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The series premiere of Mixed-ish goes (a little too far) back to the basics

Photo: Eric McCandless (ABC)
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When it comes to layered subject matter like race and identity, Black-ish has a history of skillfully injecting nuance into these conversations without watering their difficult nature down. The season three episode “Being Bow-racial” is an ideal example of this as Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) mines her own complex relationship with race in order to process her eldest son’s choice to date interracially. There’s this strikingly authentic moment that Bow has with her father, Paul (Beau Bridges), where he shares an anecdote about the moment he realized the world would always see Bow as a Black woman, despite her mixed heritage. “I knew then, way before you had a chance to decide for yourself, that the world had already made that choice for you.” The revelations that follow—how Bow struggled with asserting her own identity, how she processed Junior’s choice in a white partner as a form of rejection—added to a conversation that was so refreshingly sharp, reflective, and, above all else, real.

It’s that kind of thoughtful insight that would rightfully merit excitement for a show like Mixed-ish, Black-ish’s second spin-off series after Freeform’s Grown-ish, which centers on Bow’s childhood and how she and her siblings navigate their biracial identities. The pilot even opens with some promise: a scene with the modern-day Johnsons. Look, there’s Bow and the kids! And there’s Dre, challenging Bow’s Blackness after she mentions that she hasn’t indulged in the Breakin’ franchise (which is nothing to be ashamed of). But once the familiar accoutrements fade into the 80s-set narrative of the new series, that’s where much of the likeness ends, to Mixed-ish’s detriment.

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On one hand, it feels kind of unfair to compare the two: Even if they are inextricably linked to the same canon, these are still very different stories fueled by totally different experiences. On the other hand, if you’re going to call upon that link right at the very top of the series, you’re setting the audience up to expect a certain level of dialogue. Everything about the pilot screams “set-up,” right down to the predictable back-and-forth and easy plot. Well, maybe “easy” isn’t totally accurate in this context—after all, Mixed-ish tasks itself with a making a utopian commune that miraculously side-stepped race for 15 years a functioning part of their backstory. Admittedly, I don’t totally dig the “colorblind is better” implications of that premise, but I get it: Race is weaponized far too easily and any opportunity to get away from that for a while could be alluring to some. But when the commune is busted up by the feds (a moment symbolizing how blissfully ignoring race is not sustainable, perhaps), the Johnsons—Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Alicia (Tika Sumpter), young Bow (Arica Himmel), Johan (Ethan William Childress), and Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris)—must find refuge in the suburbs, where they begin to encounter such “modern” wonders as plumbing and prejudice.

The family’s Bohemian idealism is decimated from every angle. For the kids, their rude awakening comes with the loud, bustling horror that is public school. For Paul and Alicia, it’s Paul’s cartoonishly conservative, law firm-owning father, Harrison Johnson III (Gary Cole, a treasured curator of wonderfully foul characters, at this point). Harrison largely exists as a dispensary of quips that equate to, “Hippies and poor people, amirite?” It’s fine, it’s perfectly serviceable... it’s just unimaginative. I mean, he arrives at the house bearing lacrosse sticks for the kids. The only things missing are a burlap sack of cash emblazoned with dollar signs and a slick twirl of the mustache for the camera. Still, he provides an opposing perspective, which isn’t wholly unnecessary (even if it is myopic and heavily rooted in classism, but hey, it’s the 80s!). The adults are just as much in need of a reality check as the children.

What they probably don’t need is another trope-laden caricature belaboring a stance that is already baked into the premise. And yet here’s Alicia’s sister Denise (Christina Anthony), who breezes in, in a flurry of stereotypes, hot combs, and seemingly late observations about the world “smacking them in the face” and how it’ll eventually force them to choose a side. Truthfully, a lot of Denise’s introduction seems unfair. Like Harrison, she’s there to administer a dose of reality—this time, from the perspective of a Black woman who has no choice but to move throughout the world as a Black woman. Unlike Harrison, it already feels like she’s positioned as the person to laugh at, whereas Paul’s father—whose presentation is just as exaggerated—is the one we are supposed to laugh with. There’s a lot of room for that to change, but the first impression leaves a bad taste in my mouth, through no fault of Denise or Anthony.

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To Denise’s credit, the Johnson family does succumb to the internalized pressures of asserting a specific identity, with Johan and Santamonica leaning into their perceptions of Blackness and whiteness, respectively (leaving Bow stuck in the middle, which we can add to the pile of moments that feel super literal). For Alicia, that also means shedding her hippie image and taking job at Harrison’s law firm, power suit and all. Paul and Bow begin to feel like they are losing their family and old way of life. Then Alicia has to deliver her own nugget of truth to Paul, mid-fight: “You don’t have to change, because you can be how you are anywhere in the world... I’m a Black woman. It’s different for me, and it’s different for our kids.” Assimilation for survival’s sake is an intrinsic part of American life as a person of color, and these moments within the pilot are certainly relatable. But the episode as a whole never digs as deep or as brilliantly as Black-ish’s “Being Bow-racial” does.

It’s hard to predict the trajectory of Mixed-ish based on just one episode. There’s plenty of room for the series to grow and a lot of the episode’s shortcomings could have everything to do with it being a pilot. But as a first look into this new world, it’s amusing at best and underwhelming waste of incredible potential at it’s worst. Like Bow, I’m stuck in the middle, waiting to see how this all turns out.

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Stray Observations

  • One thing that Mixed-ish does share with its predecessor: The kids are clearly the best aspect of the show, especially young comedic prodigy Mykal-Michelle Harris: “Oh, so now you know when and where we’re all gonna die?!”
  • Himmel’s precious, wide-eyed delivery of the line about the “commune near Waco” almost made me forget how terrifying of an idea that was.
  • Almost anything can be drastically improved with narration from Tracee Ellis Ross.
  • Tika Sumpter and Mark-Paul Gosselaar are both deserving of a series vehicle that’ll carry them beyond one season, so here’s hoping that Mixed-ish proves to be a constantly evolving, continuously improving home for them. Plus, they have adorable chemistry.
  • Speaking of Gosselaar, there will never come a time when I gaze upon his face and not feel bitter about the end of Pitch, so there’s that.
  • Denise is described (lovingly, I assume) as a “woman with the personality of a TSA agent,” a description that I’m still trying to process.
  • A heartfelt shout-out to the hair department is in order: Everyone’s tresses looks fantastic.
  • A note: The A.V. Club is just dropping in on the premiere and a few other moments throughout the season.
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