Laurence Fishburne

Black-ish already has such a good cast within the Johnson family, a rare occurrence where every family member is perfectly cast and talented (even the younger children!), that it’s definitely going to be a gamble when outsiders invade the household. Will they add to the Johnson family and fit in with the preestablished dynamic or take away from the episode’s plot? In “Parental Guidance,” we not only get the much-welcome return of Laurence Fishburne as Pops and another visit from Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) but we’re also introduced to Rainbow’s parents: her black mother Alicia (Anna Deveare Smith) and her white father Paul (Beau Bridges). Everyone easily fits into the energetic, wise-cracking, weird, and occasionally quick-tempered household, resulting in an episode that’s funny from beginning to end, even though everything basically gets shrugged away.

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Andre and Rainbow are celebrating 15 years of marriage—though Zoey is 16, and finally figures out that she was born before her parents married, prompting her siblings to mercilessly tease her about being a bastard child—and renewing their vows in a beautiful ceremony to make up for their first rushed wedding in a hospital as a woman wailed in the pew. The problem with Andre’s plan is that Bow’s parents, who don’t get along with him or his own parents, show up to the vow renewal and cause hell. Rainbow, as if you couldn’t tell from her name, was raised by a hippie, new age healer mother and a white father obsessed with black women (to the point where his license plate reads “BLKWYF”). The other problem is that their original wedding was actually null and void because the officiant was a sham (hey, a reminder that this is a broadcast sitcom!) so they aren’t married after all, but that’s nothing in comparison to the bigger issues.

The second both sets of parents get in the room together, they begin fighting. The centerpiece of the episode is a dinner where they begin fighting about what the others’ children can’t do—Dre never learned to swim, Rainbow isn’t a good cook and can’t even boil an egg—effectively pulling their children into the argument too, resulting in Andre and Rainbow now arguing with each other. The interesting thing here is that it’s not just a typical ”in-laws disliking in-laws” fight but the central conflict is much deeper and more serious than something so superficial. The conversation turns into a discussion about “good” and “bad” blacks (Rainbow and Andre, respectively). There is, as Rainbow puts it, “a rich panoply of different ways to experience blackness” (“None of which include the words ‘rich panoply’,” Dre retorts) which is, of course, true and I admire Black-ish’s commitment to putting so many different types of blackness on screen—Rainbow’s mixed race and privileged upbringing, Andre’s poor upbringing, Junior’s nerdiness, Zoey’s narcissism, etc—rather than just the black characters who generally populated television for so long (criminals, criminals with a secret heart of gold, athletes, shucking and jiving comedic relief). To separate them into “good” and “bad” is incredibly simplistic, but it’s truthfully how Andre sees the world (and I understand why) and it’s clear that he has a bit of resentment and insecurity surrounding this that causes him to be so immediately defensive. It’s a really smart and well-done scene, cutting to the heart of the matter seemingly out of nowhere but then resolving it without a long, heartfelt discussion.

Instead, Andre and Rainbow realize that they are fighting because of their parents and decide to get married in City Hall with just their children. When Pops finds out about this (through Jack, wearing his perfect white tux), he realizes that the parents—all of them—need to put aside their differences in order for their children to have the nice wedding they want and deserve. And they do get a nice wedding—with a scotch fountain!—and everything is resolved quickly and neatly. Any other show, and I might have gripes about this super neat ending that came too easy but it works so well in Black-ish and Black-ish’s emphasis on the importance of family. It can be funny when they bicker, but this sitcom isn’t about fighting over differences but instead always accepting—and loving—the differences within the family.

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As for Zoey’s bastard status, it’s temporarily revoked when the kids learn that they are technically all born out of wedlock (“We’re ALL bastards,” exclaims Zoey, in one of the best line-readings of the night), but then back on the table when Junior discovers that Andre and Rainbow’s first wedding was, indeed, valid. But at least Zoey can hold on the dream that she’s Rick Fox’s daughter.

Stray observations:

  • Bless Black-ish for bringing Jagged Edge back into my life.
  • “Did you guys see Selma?” is 2015’s official opening line for white people attempting small talk with a black person, huh?
  • I love when Pops and Ruby are on the same side: “[Paul] was still a white man when he got to the other side of the bridge, right?” “Probably ate at a restaurant.” (“At the counter,” Paul responds.)
  • Ah, that moment when you do the math comparing your oldest sibling’s age and your parents’ wedding anniversary.
  • There were so, so many great lines tonight (especially from Junior: “You’re like the bastard Jon Snow!”) but I think my favorite was Rainbow’s “I’m a single mother who’s also a successful doctor. I’m a Profile in Courage. If Oprah were still on, she would want to meet me!”
  • “Sometimes the universe opens a window so you can climb out of an unhappy marriage.”
  • OK, one more: Diane’s “See ya, Ol’ Dirty” was pretty amazing.

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