‘Black-ish’ Stumbles, Shows Potential

ABC's new family comedy, "black-ish," takes a fun yet bold look at one man's determination to establish a sense of cultural identity for his family. The series stars Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross and special guest star Laurence Fishburne. –ABC/Adam Taylor

If you were asked what TV show you get when you take two black parents, mix in high-paying jobs, a house full of children, a suburban home and a meddling grandparent, the only options you’d have had before Wednesday night were “Family Matters’’ and “The Cosby Show.’’

“Black-ish,’’ the new ABC series created by Kenya Barris, has added itself to that conversation by taking its basic structure from the two classic shows and updating it for a brave, new world.

Judging from the pilot, the show may very well have been pitched or requested as “The Post-Obama Cosbys.’’ The original is one of the best shows of all time, and its newest predecessor makes a point to touch on many of the subjects Cliff and Clair wouldn’t: the latest wave of our country’s co-opting of black culture, and the growing presence of black faces in different segments of society. Many issues the Huxtables tackled — the Civil Rights era and its place in the hearts and minds of generations since, black masculinity, skin tone, and a connection to Africa — are also covered. That’s all in the span of a single episode — with mixed results.

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The show follows the Johnson family: Dre, as played by Anthony Anderson, is an ad executive at a highly competitive firm. Tracee Ellis Ross’ Rainbow is a surgeon. Their oldest son, Marcus Scribner’s Andre, is a freshman in a predominantly white high school with Jewish friends, and Laurence Fishburne’s character, Pops, is the family’s curmudgeonly, opinionated patriarch. The other three children are barely given introductions.

Dre seems to have it all. His wife is beautiful, his children are healthy and afforded luxuries he could have only dreamed of while growing up in his as-yet-unidentified poor black neighborhood. He is highly successful: when the show begins, he’s on the cusp of the promotion of a lifetime. He receives it, but with a catch: he’s the VP of the urban division. Instead of being a VP who happens to be black, he’s the black VP.

At home, after bearing the brunt of Pops’ slings and arrows (and consulting his lovely wife), Dre decides to “keep it real’’ in an ad campaign for Los Angeles tourism that includes footage of the Rodney King beating — nearly losing his new job.

The show begins with a moment many black people will identify with. Dre, about to get his promotion, exchanges welcoming greetings from the few other black employees, he explains how black folk in an office, when few in number, share in the triumph of a black coworker. After that, the show wobbles before finally finding its balance. The first 15 minutes are home to a few botched jokes, some of which are based on overwrought stereotypes. Andre’s best friend comes to the Johnson house because he’s been craving grape soda, Andre wants to get a bar mitzvah like his Jewish friends, and Dre tells Rainbow she’s not really black. At the dinner table, police blotter-speak is used, the kids get an Obama-themed pop quiz, and Pops applies a liberal helping of the world’s greatest hot sauce to baked fried chicken. Some jokes will leave white viewers scratching their heads while black viewers cackle; others will land with a thud all around.

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When the show finds its footing, Andre––in the realest moment of the episode––tells his dad he doesn’t want to play basketball because he gets more attention from girls as a member of the varsity field hockey team. Pops schools Dre on the ins and outs of fatherhood. To give Andre the bar mitzvah he desires, Dre gives his son an “African coming-of-age ceremony’’ in which he substitutes chicken bones for goat bones.

These jokes are rooted in reality, but used instead of dozens of equally plausible and exponentially funnier jokes arising from lives of black folk that TV has yet to broach. As a black man, I can’t remember the last time I heard a good grits joke, a gag about turning off electronics during thunderstorms, a discussion of the age at which a black man gets his first linen suit, or anything about why a plurality of black parents refer to any gaming system as a Nintendo.

“Black-ish’’ makes quick work of a number of truths that other black figures are unable to tell. Unfortunately, there are so many truths––each delivered with varying degrees of finesse––thrown into the pilot episode that the show may have set a pace difficult to maintain.

Black folk have been waiting for a good sitcom for a while. Though a noble and bold undertaking, Black-ish seems to have bit off more than it can chew. Still, it has enough good in it to suggest it may find its own niche. A brave, new world needs a brave, new sitcom.

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