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Black-ish: “Pilot”

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Black-ish is designed to stand out. This became clear as soon as the show was announced (though it was tempting to jokingly write it off as ABC’s sitcom version of a diversity hire) by being a comedy that proudly promotes its diversity right there in the title so no one can continue to claim that Wednesday nights on the network are blindingly white. Black-ish stands out in its commitment to explore serious cultural issues with a humorous slant. It stands out among the three family sitcoms that precede it on ABC’s comedy night—comedies that concern themselves with a very white family, a very white family in the 1980s, and a very white multigenerational family (hold your “But Gloria!” responses, please)—and even stands out among the broadcast television slate as a whole (I still miss you, UPN). It also stands out because it is, surprisingly, a very funny and well-done pilot.


Black-ish quickly introduces us to the Johnson family at the center of the show. The Johnsons include “incredibly charismatic” black advertising executive Andre (Anthony Anderson), his mixed-race doctor wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), his grumpy father (Laurence Fishburne), and their four children: teenagers Andre (Marcus Scribner) and Zoey (Yara Shahidi) and six-year-old twins Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin). They live in a nice, white neighborhood which is a big step up from the impoverished environment Andre grew up in. The family scenes are sweet and realistic, but it’s the scenes in Andre’s office that are even better.

Andre’s up for a promotion—senior vice president—and is 100 percent confident that he’s going to get it. He does, sort of, when he’s made SVP of the urban division. It’s a sock in the gut and a shitty conundrum: On the one hand, at least he wasn’t passed over for a white coworker. But on the other hand, it’s a backhanded promotion, one that is so unapologetically about race and one that isn’t as important as it could have been. Throughout all of the scenes, the show remains funny while dropping some familiar truths. There is the recognition from Andre’s black coworkers (when one of them makes it, everyone shares the pride). There is the coworker who doesn’t realize just how racist he’s being when he asks Andre how a black man would say “Good morning.” (Trust me: If you’ve ever been the only black person, or one of very few, at a job, you will get plenty of questions like this.) There is the boss who awkwardly tries to relate and talk to Andre by using dumb slang like “keep it real” and “swag” (again, this happens way more often than it should) while Andre has to grin and bear it.


Andre’s disappointing promotion combined with his oldest son seemingly becoming more and more interested in, well, whiter aspects of culture—field hockey, having a Bar Mitzvah for his birthday despite not being Jewish, and being called “Andy” (which I’m all on board with because it will make writing these reviews easier)—causes Andre to break and call for a family meeting about their cultural identity crisis. See, he’s worried that the family has settled into such a nice, comfortable, and well-off lifestyle that they’ve all lost touch with their black roots. He wants them to familiarize with their actual culture, not the culture they’ve adapted from white classmates. To put it bluntly: He’s basically scared that his children are turning white. Andre definitely goes too far with the African-American celebration and his wife smartly calls him out on it. There is somewhat of a concession—Andy will have a hip-hop bro mitzvah—and the episode is wrapped up neatly (but with the main identity crisis still lingering) because it’s a pilot.

But again, this is a pilot, so the episode is still rough around the edges. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the bit in the beginning about Justin Timberlake and Asian dancers, and I can’t help but be wary that the show will spend too much time creating a strict divide between what black people should like (basketball) and what should be ignored and left for white people (field hockey). While Andre is a good character so far, there are times when he feels a little off, like when he can’t even muster up pretend congratulations and pride for Andy making the field hockey team—opinions on the sport aside, you have to be happy for your kid at that point, right? The reveal that Andy was mostly playing field hockey to appease Andre felt too neat, but at least the conversation was sweet.

Overall though, I thoroughly enjoyed Black-ish and laughed quite a bit. The chemistry between Anderson and Ross is so natural and effortless—even just based on their comfort in that early bedroom scene—perhaps because they knew each other prior to filming. Ross is fantastic to watch, and has such killer enviable hair, and sticks the landings on her lines: “My job is pretty important.” The kids are all great finds, more subtle and realistic than the general flock of overly precocious sitcom children and the over-the-top Disney actors behind them. Laurence Fishburne is always good and proves that here, too, with Pops dropping in for hilarious, gruff one-liners and exiting before he becomes too much.

It’s a great start for what I sincerely hope becomes a great show that catches on with viewers. There’s so much that can be said about the importance of the show but I will leave that to hastily written thinkpieces tomorrow morning and just say that outside of all the heavy stuff, the Black-ish pilot has the major element necessary in sitcoms: It’s very funny. Still, I wonder how much the show will remain committed to this important topic of cultural identity. Will it continue to have episodes with smart things to say about race or will it fall into the category of the generic ABC family sitcom with more broad storylines? I suppose what I’m really wondering is: Is Black-ish going to be a show about a black family or a show about a family that happens to be black?


Stray observations:

  • There are definitely going to be some comparisons to The Cosby Show, but from what I can tell, Black-ish takes a more head-on, blatant approach to race instead of letting it hang out in the background.
  • Drinking game: Every time someone says “keep/keeping it real.”
  • Favorite Fishburne line: “Who knew? Boy wants to hold a boob.”
  • Technically, Larry Wilmore is currently showrunner but will step down once he gets bombarded by The Minority Report duties. It’s bittersweet because his own show will definitely be hilarious, but I’d love for him to stick around here—the guy has been a superb sitcom writer on everything from the underrated The Bernie Mac Show to the wonderful Sister, Sister (which I re-watched over the summer and think it still holds up).
  • I’ve seen this title stylized as Black-ish, Blackish, and blackish (as it is on my DVR) and that’s going to ruin my mind.
  • Oh, and I’m calling bullshit on them naming twins Jack and Diane.
  • Seriously, Tracee Ellis Ross is a treasure. I’m also glad that the show explicitly references the fact that she’s mixed race instead of just lazily shrugging and saying she’s only black.
  • Anyway, hey guys! I’ll be here for your weekly Black-ish reviews for as long as you’ll have me. I’ll try my best not to blurt out lots of embarrassing stories about being refered to as blackish by classmates, my experience with the phrase “You’re not black black.” or my parents’ own wariness when my adolescent self gravitated toward “white culture” (Okay, mostly just pop-punk).