Black-ish is back from winter break, and naturally, it dives right back into the deep end with “Sink Or Swim.” Yes, that terrible pun is very much needed—consider it an icebreaker before getting into stereotype talk, the bread and butter of this episode. What starts as an episode all about stereotypes about black people and swimming turns into an episode about stereotypes across the board. And it’s for the best, as an episode entirely about Dre going into full Dre mode would be quite the acerbic way to bring the show back from a break. Instead, everyone goes into full Johnson mode, for better or worse, given the subject matter. And that is also just as rough as it sounds.
Of course Dre immediately takes offense to Janine—a character we’re all aware the Johnsons dislike—not inviting them to her weekly pool party presumably because they’re the one black family in the neighborhood. There’s no way that Dre wouldn’t take offense to that. And given how much Dre is all about “keeping it real” and living an “I’m Black Y’all” lifestyle, it also makes sense that Janine would in fact believe that he and his family can’t swim, as unpleasant as that would be. He actually can’t swim. But this is not an episode like “Chop Shop” that leans right into the stereotype and trope that it’s initially tackling. Instead, the episode quickly has Dre school the audience on the history of black people and swimming, which works as a pretty good reason as to why he doesn’t know how he swim. Then, instead of making that being the reason why they weren’t invited, the episode has has Janine address the Johnsons not liking her. What happens after that, however, makes the episode more than just about one thing or the other.
Janine is especially awful in this episode, and that’s actually a good thing in this instance. Before even watching the episode, I made a note to myself of the importance of the out of touch white neighbor in a “black sitcom” situation, but while watching, I found myself realizing the greater importance of the out of touch white neighbor that the family doesn’t warm up to. That’s Janine, and Nicole Sullivan plays the role well. It’s a more honest interpretation of the archetype, and it also allows for more outside-the-box storytelling. So even though Janine not inviting the Johnsons to her pool parties may not ultimately be because of a belief that they can’t swim, she still comes out of this appearing just as insensitive as Dre believed she was. Maybe even more so, as she leans into her racial blindspots in this episode, not recognizing Dre as he comes to her door at night, having him sign a liability waiver to swim at her home, and referring to him repeatedly as variations of “homie” with the type of glee typically found in a white person who’s given the okay to say the n-word.
With the exception of Jack and Diane, who are at their most adorable challenging gender norms, this really isn’t a flattering episode for anyone. Rainbow’s plot with “the school mom mafia” is the classic tale of working moms “versus” non-working moms, and Bow does not give the former a good name while disparaging the latter. First of all, Black-ish’s choice in referring to “the school mom maifa” as “ladies of leisure” instead of “stay-at-home moms” is a very specific choice, as there’s more of a pride connected to the latter. That’s a pride that Bow makes clear is not a part of the “ladies of leisure” lifestyle every time she tears them down for attending yoga or not working or for… being happy. It’s a path she doesn’t want Zoey (who has upgraded from YouTube videos to GoFundMe campaigns in her quest for fame and fortune) to take or Junior (who is at a point where he bribes girls to talking to him) to be the husband in such a scenario, even though they think it looks awesome.
But what’s interesting about “Sink Or Swim” is that this is an episode that hits some very big issues, and it doesn’t go as far into them as the show usually would. Black-ish is a family sitcom above all things, with laughs-a-plenty, but it’s also one that constantly and consistently has a message. Yet this is an episode that addresses the idea that Bow may be unhappy in her marriage and home life, and that ends up being ignored simply because of a drowning Dre. This is an episode that has Ruby aggressively try to push arguably outdated gender norms on her youngest grandchildren, and not even Bow addresses that outside of a very throwaway line to her kids after said drowning. The latter can be possibly argued as the Black-ish not being preachy, as it often makes sure to not quite pick a side in certain topics.
But the former feels like a big deal that’s swept under the rug, especially as Dre and Bow are often portrayed as an especially healthy television married couple. The Bow in this episode is angry in a way that just isn’t explained away with her eventual “style over substance” speech, as good of a speech as it is. And having Blair (Brittany Daniel) end up being a neurosurgeon technically means that Bow’s still able to take down the “ladies of leisure,” really learning nothing from her harsh stereotyping of those type of women or gaining a perspective as to why she’s really angry.
