For the past two seasons, Black-ish has been balancing itself between a traditional single-camera sitcom and a more absurd, outlandish almost-Adult Swim show. It keeps that balance intact by primarily focusing its absurdity to the office scenes, which occasionally dabble in what an actual advertising agency does. The winner of these scenes is usually Charlie, who Deon Cole plays with an energetic cluelessness that nevertheless suggests a fully-fleshed character beneath his ridiculousness. (It helps that he’s often hilarious, with a perfect face for comic reactions.) The thing is, characters like Charlie are best left along the sidelines as comic foils to the (relatively) more grounded characters. Having him be the star of good chunk of the episode is going to be a huge risk–either his antics will overwhelm the episode to an embarrassing degree, or it will elevate the episode by either revealing layers to the character, or forcing the cast to match his comic performance.

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Smartly, Black-ish opts to keep Charlie antics to a minimum. When a drugged-out Dre accidentally calls Charlie to take care of the Johnson kids while he and Bo take Zoe to tour Brown University, the eccentric co-worker eagerly takes to it, leaving his own son behind. And despite his neglect of his own son, Charlie is… kind of a decent babysitter. He doesn’t overwhelm the household, or even the episode. He hangs out with the kids and even plays video games with them. Granted, he doesn’t have to do much–Jack, Diane, and Junior can pretty much take care of themselves–but it’s good to see the show temper Charlie a bit, allowing him to work well with the kids without his own brand of crazy.

But that’s partially because Charlie is a man-child, so of course he’d be cool with the kids. Well, specifically, Junior and (to a lesser extent) Jack. Charlie’s story is prompted by an early comment from Diane to Junior: when he suggested he’d be the babysitter, Diane bluntly told him he was a “joke of a man” (the polite way, of course). I tend to be hit or miss on Junior; his nerdiness is endearing but sometimes the show combines it with a cluelessness that takes it too far. Here, though, it works, as he and Charlie, both passionate fans of the works of Nancy Meyers, combine forces so as to pull a romantic con on Charlie’s ex, Dominique (Amber Rose, who is fine in the role but only really stands out in the show’s end tag). It’s standard sitcom fodder for sure, but Charlie commits to it, up to a point. I love that Charlie’s the one who realizes that this is going too far, which suggest that even the crazy former Cinnebon manager has a limit.

Elsewhere (I’m not sure which story is the A or B plot, as they both seem to take up a similar amount of time), the visit to Brown is kind of a hodgepodge of ideas. There’s Dre’s fear of flying, which he alleviates with heavy medication. There’s Bo’s obsession with her love for her alma mater. Then there’s the general idea of Zoe’s decision to choose which college she wants to go to. And there’s plenty of amusing moments; I love the few shades thrown Ivy League schools in general, and Dre goes off on one of his signature rants about students being frozen to death that thankfully doesn’t go overboard. Yet I feel like the final dramatic speeches worked but were kind of off; if Bo was concerned that her geekiness scared Zoe away from Brown, she should’ve talked to Zoe at the end about that, not Dre. In fact, it felt like a moment where all three should’ve sat down to discuss their concerns. Bo kind of disappears at the end there.

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Back at the Johnson’s household, Charlie and Junior’s attempts to show their “manhood” just leaves them even bigger jokes as their It’s Complicated/Something’s Gotta Gives ruse fails. Diane normally would be in her element, basking in their disaster, but the Precious little girl shows some real heart by acknowledging their attempt, while sad, could be endearing to someone in the future. Diane’s adorable bluntness is one of my favorite parts of the show, but seeing her show some genuine love to Junior (and by proxy, Charlie) ends the episode on a strong note. “Charlie in Charge” is a different, goofier, slightly off-key episode, and while it doesn’t really engage in the type of “hard issues through a black lens” that some of its best episodes usually do, it shows that it has a strong enough cast to take a break once in a while.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • Thanks to LaToya Ferguson for letting me sub in for tonight’s review. You’ve read her past reviews, right? They’re excellent.
  • Apologies for the late posting, I subbed in at the last moment.
  • Is that Brown song Bo was singing real? It probably was. I… I kinda hate college traditions.
  • I recognized the second song Charlie was singing in the bathroom (Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart”) but I couldn’t place the first one. Sounds so familiar!
  • After Diane mentions Charlie/Junior’s plan is “pre-ruined,” Junior puts up his hand in front of her and says not to listen to her. Diane then does this perfect actor move in pushing Junior’s hand off her, and it’s just amazing.

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