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You can’t pick your family and neither can the Johnsons, on Black-ish

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At the bare minimum, Halloween on Black-ish is the perfect excuse to see the Johnsons in adorable family costumes. That may not sound like much, but it really does mean a lot: Just take a look at Jack dressed as the Obama family dog, Bo, in this episode. There is such a thing as cuteness overload, and that is it.


Even flashback Dre in 1985 fits the adorable bill as the makeshift (read “broke”) Silver Surfer, complete with ironing board surfboard. And outside of the adorable sphere, Bow looks absolutely gorgeous as Michelle Obama. For these reasons alone, “Jacked O’ Lantern” is a success of a Halloween Black-ish episode. Outside of that criteria, however, this episodes lack a little someone in comparison to last season’s “The Prank King.” Part of that is because “Jacked O’ Lantern” is an episode that’s more about the individual goals of the various Johnson family members (Dre, Bow, and the kids also count as one) than it is one large goal (last season’s prank attempts). But also, like most episodes of Black-ish, this is supposed to show parallels between the generations, but it ultimately shows a struggle in terms of creating a balancing act.

On the off-chance anyone forgot, Black-ish episodes tend to begin with one of Dre’s “started from the bottom” voice overs, and this week, we learn that he went from stealing money from his mom’s purse for a bus pass to the good candy neighborhoods to actually living in a good candy neighborhood.


That’s not the crux of the episode though, because it’s more about the concept of extended family and how you interact with them. A “flashback” to last year’s Black-ish episode is used as an entryway for the kids’ “hood cousins,” and that’s when we get to the real episode—which just so happens to feature the worst version of Dre.


Dre’s obsession with toughening or “blackening” his kids up up makes perfect sense in episodes where their sheltered, somewhat spoiled upbringing clouds their judgment. But sometimes it’s just plain nonsense, and that’s what you get here. The word “roughhousing” is used a lot in this episode, but it ultimately comes down to “bullying” or “fighting.” Somehow, Dre’s nieces and nephews who come to his neighborhood for trick-or-treating every year (without even some half-assed costumes, considering everything we know about them) are given a free pass to beat up his kids and take their candy… And somehow Dre’s logic is that making his kids “harder” is the lesson, instead of there being any lesson about his nieces and nephews being bullies who can’t do things for themselves and have to mooch off others. Not even trick-or-treating.


It’s over-thinking it, for sure, but given the other times when Dre has wanted to prevent his kids from being “soft,” there’s an inherent weakness in this one: He does those for their own good and to teach them a sense of maturity and responsibility and an understanding of the real world. That maturity and responsibility doesn’t even exist in the children who are supposedly teaching the lesson. Then the audience and Dre’s kids are eventually supposed to feel bad for them.

Understandably, this is supposed to be a parallel to Dre’s actual relationship with his very stereotypical cousin June Bug (Michael Strahan); as Dre goes on and on about being an “educated gangster,” the facade immediately goes away with June Bug’s very physical arrival and the introduction of the nickname “Tea Kettle.” As much as June Bug lacks depth, unlike the “hood cousins,” the best thing about him is how much Black-ish leans into him being an absolute stereotype. After all, given the stories Dre tells on a regular basis, there had to be at least one absolute stereotype in his life.


Black-ish is aware enough to make every black character different, and just by virtue of being a convicted felon who already has the appropriate wardrobe to be In Da Club era 50 Cent for Halloween, June Bug definitely counts as “different.” Just look at Charlie. On the surface, he might look stereotypical, but the more we learn about the character, the less he resembles any other character on the show or any actual person at all. June Bug, on the other hand, is so stereotypical, he vaguely resembles some real person while still almost being a cartoon.

However, Michael Strahan isn’t really given much to do with the character, other than tell Dre that he sounds stupid and physically abuse him. In fact, the best parts of the character are the moments that treat him more like a stereotypical black folk legend than anything he actually does. Plus, it could just be my heartless nature, but the end result being that June Bug ultimately was a “good” big brother figure to Dre doesn’t work as well when there’s a throwaway line about him kidnapping girls.