By the way, Zoey and Junior’s behavior in this episode is actually more terrifying than it is funny, even though that’s obviously not the intent. But Bow’s reactions to their behavior are absolutely on point, even if the way she lets out her frustration is not.
“Boys need to be boys, and girls need to be girls. Otherwise it all goes higgledy piggledy. Danica Patrick, Ronda Rousey, Wheaties boxes. Oy!…Oh, black Jesus, no! Mm-mmm. Mm. Mmm. Boys cookin’. Girls saving lives. It’s all gone higgledy piggledy.”
As for Ruby, her entire character is all stereotype, which is a part of the bigger problem with her in the first place. I cannot say this enough: Jenifer Lewis is fantastic, and she completely throws herself into the part every time she’s in an episode. Her line delivery is so perfect (like her “mother’s intuition” line that “explains” her presence at the pool party) that she can make anything sound funny even with all of the often misguided conviction she has behind it. But it’s a role that is so set in its old school, God-fearing ways that you then get a storyline of her pressuring (for lack of a better word) Jack and Diane into the antiquated gender norms of the Boy and Girl Rovers, and nothing is really done about that. This is a great Jack and Diane episode for sure, but it’s also the cloud of Ruby’s own beliefs about boys and girls over it, especially since no one in the family actually puts a stop to it. Ruby as the crazy grandma you can just ignore works on the other, older characters, but when it comes to the impressionable Jack and Diane (children who thought Home Alone was a documentary), it can be toxic. Again, it’s honest, but it’s another thing that the episode just sweeps under the rug at the end, which isn’t exactly the Black-ish or ABC family sitcom way. Basically, this episode is really top heavy, its “bones are too dense,” and it comes across like it sinks because of that.
The thing is, Black-ish’s ability to make its characters so harsh actually kind of works in this episode. The comedy lands, even with the unpleasant aspects, and that’s what makes the episode such a fascinating return. It just happens to be a very, very uncomfortable episode, which makes a lot of sense, given the subject matter. Stereotypes can be very, very uncomfortable. And of all shows, it’s an ABC family sitcom that is making sure that’s clear to all. As disappointing as it is that Black-ish may not address the elephants in this episode, especially not anytime soon, I can’t deny that “Sink Or Swim” gets the job done in the basic task of being a funny sitcom. Especially not after seeing the image of Dre and the water volleyball.
- Ah, the pleasure of a hot Los Angeles February—I wish I were in a pool right now.
- Here’s a fun story: When I was in college, one of my (white) roommates (who I have plenty of other head-scratching anecdotes about for later days) absolutely believe that black people have the mythical “extra bone” in their feet. You know, the one that makes us naturally run faster. It was in a room of other people, and we all took a beat to try and figure out at first whether or not she was joking. She was not, and then we had to explain how human anatomy worked. I’m pretty sure she still believes in the “extra bone.”
- Bow: “Dre, that’s Jack’s Highlights.”
Dre: “She doesn’t know my interests.”
- Dre: “This isn’t about what I can’t do. Its about principle!”
Diane: “I hope when you’re drowning, someone throws you a principle.” And then she ends up being the one to save him. Aww.
- Diane: “Boy Rovers have sailing, astronomy, and wood carving! Cool! But Girl Rovers have babysitting, and— Eating for beauty? What the…? It’s not fair!”
Jack: “Yeah! What boy wouldn’t want to eat for beauty?”
- Of course Josh’s “black contacts” in his phone are just Dre. Josh is the resident “I Have A Black Friend” guy, after all.
- It’s a smart move that the episode intentionally doesn’t let us see Dre’s actual attempt at swimming—there’s not even a flashback to young Dre in this episode—until he gets into Janine’s pool. Plus, an early reveal could never live up to Nelson’s (Toby Huss) reaction to it: “You should never be around water. I recommend you drain your pool and drink from small cups. I mean, I beg you to listen to me: Your children, they need you around.”
- Diane: “Good for tying up a boat or hostage. Neither is going anywhere.” That line reading really made me miss Charlie. His reaction would have been classic.
- Viral remixes are very much old hat by now, but it’s hard not to at least crack a smile when such a trope arises. “Save me black Jesus / I don’t wanna die” is catchy, you know?