to an African-American man working in a predominantly white corporate setting, living in a predominantly white neighborhood? What is black to a mixed-raced woman working as a doctor? What is black to adolescent African-Americans? What is black to the audience? These are all questions with a variety of answers, all which, combined, boil down to one ideal: black-ish.
Even without any concrete answers to any of these questions, a comedy that wants to explore them is always a lot more refreshing than a comedy that’s “diverse” for diversity’s sake. Black-ish, is fun, cool, and hip. It just so happens to also have a lot going on upstairs. Hopefully audiences see that.