As far as guest characters go, when you have interchangeable “hood cousins,” you have just that—interchangeable hood cousins—and the same goes for a character that’s branded a stereotype from his first mention. With the former, that’s actually a big reason why it’s so easy to focus on how little sense they make, because there’s nothing really there. Each one has a ridiculous name, but they slip away from memory just as quickly as they’re said. We know that they’re not quite sure who their fathers are and that they can’t afford name brand clothing. One likes Taco Bell. A lot.

This is an episode that really falls victim to the type of a show it actually is, a family sitcom on ABC. As much as Black-ish isn’t afraid to go places, that ultimately fails when it has to give the shiny happy people ending to the episode. This is a very weird episode—which is a good thing—but the “we all love each other” endings to the kids’ and Dre’s plots shows kind of a lack of commitment to that weirdness. Everyone is content to withstand a lifetime of bullying from their family members they barely like, because that’s what you have to do. Now that’s soft.


The saving grace of all of this is that “Jacked O’ Lantern” is a very funny episode, especially when it comes to the visuals. It kind of has to be with as much weak characterization as there is in these guest characters and the even the plots themselves. This is an episode that brings back nicknames like “Longhead” and “Gurkel,” while also maintaining Ruby’s “no offense” style of offending. Dre’s manly fronts for his actual crying is a gag that the episode sadly doesn’t get more mileage out of, but Tracee Ellis Ross remains a constant treasure in the cast, as Bow’s slow descent into absolute madness—and transformation into “Janine”—keeps that lonely C-plot afloat. This is an episode that hinges on delivery, and everyone in the main cast is completely up to the task; as is Michael Strahan, with the little he has. It’s obvious a lot of effort has gone into this episode, even with the weaker aspects (and that includes the greenscreen shots of the neighborhood from the Johnsons’ front door).

Then there’s the “fight” scene between the Johnson kids and their arriving cousins, and it’s a cinematic scene which simply makes the entire episode. It’s awe-inspiring, and it begs the question of where it even came from on this show and in this episode. The episode is mostly on the same level as last week’s “Churched” (which is also a good episode that falls a bit short), until you factor in this scene, the training montage, and the brief use of the same freeze frame device later. That all bumps it up. It’s an absolute beauty to witness, and as mentioned before, the costumes really make it all come together. It’s also very weird, which as I said before, is a very good thing. The weirder, the better, Black-ish. As long as the weirdness makes sense. Really, Black-ish is lucky this is a holiday episode—it gets some leeway, a chance to be weirder, and the cute costumes are easy distractions.


Stray observations

  • We’ve seen them as the Jackson 5 and the Obamas. What great (possibly black) family will the Johnsons take on next?
  • Woman: “Oh, a tin man!”
    Flashback Dre: “But I’m Silver Surfer.”
  • There is definitely no nagging wife on Black-ish, but Ruby’s “sage” (her advice is rarely on point) wisdom is reaching a strange variation of that. Ruby’s schtick really works best when she’s playing off of Pops, because then the arguments aren’t so one-sided.
  • Flashback Ruby: “I ain’t gon’ never get no afro—I don’t believe in all that!”
  • While Black-ish has all types of black people, I don’t mind Janine (Nicole Sullivan) officially being a white person whose characterization depends on the episode. This week, she doesn’t believe Bow could be a real doctor, she’s worried about older kids getting “turnt up” again, and she hires a Samoan bodyguard from the XFL. The XFL!
  • I’d be more upset Junior didn’t keep mentioning domestic abuse-turned-woman empowerment movies if not for the fact that the subject change immediately led to Jack getting real about his Christopher Columbus coloring book. It’s all even cuter in the dog costume.
  • Bow doing the “you is” speech from The Help is actually scarier than her going on about wanting to eat a child’s face.
  • Bow: “I’m Janine! I’ve always been Janine!”

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