Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Black-ish won't tell you how to vote, it wants you to know your vote matters

Black-ish
Black-ish
Image: ABC
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In order to really appreciate Black-ish’s two-part “Election Special,” understand it’s really a standalone sketch show that just so happens to involve the cast of Black-ish and an animated Black-ish episode smashed together. As a series of sketches and bits designed to educate the American public on voting, the first half, directed by Oscar winner Matthew Cherry, works. Laurence Fishburne’s storybook telling of voter disenfranchisement is up there with the best of what School House Rock has to offer. At a time when there are so many Dr. Umar-clones spreading misinformation about voting, Black-ish’s “Election Special” is full of family-friendly moments you can send to frustrated and/or frustrating relatives prior to Election Day.

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As an episode of Black-ish though? Longtime viewers of Black-ish (and most Black people) won’t find much new ground covered in part one. It’s great to see the Black-ish cast back together, but the premise is so out of line with the characters we know, it feels as though any sitcom could’ve taken on the story. Junior is a goofy Type-A personality who goes from being completely ignorant of how to even Google “voter registration” to being Dre’s campaign manager in part two.

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It’s easy enough to accept Junior’s character contortions for the premise of a one-off special, but it feels unnecessary. Junior only has to play dumb because the episode wants us to believe he’s inspired by...his father handing him a YouTube video of an Obama speech Junior must’ve missed when it was circulating on Twitter? Part One’s script, written by Eric Horsted, perhaps would’ve fit better with the better, fantastical elements of the second half if Dre was the one who was unregistered rather than Junior. Dre being radicalized by voting registration frustrations, which leads to a secret-cake-induced animated nap where he then runs for office against his boss, would’ve made more sense than Junior’s distracting character assassination. Marcus Scribner is always wonderful as Junior, but it doesn’t make sense for Junior to be this dumb.

Part One brings to mind one of Black-ish’s oldest criticisms: Who is this for? Just as Junior should know these basics of Black history, most Black-ish viewers know them, too—probably from watching Black-ish for 6 years now. Anyone who needs to learn the lessons in Part One most likely wrote the show off long ago. What could be an opportunity for Black-ish to play to the humor of its characters and audience while covering voter disenfranchisement is lost. Luckily, strong sketch premises save the day: specifically, Tracee Ellis Ross dancing as the Voting Rights Act.

Black-ish
Black-ish
Photo: ABC (AP)

Part One doesn’t show us the characters we’ve come to know and what they care about, but that doesn’t seem to be its goal. At the end of the special, all the Johnsons think voting is important (except maybe Diane), but we don’t know how any of them actually feels about this election. Since the show’s October 21st season premiere will undoubtedly cover those topics, I’m not too upset the special has a bit of a bipartisan lean. Black-ish’s “Election Special” isn’t going to tell you who to vote for, it just wants you to know why your vote matters.

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Part two, written by Graham Towers and Ben Deeb, works much better than the first half. Cherry’s animated direction works incredibly well with Black-ish’s brand of humor. Part Two works because it does what Black-ish does best: making a fool out of Dre so everyone else can learn a valuable lesson. Deeb and Towers’ script writes Junior as Junior is supposed to be (a political nerd who knows the details of campaign management) and all the pieces are in place. If the special were just part two, I’d give it a higher grade. Instead, it’s just a little frustrating there are so many missed opportunities for part one to match the creativity of part two it impacts the special as a whole.

Part Two is a near perfect Black-ish episode. It takes on a serious topic—campaign fundraising—and breaks it down while poking fun at the characters’ own moral impurities. Kenya Barris playing the sleazy campaign sponsor who leads Dre astray is a perfect example of that and it’s hilarious. Without it, Black-ish often relies on the shallow shorthand of an Obama reference and the hope it’s supposed to provide.

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Stray observations

  • I loved Kenya Barris’ cameo. I also think Matthew Cherry had a cameo sitting next to Rainbow in the audience. Stacey Abrams was also wonderful.
  • I liked the choice to play the animation mostly straight in the Black-ish universe, but the few throw away gags they did have were great: Dre being slowly stripped on stage, the eagle, Janine being pushed onto a cactus.
  • I loved Dre’s line about Clinton only jogging when a McDonald’s was involved.
  • The “Sorry, kinda been on my own show” Zoey joke was...not my favorite thing, but I’m sure someone out there enjoyed that.
  • Dean Cole is just as hilarious as animated Charlie.
  • “Problem is white men don’t know how to be bored, that’s why they’re always opening up vineyards.”
  • Black Twitter Digest should be a real thing.
  • Tracee Ellis Ross is truly a comedy queen and I’d love to see her to do more sketch comedy. I’m even more excited for her upcoming animated show now.
  • “Look at you out here breaking stereotypes! I told you he could read.”
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Ashley Ray-Harris is a stand-up comic and writer.

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