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On Black-ish, the Johnsons need each other

Illustration for article titled On Black-ish, the Johnsons need each other
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All of the Johnsons have to deal with some serious revelations in “The Leftovers,” an episode as sweet as two scoops of ice cream but not so sweet that it’ll kill you like that third scoop. It all started with a family viewing of The Lion King—which seems to happen a lot based on everyone’s reactions. Diane requests that they not fast-forward through Mufasa’s death, which Jack, of course, didn’t know about. He thought they were just fast-forwarding through lion sex. So Jack is hit with the harsh reality that parents sometimes die and asks very earnestly who will be their own meerkat and warthog should Dre and Bow die. They don’t have an answer. That’s not all that surprising considering just how aloof Dre and Bow can sometimes be about how to run their family. Their financial problems, for example, were never really solved, and Dre’s sneaker collection continues to grow. It makes sense that a family that relies on James Brown the accountant would not have a designated legal guardian for their children in the event of their deaths.

Naturally, this turns into a “good, old-fashioned mom-off.” Dre dislikes Bow’s parents and Bow dislikes Dre’s parents. There’s nothing new there. And yet, this particular plot allows Black-ish to really ground that conflict in some real, clear emotional stakes. Bow and Ruby’s rivalry has always yielded some great comedy, especially because Tracee Ellis Ross and Jenifer Lewis play so well against each other. Lewis’ delivery of “is there something wrong with Rainbow?” and the subtle, sly smile that follows is a damn perfect moment. And within the context of deciding who will take care of the kids if something bad were to happen, Bow and Ruby’s rivalry means more than it usually does. The episode doesn’t get too lost in the tension between Bow and Dre about each others’ families though, instead switching focus to Bow and Dre’s emotional responses to thinking about how their kids will fare without them around. The switch happens a little suddenly, with Dre going from fighting with Bow in bed about the issue to getting emotional while making a video of “Dways” (Dre’s Ways, which are posthumous pieces of decidedly unuseful advice for his children) in the blink of an eye. That transition could have been developed a little better, but there’s still great payoff in the form of Dre and Bow sobbing about tilapia.


As with “Black Nanny,” the plot with the kids is a little lighter to balance out the seriousness of Dre and Bow’s dilemma. The episode takes an interesting direction with Jack’s response to the Mufasa reveal. Instead of fixating on the death aspect, he grapples with the fact that his own family lied to him. So the other kids launch a truth-telling campaign, informing Jack that no, three scoops of ice cream doesn’t actually kill you. His art projects don’t go to a basement museum (in fact, they sometimes get eaten). Disneyland isn’t actually closed on July 4. Jack’s gullibility has been a consistent and often adorable facet of the character, and this plot plays with that pretty well. But it’s even better when Diane becomes a victim, too, with Junior informing her that the beloved stuffed frog named Squeezers in her hand isn’t the original Squeezers; Bow and Dre replace the cheap toy weekly to keep it looking fresh. Of all the lies, this one’s the funniest, because it’s kind of a psychotic thing for Bow and Dre to do, and yet at the same time, it shows how much they care. Plus, Diane’s not an easy child to fool like Jack and Junior are. It definitely tracks that she would be the victim of the most outlandish lie. It also tracks that Junior would be victim of the most mean-spirited lie, but I thought he came off as a little too dumb in this particular instance.

When the plots finally intersect, Black-ish really works its magic. Something did feel off about Bow’s sudden decision that Ruby should raise the kids after all. Zoey swoops in and points out that it should be her who takes care of her siblings, and it’s a pleasant little surprise, but it also makes total sense. Zoey’s observation that Ruby’s half-teenger, half-elderly person is hilariously on point and lands much better than Bow’s Trump comparison (in fact, none of the Trump jokes really work). She’s a loving grandma, but who knows what would happen to those kids if she were in charge. Zoey is the obvious candidate, but Bow and Dre never thought about her because they probably didn’t even realize that she’s so close to being a legal adult. One part of season two that I’ve really loved is how we have started to see a lot more depth to Zoey. Sure, she’s still vain as hell, but she’s smart, driven, mature, and caring. This season has really made it clear that selfies and narcissism don’t mean that a person can’t be emotionally complex. Zoey’s breakdown in “Hope” is an understated but brilliant moment. Of all the children, in fact, Zoey is actually the hardest to pin down, not because she’s written inconsistently, as is sometimes the case for Junior, but because she has so many layers to her. In “The Leftovers,” she quietly cares for her siblings and fixes all the problems caused by Mufasagate. It’s a touching and grounded twist, allowing the episode to end on a very honest and sweet note. The Johnsons need Dre and Bow, but it’s always nice to have a solid backup plan.

Stray observations

  • Shoutout to your usual Black-ish correspondent LaToya Ferguson for letting me step in this week. It’s hands down my favorite comedy on television right now, and she’s hands down my favorite person who writes about it.
  • I love that Dre continues to bring his problems to work to get advice from coworkers who always have terrible advice. The Diff’rent Strokes homage was fantastic.
  • Apparently “calls for immediate action” in Dre and Bow’s world means “take lots of tequila shots.”
  • Bow, on the fact that Ruby will probably outlive them: “Evil never dies.”
  • Dre would believe he and Drake are cut from the same cloth.
  • It’s nice to see some familiar faces and hear familiar names throughout the episode, like Gigi and June Bug and Charlie. I miss Charlie.

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