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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“The Johnson Show” does what Black-ish does best: It keeps it real

Illustration for article titled “The Johnson Show” does what Black-ish does best: It keeps it real
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“Growing up with a single mom who worked all the time, I made best friends with my TV. Watching TV expanded my world. It showed me how different I was from other people. It made me want a family like the Keatons or the Seavers or the Bradys. The only problem is: They didn’t look like me. It wasn’t until the Huxtables that I saw the family I could be. And current controversy aside, that show made this 11-year-old black boy believe one day, he too could have a perfect family just like that. A family anchored by two loving parents, who have amazing careers. And now I have that.”

I was never a Cosby Show kid. While, like Dre, I was essentially raised by TV and got a lot of exposure to white families in sitcoms like Growing Pains and The Brady Bunch, the black family sitcoms that drew me in were The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and early, grounded Family Matters. The Bankses were that aspirational television family to me; Uncle Phil was a powerful lawyer-turned-judge and Aunt Viv (number one, at least) was a highly-educated professor. Then, even Boy Meets World eventually came out with the representation in the character Angela and by pairing her up with Shawn Hunter, which allowed me (a black girl with a white step-father) to see a couple that looked sort of like my parents, on TV. It allowed me to see an interracial relationship be treated as important and not abnormal. Then there was The Bernie Mac Show, and I’ve said it before, but I believe Black-ish and The Carmichael Show do a great job filling that television void as well.

It helps that “The Johnson Show” is a perfect Black-ish episode from top to bottom. Obviously, this season’s “Hope” was the most poignant episode of the series and allowed Black-ish to be experimental without going into full gimmick mode, but as far as “typical” Black-ish episode go, “Hope” doesn’t quite fit that criteria. “The Johnson Show,” however, manages to take all of Black-ish’s strength as a family sitcom with heart—and better yet, a brain—and make something both relevant and hilarious. It doesn’t do so by making it a Very Special Episode or something that feels like an outlier. It just begins with a smoke screen plot that feels tailor-made for Dre to go “full Dre” and drive everyone else insane.


The fact that the lay-off plot at Stevens & Lido (aka Lido & Stevens, aka Lido’s Place) doesn’t turn into one about masculinity, machismo, gender norms, and everything in between is basically a black Jesus-sent miracle, given Dre’s past obsessions. As usual, there’s practically a countdown clock until Dre lets his co-workers get into this head, but the clock never runs out this time around. When Pops try to bring the husband-wife dynamics into the discussion, Dre doesn’t take the bait, which even makes for the most pleasantly surprising part of the episode. Instead, Dre approaches this as pragmatically as he can, even doing his best to learn about rural markets and blood removal in order to secure his position at Stevens & Lido.

Plus, it’s simply just a tight plot, which can go a long way. Because while it’s easy to assume that everything will be alright for Dre because of his position as head of “black stuff,” the episode immediately shuts that down (and makes Dre possibly expendable) with one simple and true analogy from Stevens, of all people:

“Okay, put it this way: The day I learned what ‘on fleek’ meant was the day that the urban market was no longer ‘on fleek’.”

Of course cultural appropriation turns the urban market into just “the market.”

Having Dre focus on having the perfect black family like the Huxtables falls in line with Dre’s notable obsession with appearances, but the longer the episode goes on, the clearer it becomes as a reaction to something more. It’s not just The Cosby Show that made him want to have more: It’s the institutional pressure to have more because of the “desires” or ”expectations” from outsiders to see a black man and a black family fail.


Then Bow has the added pressure of being a woman who works—a lot—and can’t always be the PTA mom for her kids, as much as she wants to be the real life I Don’t Know How She Does It. Bow, being Bow, wants to do and have it all, which is how we get the auction without the help of the “committee of moms.” Bow’s belief that if “you ask for help…you look weak” falls 100% into the same cultural realm as Dre’s plot but it’s not even until Bow reveals that she regularly asks herself “What Would Clair Huxtable Do?” that it all clicks. There aren’t just plots about attaining perfection, as relatable as that may be to a wider audience.

Pops: “Son, you haven’t failed.”
Dre: “Yet. But there people out there, waiting for me to.”


This is ultimately all a plot about that phrase every black kid hears at least once in their life: “You have to be twice as good to get half as far.” That’s not just something Shonda Rhimes had as part of Scandal, and Black-ish understands and depicts that with this episode. And it does it through the adults, when the “obvious” choice would probably be to make this lesson one for the kids. The episode also addresses the argument that when one falls behind, it sets the rest behind too, as unfair as that is. It’s all unfair, and if there’s one thing to admire about Dre, through all of his faults, it’s that he never forgets how unfair it is (without making excuses) and wants to make sure his family is prepared for that as well.

