That The Hollywood Reporter calls Kenya Barris’s new fall comedy Black-Ish “one of fall’s strongest comedies” of the season is a telltale sign that networks need to produce stronger comedies. Set around the daily routine of an upper-middle-class African American family, Black-ish introduces audiences to a quaint, and at times even funny, family of six who just want to navigate this brave new world of living large in a predominantly white environment.
At its best, Black-ish could facilitate a much-needed alternative to the current landscape of primetime comedy, which often scurries over more serious issues of socioeconomic status, race, and gender. Ironically, in its painfully overt desire to address these issues from a new perspective, Black-ish fails to broaden the representation of minority characters and instead perpetuates the flat, uninspired stereotypes that drove demand for something different. Enough with the ‘ish’ – it’s time to just be black.
The pilot opens with a promising lead character in patriarch Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson (a well-cast Anthony Anderson). Self described as your “standard, handsome, unbelievably charismatic black dude,” Dre’s charm works throughout the pilot to salvage his ridiculous attempts to infuse his children with an appropriate level of black culture. Married to Dre is his “drooling, pigment-challenged mix-raced” wife (Tracee Ellis Ross). While I’m not exactly sure if being mixed-raced deserves mention before the more impressive trait of being a Doctor, Dre’s endearing tone prompts a giggle out of me. Shortly after their introductions, we meet the four Johnson children – a mix of new and familiar talent – and, last but not least, Dre’s dad, Pops (standard Lawrence Fishburne).
The Johnson family is in many ways the same TV family that we’ve seen so many times before: they’re polished but realistic, genuine but also age appropriate. Confined within the household, this show works. Outside their manicured lawn, however, things take a turn for the worst.
In a scene at the beginning of the pilot, Dre acknowledges that he sometimes feels “like a bit of an oddity” as he stoops to get the morning paper. His routine is interrupted by a fantasy sequence, which shows a Hollywood tour bus stopped in front of the house. Suddenly, the entire Johnson family appears in perfectly coordinated urban-chic outfits, waving to the group of tourists. Cameras in hand, these tourists snap away while a Rebel Wilson wannabe tour guide marvels at this out-of place black family. “Go ahead and wave,” she prompts the tourists, “they’ll wave right back.” Perhaps this scene would be better suited in the 1984 series The Cosby Show, but this is 2014.
This is just one of several exaggerated scenes during the pilot where the attempt to elicit laughter while also making some sort of social commentary falls short. Similar scenes unfold as the audience follows Dre to work, where he encounters co-workers who try to speak “black” and a boss who promotes Dre to SVP of Urban Affairs instead of just, well, Regular Affairs. In response, Dre creates a presentation that depicts a more realistic version of urban life and nearly gets fired. Instead of pushing against his boss and sticking to his guns, Dre changes the presentation and spews a few sappy lines about finding good balance. In subsequent episodes, it is actually Dre’s wife who proves to be the stronger representation of race in the workforce. She faces conflict as a doctor but the presence of race and gender in this moment is more nuanced and takes a back seat to a comical interaction with her youngest daughter.
Similar moments in the pilot that work particularly well mainly take place around the multi-generational interactions between characters; notably scenes between Andre Jr., Dre, and Pops. Andre Jr. (perfectly cast Marcus Scribner) aptly depicts the major generational and racial tensions that stem from growing up in a predominately white affluent environment. When Dre pushes Andre Jr. to join the basketball team, Andre Jr. instead expresses interest in joining the field hockey team. When Dre organizes a black roots coming-of-age ceremony in response to Andre Jr.’s Bar Mitzvah request, Pops intervenes and sarcastically suggests just watching the movie, Roots.
When thirty minutes come to a close, all is seemingly well again with the Johnson family and their skin tone. I, however, was left less than satisfied. While this show does indeed mark a solid effort to introduce audiences to a wider range of experiences, the show has yet to fully gain its footing or its humor. Looking to the future, I’m not completely writing off Black-Ish, but I will definitely think twice before using another thesis study break to return to the Johnsons.
Grade: B –
A family comedy that seeks to impress, Black-ish leaves a lot to be desired.