Laurence Fishburne, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jenifer Lewis
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Black-ish is finally back for its third season, but it’s very difficult to accept “VIP” as a season premiere in the general concept of the term. As the promos for the episode made clear, this is the “We’re going to Disney World!” episode of the series, but it doesn’t exactly feel like the beginning of a new season. Maybe a sweeps episode or even a holiday special but not exactly the true return to life with the Johnson clan.

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Plus, according to the production codes, this was supposed to be the fourth episode of the season.

When season two of Black-ish ended, Dre was uncertain how long he’d even still have his job, and that was made even scarier by the fact that Bow was pregnant. Tuning in week-to-week, growing invested in these characters, that investment doesn’t just disappear with something shiny. And there’s really nothing shinier than taking your show to Disney, especially right out the gate. Television—especially network television—is obviously a business first, and if you can go forward with company synergy within an episode of television, then it’s a win-win on the business front. But here, it’s apparent the special Black-ish that we’ve come to know certainly isn’t the first priority of “VIP.” I’m not even talking about the “very special” Black-ish found in “Hope” or “Good-ish Times;” more grounded episodes like “The Johnson Show” feature the show putting its fantastic spin on simple enough concepts. There’s nothing grander than Disney, though, and Black-ish somehow has to start its season with that. Again, this would be fine if it weren’t the season premiere, but it is.

That’s not to say “VIP” doesn’t try really, really hard to allow Black-ish to keep its identity with the change of location. The show actually does the best it can with the Disney World framing device, as it helps that the show has always made it clear that Johnsons (specifically Dre and the kids) are often selfish and materialistic. That, paired with Dre’s need to provide his children with a life better than he had, is a simple Black-ish story, no matter where the actual plot takes place. That’s good. The Johnson kids are spoiled, but Black-ish is aware that spoiled nature is the result of parroting Dre, who overcompensates in many ways. It’s Dre who tells them not to apologize as they get priority seating on the rides, and it’s Dre who gets in Cody’s (Jim Rash) face when they’re not at a show with VIP. They simply follow his lead.

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Dre’s opening voiceover about how he loves “feeling special” is a good entryway into the episode (and coincidentally, the season), as it’s essentially the motivation that drives most of his decisions, even when not so explicitly stated. The flashback to 1983 with Pops and Ruby taking him to Disneyland, only to provide him with a tuna sandwich and none of the “special” things about the park, is an understandable explanation for why he’d go with such extravagance on his own family’s trip to the park. Of course Dre would make sure a family trip is nothing more than special, VIP status through and through.

At the same time, this simple Black-ish story is pretty familiar: Because it’s somewhat of a weaker sequel to the aforementioned “The Johnson Show,” if not simply a reworked version of the episode itself. The location has changed, and the kids aren’t stealing gift cards, but the inner monsters come out when the Johnsons get a taste of the good life. Only, this time it’s at Disney World. And instead of them having to work to be the image of the perfect family, this fast tracks them to already achieving that, simply because they have the VIP status.

The B-plot, however, is more of the promotion one would expect to come with the amusement part setting. Like with most of Black-ish’s weaker plots, it’s the performances that make the Ruby/Pops/Bow plot work even half as well as it does. It essentially boils down to the magic of Disney (and Dre’s credit card) wearing down even the most jaded people. That, and Bow eating a giant turkey leg. For all the obvious selling of the magic that is Disney World in this plot, it honestly is pretty humorous to see sticks in the mud Ruby and Pops (and inconveniently pregnant Bow) give into the temptation of the amusement park, referring to all of the ride entrances as “exits” in order to convince themselves that they’re just getting turned around on their way out of the Most Magical Place on Earth.

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Then there’s the Charlie plot, which technically exists inside of the “regular” Black-ish bubble but feels like it also exists in a broader world than usual. Last season’s temporary send-off of Charlie confirmed that, while Charlie is definitely eccentric, he’s actually pretty good at his job. In this episode, Dre hands off a big presentation and Charlie has no idea what the product—Microsoft—is. Microsoft. Charlie is obviously the wildcard (kind of like another Charlie) of Black-ish, but here, he’s playing a completely different game. Deon Cole is great, his delivery makes so many things work that probably shouldn’t, and the fact that we get him both here and on Angie Tribeca is a treat. But for all of Charlie’s weirder qualities, this “season premiere” wants to reintroduce him as incompetent. The Charlie that ends up as the one Airbnb-ing Dre’s house—and again, abandoning his poor son Eustace—is the Charlie we know and love. And that one’s not incompetent. Just really, really weird and neglectful.

It all ultimately boils down to “VIP” being a decently funny (albeit broad and synergized) single episode of Black-ish but really missing the mark in terms of being the show’s season premiere. Then again, Black-ish gets an honest emotional moment out of Dre telling Pops a tuna sandwich would make the fireworks at Disney World even better, so there. Disney wins.

Stray observations

  • Interestingly enough, if Fresh Off The Boat were to have the season premiere be at Disney World, it would probably work perfectly. The Orlando and ‘90s setting, as well as American dream aspect of the show, make it the ideal destination for the Huangs.
  • As usual, the music in this episode is on point. Especially both uses of “Monster.” I’ve definitely missed this aspect of Black-ish during the hiatus.
  • The “I bought him” beat when it comes to Dre and Cody is definitely supposed to be a reverse slavery joke, right? Saying you bought anyone is obviously a no-no, but the fact that it’s a black man saying it about a white man—and Cody is undeniably uncomfortable about it each time—is the point here, correct? It feels right for the show, but the more family friendly backdrop makes it especially stick out.
  • I do wonder if audiences even want to see characters just have fun at Disney World. ABC has done it plenty of times before—it was the way of the ‘90s ABC sitcom, after all. I personally remember watching TGIF as a kid and seeing Boy Meets World or Full House characters go to Disney World, enjoying them for the general grandness of the park (as the sets on those shows were anything but) but not exactly thinking those episodes were the series’ most memorable. “VIP” probably won’t end up as Black-ish’s most memorable, even though it does try to tell a story other than “the characters are at Disney and that’s enough.”
  • The Goofy hat Pops wears in this episode? I definitely had that as a kid. I miss it every single day. That and my Disney autography book. Goofy signed mine, no big deal. (I’m a big Goofy fan.)
  • Diane losing her glasses is pretty good comeuppance for her mocking Jack’s shortness, but that child really needs some back-up glasses. For situations just like this! Rookie mistake, Johnsons.
  • Junior isn’t at full goofball mode in this episode… until he tries to say “hi” to the girl of his dreams. He basically turns into Mrs. Doubtfire with that one.
  • Charlie: “Quick question. Asking for a friend: Who is Microsoft?” Yes, I’m aware I said it’s very broad. But Deon Cole’s delivery is great.
  • Eustace is a poor, neglected child, but it could be worse: He could be like other sitcom children who are just written off and never mentioned again. Although, imagining the way Eustace has had to “live” with Charlie as his father, that might be for the best…
  • As you may have already heard, regular TV Club coverage for Black-ish is now officially over. So consider this one last check-in for now. I’ve had a blast writing about the show and having discussions with you few brave commenters. Until we meet again:

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