Checking in with black-ish

Rainbow and Dre compete for Jack and Diane's approval on ABC's black-ish
black-ish (Photo: Greg Gayne / ABC)

ABC’s family comedy black-ish hasn’t found its rhythm yet, but having a full season should help the show hone its point of view.

Despite weird ratings reports surrounding ABC’s programming this fall, the network moved ahead with ordering a full season for the new sitcom black-ish. This is great news, not only because it’s good to get renewal news before the networks start canceling things, but because that means this show will have more time to figure itself out.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the black-ish pilot and still stand by that. However, the three episodes that have followed have been rather uneven, most likely because it hasn’t decided which point of view it wants to express. The pilot focused on Dre (Anthony Anderson) trying to make sure that his son Dre, Jr. hasn’t lost his identity as a black male in American culture. While there have been elements of that story in episodes two and three, the “struggle” (as Dre described it) does not seem to be at the forefront. This is a world where Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown either never existed, or Dre and Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) have kept their kids sheltered or oblivious to what is happening in the world.1 I understand that ABC wants to keep this comedy light and I’m not advocating that black-ish suddenly becomes a Norman Lear sitcom.2 However, there is the adage “if you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.”

The other path this show follows is the traditional family sitcom path, which feels…blah. Of the four episodes that have aired, two have had stories centered on competitive parenting. In one, Dre and Rainbow are jockeying for position as to which career path Diane (Marsai Martin) should follow: dad’s fun and creative advertising job or mom’s uniform-clad medical career. I mean, the kid is six, so she shouldn’t be locked on any path, but the whole plot felt very Brady Bunch. This week’s episode “Crazy Mom” featured Dre and Rainbow switching roles in a sense. Aside from borrowing heavily from I Love Lucy, both characters end up coming across as not being invested in all four of their children. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch and makes me wonder if having four kids was the best decision from a production standpoint.

Despite these criticisms, there is a lot to love about black-ish. The cutaway jokes and the use of diagrams are engaging storytelling devices. Both have been used rather sparingly, but they will help the show hone its point-of-view and will be what sets the show apart from other family sitcoms. In “Crazy Mom”, the story adopted a perspective of Dre, Dre Jr., and Pops watching the action unfold as a horror movie in a theater. This illustration of third-person perspective was brilliant and allowed for jokes that otherwise couldn’t exist in the episode. Also, Laurence Fishburne is doing a fabulous job as the Sassy Grandparent archetype and he has not been overused.

Although the family sitcom elements of black-ish are the weakest part of the show, they are a necessary component. My hope is that with a full season order, the show can be a bit more confident in its point-of-view.

  1. Which also doesn’t make sense when you have Pops (Laurence Fishburne) not afraid to say what’s really going on.  
  2. Good God, NO.  

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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