Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross
Photo: ABC

First things first: Thank God and Channing Dungey for a forthcoming fifth season of Black-ish.

Were the Johnsons in real danger of being swept up in the annual broadcast reaping? Probably not. The ratings are still solid, if not stellar, and between the network’s ownership stake and the show’s proximity to a lucrative syndication deal, the financials make sense. (Plus there’s the Freeform spinoff, so ABC clearly wants to be in the Kenya Barris business.)

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But these are strange times for television programming, now that the success of the Roseanne revival has sparked a new push to appeal to “real America’s” allegedly forgotten viewership. Black-ish was already a culturally daring, politically fraught show at the tail end of the Obama era. As the broadcast networks begin pandering to fans of Obama’s predecessor—who, lest we forget, criticized Black-ish directly—it can no longer be taken for granted that the show is comfortable.

Perhaps that general sense of uncertainty is what has made Black-ish’s recent arc about Dre and Bow’s marital struggles so affecting. At a moment when the very existence of this show seems more fortunate and improbable than ever, the two main characters are wondering if their own improbable fortune might be nearing its end. Barris and his team deserve a lot of credit for following through on the idea of Dre and Bow having the kind of genuine communication breakdown that leads couples to file for divorce every single day. Considering most family sitcoms won’t entertain the notion of a marital conflict that extends beyond a single episode, the past few episodes of Black-ish have been risky, groundbreaking television for reasons having nothing to do with its racial satire.

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Credit is also due to Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, who have both turned in stellar performances all season long. Ross is this show’s most valuable player, and it’s never been more apparent than in season four, which has been largely built around her character. The “Dre and Bow on the rocks” story is the culmination of a journey Bow has been on all season. Much of the burden of the Johnsons’ late-in-life baby has fallen on her, after all, between her bout with post-partum depression and struggle to recalibrate her work-life balance. So when their issues boiled over into talk of divorce, the escalation felt abrupt, but not entirely surprising. These two have been putting bandages on deep flesh wounds, and their lack of effort has finally caught up to them.

“Dream Home” finds Dre and Bow at the lowest point we’ve seen them, formally separated and awkwardly sharing custody of the children. By now, the threat of divorce has become so palpable that even Diane was forced to abandon her supervillain facade and confront the real possibility of her parents splitting up. Dre is looking for a more permanent place to live after weeks of living out of hotels, and he’s got his heart set on an ultra-modern bachelor pad that’s much better suited to a Rich Youngsta than an old divorced dad. Bow hates the place for valid reasons, including the “infinity fireplace” that poses as much a danger to Devante as it does to everyone else if Diane is holding the remote.

Of course, Dre and Bow aren’t arguing about anything specific even when they appear to be doing so. They’re still having a macro argument the very idea of being married to each other. The common thread in all their arguments over the past few episodes is the constant talk of how one person always does this and never does that. They’ve turned each other into caricatures, as people tend to do after being married for a while, and since there’s been nothing to interrupt the pattern of dysfunction, they’ve become ever more convinced that the caricature is real and has been there all along. It’s a tough cycle to break out of because there is truth underlying both of their arguments against each other. Bow is a bit too laissez-faire in her approach to parenting in some respects and too strict in others, just like Dre. In every skirmish, they’re both a little bit right and a little bit wrong.

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The circumstances around Dre and Bow’s breakdown are so nuanced and well-observed, even for the first two-thirds of “Dream Home,” a reconciliation seems far from certain. In fact, the first three acts, which are split evenly between Dre and Bow’s perspectives and voiceover accompaniment, spend their time selling the idea of them as separated co-parents. The process is bumpy, sure, and the mutual resentments pile up as stuff starts falling through the cracks of their awkward new routine. But they figure out how to do things on their own, with Dre managing to turn his crash pad into a family-friendly second home for his children, and Bow figuring out how to confront loud noises in the middle of the night.

The characters make a ton of individual growth, but it’s not totally clear how that will impact their relationship with each other. To the extent that Dre and Bow’s reconciliation is inevitable, at some point the writing has to explain how they managed to find their way back together. My hope was for the rationale to be a little more romantic than what finally winds up happening, but this arc isn’t really about romance as it is about how a couple makes a marriage work in the absence of romance. Bow gets the news that her father has passed, and in one sense it’s a bit of a cheat, a contrived emergency designed to give the couple no choice but to come together as a family. But the script acknowledges the possibility that grief has pushed them back together while acknowledging that they have other reasons to make it work. Perhaps grief made Dre originally spring to Bow’s side, but that’s not what made him want to stay. Their resolution is, like some of the best marriages, a complex blend of poetry and pragmatism.

Most importantly, the conclusion feels earned. Dre and Bow’s couples therapist put it best with her analogy about the turkey. They had been paying attention to all the other aspects of their lives and neglecting the foundation upon which all of it is built. Really that’s what Black-ish has always done with regard to Dre and Bow’s marriage. Because of its focus on Dre’s neuroses around raising black children in a relatively affluent environment, Black-ish has always been more of a show about parenting than a show about the push-and-pull of a long-lasting relationship. The happy ending is not only a new start for Dre and Bow, but the knowledge that this show still hasn’t shown off everything it’s capable of, and there’s more on the way.

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Stray observations

  • Dungey had some pretty interesting comments about the now-infamous unaired episode. The whole thing still sounds terribly shady to me.
  • I loved the choice to have Ruby come to Bow’s aid rather than defaulting to blind support of Dre. Their relationship has gotten delightfully complex.
  • I need Pops and Ruby to either figure it out or leave it alone. Those two are so ‘shippable, but so exhausting.
  • Junior is all grown up! It’s so weird that he’s about to be in college. Keep that one home at least another year, I say.

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