Lately there has been so much talk about diversity and representation on television, from the success of shows like Empire and Fresh Off the Boat to the UCLA study about viewers demanding more diverse programming to HBO, just this morning, announcing a Writers Fellowship open only to diverse and female writers. It feels like there has been such a dearth of diverse programming on television that us viewers are so thirsty that we’re latching on to anything and everything we can get. It also means that we’re holding these shows to a high standard. It’s totally unfair but almost unavoidable: Because Black-ish is the only current network show to turn to about a black family, it has the impossible task of representing all black families on television. The reason I say all of this is to somewhat explain why I occasionally want more out of the show, because even throughout these fifteen episodes, we’ve already seen how smart and funny Black-ish can be, and how easily it can toe the line between simple sitcom and clever culture commentary. It’s a series that started off strong and climbed upward, so I already expect it to be better than the majority of fluff out there. Fortunately, it usually is that good! But it also makes it a little harder to remember that even when Black-ish isn’t 100 percent culturally on point, it’s still a damn fine sitcom—and it’s always funny.
That’s how I felt watching “The Dozens,” an episode that was only tangentially related to race: Sure, Andre harped on the fact that Junior’s bully was a white student (from Boston, oof) and kept reminding us that “the dozens” (or: insulting the hell out of someone) is a prominent past time in black culture (I have strong memories of these insult-offs going down on my school playground, two people one-upping each other in the middle of a circle of very enthusiastic bystanders reacting wildly, especially when it came to “yo mama” insults or anything related to the sexual prowess, or lack thereof, of these junior high school boys), it was still very much just a good, humorous, half-hour of television chock full of solid jokes, character development, and great acting all around (but especially from the children).
The big story in “The Dozens” is about Junior getting bullied in school and Andre teaching him how to combat this particular. No, not physically—c’mon, Junior is basically an adorably but awkwardly lanky twig—but verbally, shooting his opponents down with cutting insults. The next time Junior faces his bully, he takes his father’s advice and begins insulting him by pointing out his acne. I love that Junior’s insults are so delightfully Junior: nerdy, specific, and a bit embarrassing. He namedrops Stephen Hawking, compares someone’s breath to the stench of “400 years of slavery.” Junior finally gets a win, and it’s great.
Over in the B plot, little Diane is scared of the dark but is having a hard time admitting it and coming to terms with this fear because her twin, Jack, has already beat that fear—and it’s usually Diane who is the first to do anything (including pee standing up) so this is a blow for her. When the twins stop using a night light in their room, Diane stays up all night in the lit up living room vacuuming and waiting for her mother to come before climbing into bed with her parents. Rainbow begins to get frustrated because she can’t sleep but can’t exactly ignore Diane’s problems. Diane’s smart (and conniving) enough to fix this on her own, however, and cleverly gets Jack to watch The Shining, therefore resulting in his fear of the dark coming back so the night light has to be returned. Diane remains the best child on television.
Back to Junior. One thing I really like about this storyline is that it shows how similar he and his father actually are. They share the same overzealous, go-too-far attitude. Once Junior gets one victory verbally knocking out his bully, he becomes obsessed with the dozens and tosses insults around everywhere, from school to his home. He had a taste of what it means to win and now he can’t stop. Just like his father, he can’t quit while he’s ahead but instead has to keep pushing further and further until it backfires—in this case, Junior gets sent to the principal’s office and they call his father. This prompts an important talk between the two men in which Andre explains that there’s a big difference between using the dozens to defend yourself and fight back when you’re being victimized and between using the dozens simply to attack someone else. It’s a valid lesson: It’s important to defend and stand up for yourself but you don’t want to become a bully yourself. Junior refrains from destroying his bully the next day, although he definitely has the ammo (his mother is on Tinder) but his moral victory is short lived—he gets knocked to the ground. You can’t win them all.
- I really wish I had written down all of the insults lobbed around this episode because they were great, but one that stuck with me was “You don’t just have bags under your eyes, you’ve got luggage.”
- Diane being described as “the world’s youngest librarian” was on point, too.
- Although The Shining end tag was seen coming a mile away, I still enjoyed it.