Start Watching Black-ish If You Want To Keep It Real
Tara Ariano's here to tell it to your hair AND your ass.
ABC is trying to make you watch Black-ish by drawing direct comparisons between it and its time-slot lead-in, Modern Family, but you CANNOT believe those promo lies. Black-ish is so much better!
I realize that Emmy voters disagree with me, and that its generic title is supposed to make us feel like it's the default family-focused sitcom of our time, but I just can't with Modern Family, and I've really given it a fair shot. Maybe I could put up with the racist caricature that is Gloria or the resolutely sexless portrayal of Mitchell and Cam if the show were funny, but it sooooooo rarely is and also don't get me started on Julie Bowen OR Claire. And the reason Black-ish really suffers from its comparison to Modern Family is that where MF strives for an inoffensive universality, Black-ish goes the other way. If its title didn't alert you to its premise (and in an impressively concise way), it uses its entire cold open to lay it out: ad executive Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) is starting to wonder whether moving up economically -- and thus into a mostly white neighborhood -- is causing his children to grow up without a sense of their cultural identity.
This is potentially dicey material -- in my day, the black family on The Cosby Show didn't talk much about being black, and Stephen Colbert hadn't yet made "I don't see colour" the setup to countless racial (not racist) jokes. But what's so great about that cold open is that series creator Kenya Barris isn't going to soften the premise for what will ideally be a multiracial audience: the show is about what it's like to feel like you've been co-opted by majority culture, so if you're not grown-up enough to handle a frank take on that subject, just stop watching now. (The Mysteries Of Laura pilot did something similar in the moment in which what appears to be a bloody murder scene turns out to be paint thrown around by the titular heroine's terrible children, and I was most grateful for my cue to take my leave. Forever.)
But Black-ish isn't just a dry lecture on ideas like some late-model Louies I could mention: it's also really funny. Andre gets to do one of my favourite sitcom dad things: be mean to his kids' shitty friends. His youngest son has to explain that the reason he didn't know Barack Obama was the first black president is that Obama is pretty much the only president he knows anything about. Andre's wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), is biracial and hence not as bothered as Andre is by creeping white-ism in their kids; when Andre tells her she's not really black, she gets the best line of the episode: "Tell that to my hair and my ass." Andre's Pops, who lives in the family guest house, is played by Laurence Fishburne, and while I'm not sure I'm ready for him to be playing anyone's grandpa, he's pretty great at being disgusted with Andre, which is a character every sitcom needs.
Black-ish is both very smart in its treatment of its characters' various concerns (there will presumably be a greater range of these than Andre's anxiety about keepin' it real as a black guy) and extremely goofy (the episode is peppered with Andre's fantasy sequences, like a tour group pointing out the black family in the white neighbourhood or how it's going to be when he gets promoted at work and moves from being an "Us" with the other African-American employees to a "Them," with the otherwise all-white executives), and ending on his son's "Bro Mitzvah" closes out the episode with the perfect amount of heart, and without being saccharine. It's just really good. Watch the pilot, and then watch as many more episodes as ABC gives us. I hope it's a lot.