Pilotitis 2014: Black-ish

Meet the Johnson on ABC's new comedy black-ish
black-ish (Photo: Adam Taylor / ABC)

ABC’s new family comedy black-ish has nuance, humor, and a handy tutorial on the concept of micro-aggressions.

Show

black-ish, which is in the coveted yet underutilized post-Modern Family slot of 9:30pm on Wednesdays on ABC.

Premise

Anthony Anderson plays Andre Johnson, who has the typical middle class suburban life. His wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a surgeon, they have four happy and healthy kids (their son Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) just made the varsity field hockey team), his father “Pops” (Laurence Fishburne) lives with them in their beautiful house, and Dre has just been promoted to a Senior Vice President at his ad firm. In the “Urban” division. Dre starts to wonder if his black family has assimilated too far into white-ness.

Lineage

Larry Wilmore, senior black correspondent from The Daily Show, was the original showrunner for the series.1 Anderson and Fishburne are also part of the Executive Producer team.

Who is black-ish For?

The show at its core is a family sitcom, but there is a distinct edge and point of view. It has a tone similar to the middle seasons of Roseanne, minus the studio audience.

What Works

Larry Wilmore is one of my favorite people in the television industry, and you can definitely hear his voice throughout the pilot. In the cold open, Anderson’s character narrates the other-ness he experiences on a daily basis, closing his monologue reflecting on how he doesn’t want to fall into the “Angry Black Man” stereotype while missing some of the perks such a stereotype provides. In the state that network sitcoms are in today, that is a heavily nuanced bit of humor and it was executed perfectly.

What Doesn’t Work

The pilot was heavy on narration, with Andre telling while showing the buffoonery around him. It doesn’t work in the context of a television program, but I can understand why this writing choice was made. A lot of what is discussed in the pilot would fall into the category of micro-aggressions, which often do not get noticed or acknowledged by the aggressor. Put another way, unless someone (in this case Andre) explicitly points out that something is Not Cool, there is a chance that it won’t register as Not Cool to a casual viewer. However, the buffoonery mentioned is almost circus-level, so we might not need everything explicitly mentioned.

Does This Pass the Bechdel Test?2

Yes! Rainbow and her daughter Diane (Marsai Martin) talk about setting up a playdate with a female classmate. However, there are no other female adults in the cast, so at this point the show can only pass when Rainbow speaks with Diane or older daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi).

Verdict

black-ish is addressing social politics in an “that’s effed-up” mindset, but isn’t coming across as preachy. The show is skewering the myth that we live in a post-racial society, but it is not setting itself up as minstrel (one extreme) or a Norman Lear joint (another extreme). I have a feeling the first few episodes will be set up as “Black People are Like This / White People are Like This”3, but if the show can break out of that mould we could start to have some excellent conversations.

  1. He had to step down after landing The Minority Report, which will replace The Colbert Report in 2015.  
  2. 1. Two named female characters 2. have a conversation 3. about something other than a man.  
  3. Network notes: blerg  

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About Mike McComb 656 Articles
Mike has been writing about TV online since 2008, when he started the blog WTF Little House on the Prairie? The blog was a project to practice writing about television analytically prior to getting an MA in Television-Radio-Film from Syracuse University, or as he likes to call it "TV Camp." After a lengthy stint at TVLatest, Mike wanted to launch a site that brought in classic TV, diamonds in the rough, and the shows everybody watches. E-mail: mike@whatelseison.tv