Miles Brown, Marsai Martin, Marcus Scribner, Yara Shahidi

Black-ish loses some of its luster when it drills down into Andre and Rainbow’s marital woes, except in cases in which their drama ensnares other members of the family. It’s a challenge every family sitcom faces. A marriage changes significantly when a husband and wife become a father and mother, but in a family sitcom, the audience has to be able to glean who the couple used to be. Family sitcoms have to depict the couple’s foibles and communicate who they were, why they fell in love, and what makes the relationship sustainable.

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The issue for Black-ish has been that the episodes primarily focused on Dre and Bow’s relationship have been duds, with the other example being “Big Night, Big Fight.” There, as in “The Real World,” the B-plot involving the kids buoys what is otherwise a slightly off-putting episode. The primary issue is Rainbow’s characterization, which in Dre-and-Bow episodes, often evokes women-be-shoppin’, gender-war cliche. It’s a trap Black-ish will sometimes steer itself right into, as is the case with the show’s mighty lead-in Modern Family, which struggles to make Julie Bowen’s Claire Dunphy a character that’s more sympathetic than pathetic. “The Real World” just makes Bow look desperate, and while she redeems herself in the final act, the story doesn’t feel like a worthwhile journey.

Bow, a Facebook latecomer, tracks down her old friends from college and invites them over for an elaborate culinary spread to impress them with her fabulous life. I couldn’t help but think of that Esurance commercial with the unwise elder who doesn’t understand social media. That’s not how this works, Rainbow. That’s not how any of this works. The point of Facebook is to project a perfect version of your life based on carefully curated content, not to find your long-lost friends so you can invite them into your actual space, which offers no editing, filters, or red-eye removal. Beyond Bow’s apparent misunderstanding of what Facebook is for, it remains a mystery why Bow is so obsessed with proving to others how great her life is. Insecurity isn’t rational, but the show has yet to put forth any sort of thesis about Bow’s concern with appearances, other than women-are-from-Venus generalization.

Perhaps the answer is that Bow is insecure because she’s married to Dre, who spends the entirety of “The Real World” trying to figure out how many guys dumped Bow when she was in college, which is just insanity. It makes Dre look especially petty. Isn’t every long-term romantic relationship the end result of a game of musical chairs? His fixation on Bow’s lovelife, which culminates in a disastrous game of “I Never,” might be the least flattering side of Dre we’ve seen yet, which the possible exception of “Andre From Marseille.”

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But “The Real World” winds up being funnier than “Big Night,” thanks to a few lively guest actors, including Jerry Minor and Lindsay Price. Price, who I mostly remember from NBC’s short-lived Lipstick Jungle, gets some great moments as Maisie, whose claims to fame are her appearance on a season of the MTV reality ancestor and her fling with David Spade. But as usual, my most valuable player is Deon Cole, who continues to kill it as Charlie. Charlie is an incredibly weird character, almost reminiscent of Creed Bratton in The Office, and like that character, Charlie has to be used sparingly in order to be fully effective. But Cole slays every line he’s given. His interjection after Josh’s favorable evaluation of Phat Shawn was classic: “I swear to God I wish I would have said that.” He even made the “Thickadamus” line work, and Lord knows it shouldn’t have.

The B-plot finds the kids shooting their own vintage reality show, The Real World: Old People Eating Cheese, which is a concept the folks over at Bunim/Murray have to be kicking themselves for failing to come up with. It was a fun story even while much of it didn’t make any sense, and it had a sweet ending as Zoey and Junior watch their footage reveal itself as a redemption arc. It’s great that the kids’ story dovetailed with the main plot in the end, but it was too little, too late. Black-ish, like most married couples, doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself when the kids aren’t around.

Stray observations:

  • First a housekeeping matter: Due to other engagements, the classy and talented Pilot Viruet had to turn over Black-ish duty to yours truly. I’ll be closing out the season.
  • Bow is apparently a huge David Spade fan.
  • Dre on his extensive documentation of Phat Shawn: “It’s called ambient B-roll, and I need it. We need it. I need it.”
  • Jack really understands what it means to be a Teamster.

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