The cast of Black-ish
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The novelty of Black-ish comes from its ability to tell stories about the subtle (and occasionally dramatic) differences in the way black people parent their children. But depending on which specific parenting dynamic the show is taking on in a given week, the dynamic may present itself more subtly than in other weeks. “Crime And Punishment,” for example, explores the practice of corporal punishment, its cultural underpinnings, and whether it’s an uncomfortable but effective disciplinary tool, or the pathological mimicry of violence inflicted on blacks to keep them in line. Or, the more troubling possibility, a little bit of both. (More on that in the Strays. Quite a bit more, shawty!*) That’s not a hot potato, that’s a Fanta-orange coal ready to melt someone’s hand off. “The Peer-Ent Trap” explores a more benign difference, the good-cop, bad-cop dynamic in parents’ respective relationships with the children and how the permissiveness gap can create a rift between husband and wife.

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Andre and Rainbow’s sharp division over how to discipline an increasingly teenaged Zoey is a story not unlike one that’s been told again and again on the show’s impregnable fortress of a lead-in, Modern Family. Phil and Claire Dunphy occupy the inverse of Dre and Bow’s roles, with Phil as the try-hard “cool Dad” and Claire as the Type-A anvil dropper. In Black-ish, it means something specific that Bow wants to be Zoey’s best friend and Dre wants to parent by strictly limiting the access to the terrible choices common to youthful insouciance. It means Rainbow grew up in “that kind of household”—hence the name Rainbow—where, as is to be expected from “white folk,” the kids are allowed to run wild, set their own curfews, curse at their parents, and so on. Dre, meanwhile, grew up with Pops, who made Dre sew his own mattress back up after searching it for contraband, and delights in recounting the tale to this very day.

When described in writing, the way I just did, “The Peer-Ent Trap” sounds damn near incendiary, but in practice, it really isn’t. Above all things, Black-ish is a network sitcom, so its only real mandate is to be funny, relatable, and profitable. But there’s a parallel universe in which there’s a version of Black-ish that’s approximately 75% bolder. That show is akin to a live-action The Boondocks—the early years—and it probably gets pulled in February and burned off in early June. But sometimes, even when Black-ish is being funny, charming, well-acted, and attractively shot, it feels like it’s underachieving. I’ll admit I didn’t much understand Eddie Huang’s vacillating criticisms about Fresh Off The Boat, but now I think I sort of get it. I understand wanting a show like this to be a long-lasting network sitcom, and also to be the kind of sitcom that couldn’t last long on a network.

I do the best job I possibly can to ensure that, when I evaluate these episodes, I do so through the lens of how the show is doing relative to its goals, not relative to my hypothetical version of what the show could be. This week, I’m not sure my compass is pointing true north, but from where I sat, “The Peer-Ent Trap” is a solidly funny episode of Black-ish, if perhaps one that already feels a little too familiar thematically. Some great lines are scattered throughout, Pops is around being a fount of wisdom as usual, and there’s some Deon Cole. There’s not enough Deon Cole, but I’ve become such an evangelist of the Gospel of Cole, “enough” would probably involve Charlie falling on hard times and boarding in the Johnsons’ attic.

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I found myself more interested in the contrasts between Zoey and Junior than in those between Dre and Bow, but the latter is where the story is, and veteran writer Yvette Lee Bowser does a fine job of telling it. Dre, who has been an irritating menace for weeks now, is finally in a justifiable position, and he celebrates by firing off great line after great line, from “Loosey-goosey parenting like that is how you end up with James Franco” to “That’ll teach you to drink milk without gloves.” Anthony Anderson was on his game all around this week, with another example the look of bemused pity on Dre’s face when Bow tried to do her pitbull bark.

It’s a totally solid, perfectly well-balanced episode of Black-ish, though it might have benefitted from a more interesting B-plot than Junior’s attempts to politely break the rules with such dunderheaded acts of protest as the hamburger smoothie. It builds to a satisfying, though predictable payoff, with Bow seeing the error of her ways when she finds evidence that the 15-year-old Zoey has been driving her car. Bow likes Beck, not Beyonce. It’s the stuff of a typically satisfying episode of Black-ish, alas, this is not a typical week.

Stray observations:

  • At the risk of harshing everyone’s sitcom buzz, how fascinating for Black-ish to be playing with ideas about black parenting during the week of the Baltimore demonstrations? Especially as the conversation has sprouted up around Toya Graham, the Baltimore woman dubbed “mom of the year” by the interwebs after she snatched her son up and beat him about the head because she saw him on television chucking rocks at police. It’s less fascinating than if “Crime And Punishment” had aired this week, but still. For what it’s worth, I found the hero’s welcome for Graham’s behavior hypocritical and gross. As people smarter than me have asked, why is Adrian Peterson a child abuser while Graham is not only a good mother, but mother of the year? Is the message that corporal punishment is wrong except in cases where black people refuse to comply with authorities who show no regard for their very lives? That ain’t my jam. People need to quit trying to take a mother’s emotional response to her child’s behavior and plug it into some static, racist theory about The Way Of Things. I’m finished now.
  • I’m ever delighted by the music cues in this show. M.O.P.’s “Ante Up?” Now they’re just spoiling us.
  • Pops to Bow: “The way you’re going, your daughter will bring home her own daughter and you can have two best friends.”
  • The No-Neck cutaway was phenomenal.
  • Forgive the “shawty,” I recently relocated to Atlanta, so, y’know, when in Rome.

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