Grading “Elephant In The Room” turned out to be remarkably challenging. It didn’t feel like a grade-A episode of Black-ish, even as I struggled to determine why it wasn’t, and what it was missing that could have elevated it to unqualified greatness. Choosing a grade for “Pops’ Pops’ Pops” comes with its own challenges. To call “Pops” the best episode of Black-ish’s first season seems mildly unfair because of the singularity of its premise. It’s the kind of high-concept episode a family sitcom can only pull off once per season, if that often, so part of me regrets giving it the season’s first minus-free A. But “Pops” isn’t merely a case of an average episode amplified by its novelty. It’s also aesthetically pleasing, thematically rich, and really funny.
Most black folks in America around my age recognize the premise established in the cold open, as well as the anxiety surrounding it. No one makes it through their senior year of high school without being tasked with putting together a family tree, a project that’s clearly more difficult for those of us whose lineages were minced through commerce. Culturally literate teachers tell their students to do the best they can, understanding that some people will have an easier time than others, but it’s still a huge bummer. It was a bummer for me when I had to do it in ninth grade, so I can scarcely imagine how I’d have felt about it when I was Jack and Diane’s age. Luckily, Pops has the solution: He’ll help them wend back through the Johnson family’s history, all the way back to the Harlem Renaissance, and explain to Jack and Diane what an old-timey five dollar bill has to do with their ancestors.
Pops’ flashback takes us back to the early 1920s, when Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom was central to one of the most significant literary and artistic movements in American history. To see such a potent black history lesson in primetime television in the middle of May is pretty astonishing, but it’s even more astonishing that the lesson doubles as Bad Boy Records fan service. Anthony Anderson plays the kids’ great-great-grandfather Drexler, a lowly ice delivery man whose route includes the Savoy, run by the tyrannical Elroy Savoy (Sean Combs). The club is introduced as an adaptation of Menahan Street Band’s “Make The Road By Walking” plays, the same song Combs sampled in his beat for Jay Z’s “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is…)” “Do something about this music,” says Elroy. “This music is terrible. Keep it the same, but different.” It’s too cute by half but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.
The Bad Boy nostalgia continues with an appearance from Mary J. Blige, who plays the songstress known as Mirabelle Chalet. Mirabelle performs Blige’s cover of Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down,” which first appeared on her My Life album, a Combs production and one of the finest albums to emerge from Bad Boy’s golden era. I’ll assume the first draft of the script included moments in which Elroy floated in from just outside the frame every three minutes to add a “Bad Boy” or a “c’mon c’mon” for punctuation, but I don’t blame the producers for cutting those.
Old people dog whistles aside, “Pops” tells the story of Drexler and his pursuit of Bea (Tracee Ellis Ross), a dancer at the Savoy under Elroy’s watchful eye. The first moments of “Pops” are such giddy fun, I forgot the title card hadn’t popped up, and when it did, it felt intrusive. Dre’s “The thing about all black people everywhere with zero exceptions” monologues usually take up much more time, but his voice only appears briefly before the scene begins, so the rhythm of the first act is unfamiliar in the best way possible.
But most of “Pops” is familiar, transplanting all of the show’s regular characters into the Harlem Renaissance milieu. Much of the episode’s brilliance comes from how the equivalent characters are worked in. The best example is Dre’s marketing gig, which appears in the form of Kimball, Kollins, & Klark, another stop on Drexler’s ice route. Deon Cole shows up as a janitor who lives under a train, and Drex takes issue with the eager use of the word Negro: “I know it’s the exact right word for our times, but…just the way you say it…”
The episode also boasts a nifty structure, as Pops’ tall tale attracts Rainbow, Zoey, Ruby, and Junior when they become incredulous about a specific detail, only to have each one buy in when Pops just so happens to introduce a character who looks exactly like them. “Who is telling this story?” Pops asks again and again, with Laurence Fishburne’s delivery becoming a little more crotchety each time he repeats it. As Pops spins a yarn about how the Johnsons invented jazz, organized labor, breakdancing, and texting, the kids are riveted, and Bow takes notice of how, for once, the kids aren’t glancing at a screen every five seconds. It’s a sweet moment, but it isn’t cloying. Dre’s voiceover pushes it a bit at the end, but it’s a proper way to end the strong, satisfying finale of a delightful debut season.
- The Ice Boy/Ass Boy runner was top notch.
- The “Ice, Ice Baby” joke was so, so corny. But I liked it too, and I’ll make no apologies for it.
- I even loved how visible the seams were in Drex’s dance sequence. The glaring differences between Anderson and the dance double reminded me of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker bit.
- As much as I enjoyed seeing the Queen of Hip Hop Soul in the dance soiree, Ms. Blige isn’t the world’s most natural actress.
- Party Time thought Pops was talking about the Harlem Globetrotters. I think I’m just going to go ahead and call him Party Time until further notice.
- Party Time on the invention of breakdancing in the ‘20s: “Nope. I reject that.”