Bow: “Both Janine and Blair both said, and I quote: ‘I’m having the best night of my life.’ End quote.”
Dre: “Well a mom came up to me and said, quote: ‘Your family is so good-looking, it makes me want to drown my family.’ End quote. We’re killing it, babe!”
Bow: “Ah, I love killing. I am a killer.”
Dre: “Uh…”
Bow: “Well, not at work.”


It’s great to see Dre and Bow achieve their perfect family and perfect auction status, not just because it keeps them from momentarily spinning out, but because it actually looks amazing. Black-ish doesn’t really need or use many sets, but the scenes at the auction really stand out because of the different location. Plus, these scenes make it even more apparent that Black-ish’s world is a bit claustrophobic at times: In just their one scene together, Bow, Blair, and Janine already have one of the funniest and most fascinating dynamics in the entire series. There’s no reason why there can’t be more of this, especially as Black-ish becomes more and more Dre and Bow’s show, not just Dre’s.

And if I haven’t made it clear, the episode is really funny and not just because Ruby turns the children into “black thieves” through a flimsy excuse about gift cards in relation to the Bible. Bow’s plot is perfect from the second she lies to children about ice cream, and as usual, Tracee Ellis Ross is on fire throughout the entire episode. Dre’s honestly more of a straight man in this episode because of his version of “perfection,” and it turns out he’s actually much better in this more self-aware role… Even when he’s going on a rant trying to defend his “momma.” Also, both Ruby and Pops’ introductions in this episode have them appear out of nowhere, like magic, which is especially notable since they’re both the worst possible versions of “mystical negroes” in this episode.


Plus, there’s the Cosby Show credits beat, which is always worth it. Always. “The Johnson Show” really is Black-ish—pure Black-ish—at its best.

Stray observations

  • Black-ish honestly goes pretty easy on the episode’s subject matter by avoiding any actual “you’re so well-spoken” or “you’re not like most black people” moments. It helps that Blair’s the character Bow and Dre see with the coded language, since based on what we know about her character so far, she’s pretty direct and that leaves things open for the coded language to just be ridiculous Johnson family paranoia at first. Janine, on the other hand, would definitely be the type (and has been the type) to have a double-meaning behind her compliments. Plus, Brittany Daniel deserves snaps for reciting those long backhanded compliments.
  • Dre (V.O.): “Okay, so my mom is a little crazy, and my pops is too.” Dre is almost too self-aware in this episode.
  • Junior: “FLOTUS like a butterfly!”
    Zoey: “Stink like a brie!”
    Bow (after the kids’ adorable handshake): “That is perfect! You guys really are my children.”
    Junior: “I hate myself.”
    Zoey: “I hate you too. You led me down this path.”
  • Dre can’t say “rural,” so maybe this will help him.
  • Pops: “Oh calm down, boy. Everybody gets laid off. I told you, even I got laid off.”
    Dre: “You did not get laid off. You were escorted out by the police, because you embezzled 12 grand.”
    Pops: “Reparations! And not even close to what they owe us.”
    Dre: “I don’t believe Smitty’s Matress Shack owed us reparations.”
    Pops: “Well, not anymore they don’t.”
  • Zoey: “Wait a minute. Eight people got shot.”
    Dre: “… But we didn’t do it!” The entire “fingers crossed”/flashback scene is absolutely amazing and not just because Bow and Dre chestbump each other. It’s real as hell, and it’s also definitely the type of moment that would have misinformed folks call Black-ish racist.
  • I‘m surprised that Bow’s “no theme” theme worked out, but not as surprised as Janine, who is basically on her way to a mental breakdown after this episode.
  • Blair: “I’m kind of happy there’s no theme. … Yeah, I didn’t have to dress up like a sexy flapper or a sexy hippy. It’s such a relief just to be sexy.”
  • Bow: “Dre, my theme is ‘fraud.’”
    Dre: “Could be.”
  • Dre: “I read some place that nobody even uses their gift cards.” Except he didn’t read that—he heard it from his thieving mom. And honestly, I’m pretty sure Ruby’s gift card theory doesn’t take into account the gift card use ratio for black people (who don’t) versus white people (who do).
  • Jenifer Lewis says so many things in her own special Jenifer Lewis way, but there’s just something about the way she says “vase” and almost has a heart attack over it that’s just… It’s so simple, but so perfect—just like her time on The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.
  • The Charlie reveal at the very end of the episode is the icing on the cake (no pun intended), but it would have been even better if the credits hadn’t revealed Deon Cole’s name the moment Stevens entered the room.

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