Television blackish

Published on December 20th, 2017 | by Ian Goodwillie



We don’t often trumpet sitcoms at The Feedback Society, but Black-ish pushes beyond that genre description to create a smart show about race and more.

As the 2018 Golden Globe nominations came out, I was looking for a few specific names in every category. Some I found and others I didn’t. But there were two nominations in particular that I was overjoyed to see; Black-ish for Best TV Series – Musical or Comedy and Anthony Anderson from Black-ish for Best performance by an Actor in a TV Series – Musical or Comedy.

They are both well-deserved nominations, though one for Tracee Ellis Ross would have been equally well-deserved and appropriate. Keeping in mind that she did win the Golden Globe last year, chalk her name under the snub category alongside Tiffany Haddish and more if you’re inclined to keep track of such things.

If you’re not familiar with the show then you haven’t been living within shouting distance of me for the past three and a half seasons. I won’t shut the f@#k up about it.

Just ask the editor of The Feedback Society.

[Editor’s Note: it’s true.]

Created by Kenya Barris, Black-ish is a single-camera sitcom telling the story of the Johnsons, an upper middle class African American family living in Los Angeles. Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson Sr. works for a successful marketing firm while Dr. Rainbow Johnson, his wife, is an anesthesiologist. They have five children, four at the start of the series, that include a set of fraternal twins named Jack and Diane. Dre’s parents, who are divorced and generally seem to hate each other, also live with them.

The success of this series starts with its cast. Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross play Dre and Rainbow, and their astonishing chemistry is the foundation of this show. But it’s also loaded with other fantastic actors. All the Johnson children are outstanding, and only getting better. Dre’s co-workers are ludicrous and infuriating but still, somehow, believable. Deon Cole is a revelation as is Nicole Sullivan as the Johnson’s unintentionally (hopefully) racist neighbor. Dre’s parents are played by Jenifer Lewis and Laurence Fishburne. Need I say more about how awesome that is? Not enough? Jump on IMDB to take a look at the guest stars on this show and the depth of its talent is immediately apparent.

The cast promote the relatable family dynamic on this show. A household with two working parents trying to raise kids with the direct support of their extended family. It seems like typical sitcom fodder but Black-ish takes everything a step further. At the very least, Black-ish is one of the most effective explorations of race in America today.

The marketing firm Dre works for is primarily staffed by white people with few black co-workers. That being said, two of them are played by comedians Deon Cole and Wanda Sykes, whose character is one of the owners. Until this season, Dre and Rainbow’s school age children go to a private school that is primarily white. Rainbow was raised by hippie parents, her mother black and her father white. Alternatively, Dre’s parents are in many ways stereotypically black and raised him in Compton.

Overall, Black-ish juggles a number of culturally sensitive balls while managing to derive comedy from all of this.

Dre’s co-workers are almost cartoonishly white and out of touch, which is important both for the larger conversation as well as the comedy. On the other hand, Dre can be as larger-than-life and out of touch when it comes to his opinions on…well, virtually everything. As ludicrous as his work place is, he is worse than them at times and perfectly so.

The school setting offers many opportunities to explore the nature race in education. In one of the series most amazing episodes, Jack, one of the twins, drops the n-word in a performance at school. This leads to a big conversation about when that word is appropriate and acceptable, if ever. It’s one of the funniest and most impactful episodes of the series.

Rainbow’s mixed-race heritage, and hippie upbringing, is a huge part of the series. There are times where she and Dre have trouble connecting because of how different some of their childhood experiences were. Dre’s parents grew up and raised kids in a much different era than he and Rainbow are, coloring their advice and opinions with their own histories and experiences. He struggles to satisfy them while still trying to change with the times. Alternatively, he has to work hard to keep his kids from changing too much. Rainbow shares this struggle, too, though from a different perspective. Her oldest son bringing home a white girlfriend fosters some interesting internal struggles for Rainbow. Anytime the characters of Black-ish are forced to tackle their own racial biases inevitably becomes epic TV.

But Black-ish doesn’t stop there. It explores sexuality and its relationship to black culture through Dre’s sister. A recent season four episode tackled post-partum depression through Rainbow’s recent pregnancy. They handled the reality of post-partum depression more effectively than any other TV show I can think of. Tracee Ellis Ross deserves an award just for that episode. The female characters frequently explore the status of women in society from a number of angles. And if you want to see Black-ish at its finest, just watch the episode that discusses Trump’s election. No other show has tackled the mixed feelings following that night with more intelligence and tact.

Initially, Black-ish reminded me of The Cosby Show. That series presented a view on the African-American family that most people weren’t used to seeing. And it was funny. But you go back and look at it now and you start realizing that so much of the reality of America and the black experience was glossed over. Sure, it showed a successful black family raising children with the support of an extended family but it avoided the concepts that Black-ish leans into and instills with comedy. I say that while keeping in mind that was probably more because The Cosby Show wasn’t allowed explore those issues and not because those behind the series didn’t want to explore such ideas.

Black-ish is a show that’s willing to take big chances that pay off in a big way, both in the content they choose and in how they present it. Animated sequences. Flashbacks. Musicals. All of that combined with Anthony Anderson’s narration of each episode creates a sense of anything is possible and that nothing is taboo. And all of this is done in primetime on ABC. Cable channels and prestige TV generally have more latitude to take bigger risks than network TV but look at what they do with it. Or, to be more precise, what they don’t do with it.

For me personally, this is one of the most important shows on TV. I’m white. I’m not so white that I drink Starbucks but I’m still white enough to listen to Kanye. Black-ish is a comedy I can watch with my wife and my kids, and we all laugh. It has encouraged conversations with my children, boys ages 6 and 8 who are white and have questions about how the world treats people who don’t look like them. They go to school with kids from around the world, with different backgrounds, skin colors, and religions. It’s not like they don’t know this but it’s also not something that factors into their choices about who they do and don’t play with. They just have friends.

The “n-word” episode was important to us because they wanted to know more about why it was bad word. We talked about it. The history of it. The power of it. The reality of it. And why it is not their word to say.

Find me another comedy that encourages families to come together and have conversations like that.

This is a show that matters. Black-ish makes impactful statements about race, gender, sexuality, and more with genuinely funny, interesting, and inventive stories that elevate the sitcom genre. It does racial comedy brilliantly without being racist and challenges cultural stereotypes without enforcing them. If there ever was a show that deserved recognition, this is the one.

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About the Author

Ian Goodwillie

is an established freelance writer, a regular contributor to both Prairie books NOW and The Winnipeg Review. He also writes two blogs that very few people pay attention to, a Twitter feed no one follows, and film scripts that will never see the light of day. He is very fulfilled by his career choice.

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