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On Black-ish, the meaning of Christmas begins with “Stuff”

Illustration for article titled On Black-ish, the meaning of Christmas begins with “Stuff”
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Last year’s Christmas episode of Black-ish gave us the classic Ruby-ism that “black people can’t be racist” while also giving us a tunnel vision Dre who was obsessed with being Santa. It was a battle of black Santa versus Latina Santa, and it all ended in an auto-tuned shopping spree courtesy of the Johnson youngsters. This year, there are still plenty of Ruby-isms, but the tunnel vision isn’t all on Dre; it actually falls more on Pops and the kids this time around. Such is the power of “Stuff.” Black-ish has yet to create an all-time great Christmas episode, but it’s done very well with what it has so far. The commercialization of Christmas is such an easy target, and teaching the “true meaning of Christmas” is essentially the baseline for any Christmas episode. But Black-ish has proven many times that it can still succeed even when it’s not reinventing the storytelling wheel.

Here, that success comes in the form of another Pops/Dre storyline, which is an easy winner. While not necessarily exclusive to the black experience, Dre’s memories about his literally effortless, brine-filled Christmases as a child certainly speak truth to any situation in which parents’ financial standing prevents them from giving their children all of the “stuff” they want. As a matter of fact, the one time I can really remember getting multiple Christmas presents growing up also ended with me breaking my ankle. So pickles don’t sound so bad when you think of it that way. (Plus, kids—and Dre—love pickles!) After the emotional punch of “Dr. Hell No,” this episode is a reminder of how good Black-ish can be when it goes to that father-son emotional well. The Pops/Dre scenes are the realest part of the show, in absolute contrast to the conference room scenes at Dre’s work—both are absolutely great but for different reasons.


Speaking of the conference room scenes in this episode, they remain the most delightfully absurd part of the series, and Wanda Sykes’ Daphne is a fantastic addition to the series. Sykes already feels right at home on Black-ish, especially when it comes to Daphne versus poor Lucy.

Stevens: “Stuff makes the world go ‘round, Dre. Especially our world. We’re ad men.”
Daphne: “And women.”
Lucy: “Amen, sister.”
Daphne: “Do I seem like someone you should be that comfortable with?”

Daphne: “And no matter what, I know my Christmas is gonna be better than Lucy’s?
Lucy: “What, because I’m Jewish?”
Daphne: “No. Because you’re boring. I didn’t know you were Jewish.”

Daphne: “You know, I’m just gonna go grab Chinese with the sad Jewish girl from work.”

The moment Dre finally questions Pops’ “old school Christmas” and how a Church’s Chicken meal “fresh out the box” has anything to do with the message of too much “stuff,” you know the real, emotional moment is going to come for the two of them. There’s no way it can’t. But prior to that, Pops’ presence is just so absolutely Pops. The fact that he apparently hasn’t been giving the kids lunch meats for Christmas gifts the entire time is the biggest surprise of the episode. Because when it comes to Pops, his “old school,” “Pops knows best” approach to everything works because he’s not an out-of-touch character. On the contrary, he’s well aware of how things are these days, but he’s also aware that his ways—as negligent as they may have been—worked in raising a pretty great, successful son. In this particular episode, Dre says he became the man he is now “in spite” of Pops’ upbringing. I’d say it’s a little bit from column A and a little from column B, and when the episode quiets down to discuss that, it’s some of the best, most honest work on the show. Dre’s resignation and Pops’ contrition in that final scene is just quality writing from Corey Nickerson’s script and acting from Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne. After last week’s Charlie departure, Black-ish is easily proving that it knows a thing or two about how to make an audience teary-eyed.

Bow’s adventure is one that teeters on the line of being either very subtle or just too little. Her half-assed commitment to volunteering (during one of the busiest holidays to volunteer, of course) is great paired with the rest of the family’s downright contempt for it. And, of course, Tracee Ellis Ross makes every thing she’s given work, little or big. But it’s also sort of a half-assed commitment when it comes to the storyline itself, even for a C-plot. This is most evident during the scene where Bow shows up at Dre’s work—which hopefully the show finds a way to do more—when everyone is telling Bow how awful she looks… and it’s basically impossible to believe that if not for everyone saying it. The fact that she has to get up at 3:30 a.m. for volunteering built that up, but the actual post-volunteering scene doesn’t deliver. Her hair is kind of a mess though.


And this is an episode where Junior eventually looks like absolute death after a poisonous spider bite, so if you don’t come to win, you might as well not play.

The Johnson kids being spoiled (and evil masterminds) is obviously no true revelation going into this episode, and it’s actually reason interesting to see Black-ish refuse to demonize them for that (prior to the secret Christmas scene). Dre and Bow know that they caused this, and they honestly encourage it when not under the watchful eye of Pops. That’s the type of parenting that leads to their children plotting to have them cave on the new one present rules, and that gives us the MVP of the kids’ plot in Junior. Before it gets into deadly territory, the funniest part of it all is how Diane’s brush-off reason for getting Junior to leave actually ends up being true—absence really does make the heart grow fonder, and Junior is (well, “was”) Andre’s favorite child in his absence. The sight gag of Junior under the bed while his parents talk about how much they love him is up there with Junior hacking into the main frame back in “Rock, Paper, Scissor, Gun.” It’s love that probably drains during the secret Christmas scene, though, since the kids truly are “monsters” during the scene due to the culture that their parents created.


But it’s still really no way to act on Black Jesus’ birthday (not Black Jesus’ birthday, but at least they’re able to hug it out in the end.

Stray observations

  • I also got those plastic skates as a child, and they really were the worst. However, unlike Dre, I actually learned how to skate and moved on to real rollerblades.
  • Pops: “Boy, you know you love pickles.”
    Dre: “Not for Christmas, I don’t!”
    Pops: “Well you ate ‘em like you loved ‘em!”
    Bow: “You do love pickles, babe.”
    Dre: “Bows!”
    Ruby: “Y’all talkin’ about how my baby loves pickles?”
  • Dre: “Daphne, I invited you. Tuesday.”
    Daphne: “Does lyin’ make you feel like a man, Dre?”
  • The kids were pretty terrible, but I want to know why Dre and Bow thought it was a good idea to get any of the kids a goldfish, especially Jack.
  • Junior: “I disappeared myself for a gift card to J. Crew?!?” You know, Junior may have actually had a reason to be ungrateful. He almost died!
  • Pick a song: “Happy Birthday (Black Jesus)” or “For He’s A Jolly Good Savior”?

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