Last Fall, ABC’s decision to bring more diversity to its family comedy slate saw the series premieres of Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat, two shows that were a long time coming. They were shows that proved there was a place in the mainstream for intelligent, funny sitcoms about people who didn’t quite look like the ones you’d see on ABC’s (or any major network’s) other sitcoms. Both series were renewed for second seasons, and here we are now: We’re witnessing an honest, funny, and realistic (despite the sitcom conventions) conversation about the n-word and who can or cannot say it in the season premiere of an ABC sitcom that airs after Modern Family.
One of the episodes of Black-ish I reviewed last season was “Black Santa/White Christmas,” the episode that dropped the “black people can’t be racist” bomb. Like many topics in Black-ish, it was a sentiment and discussion I had heard my fair share of times—another moment in Black-ish that just absolutely nailed the black experience. Black-ish’s first season managed to work with the universal language of all types of families while also speaking just to people in black families. So for it to continue that in its second season and knock it out of the park its first time at bat (that’s how baseball works, right?), it’s definitely a positive (and optimistic) start.
On a strategic level, beginning the season with an episode focusing on an issue as heavily-debated as the n-word is kind of necessity for the show; as buzzed about as the episode’s topic may be, it’s still airing opposite of the ratings juggernaut that is Empire. It’s not even just a racial demographic thing—any show that’s going to premiere opposite Empire needs to bring its A-game, and Black-ish knows that. After all, this was originally supposed to be the second episode of this season.
Having Jack, the most innocent member of the Johnson clan—as opposed to Junior, who’s just the most oblivious—be the one to drop the n-word during an otherwise cute performance creates a snowball effect of discussions about who can say the n-word (if anyone can say it at all), what the n-word even means, the meaning of “zero tolerance” (besides “zero means zero”), and if there’s even a word comparable to the n-word.
It’s also extremely funny, in case you were wondering. In fact, one of the funniest moments in the episode early on is a flashback to Dre and Jack singing the uncensored version of “Gold Digger” together, which is the reason for all of this chaos.
Since the pilot, Black-ish has surprisingly avoided the concept of having Dre being “the only one” at his office, but it hasn’t kept him away from being surrounded by the overwhelming whiteness of his boss and co-workers. The united front he has with Charlie and Curtis is mostly one out of necessity, as Charlie is a crazy person and Curtis… kind of is too. But at least they can relate to him, simply because they are black men in the same office and world. The first conference room scene in this episode is the perfect example of this necessary camaraderie, as Dre, Charlie, and Curtis drop the n-word nonchalantly in discussing Dre’s issue-of-the-week, while everyone else cringes with each mention of the word.
The conference room scenes have become an important part of Black-ish’s creative DNA, because Black-ish is at its most surreal (not counting the first season finale) in these scenes, despite them being discussions that stem from very real situations and interactions. Dre’s boss explicitly stating he misses being able to use the word “colored” leads to a knee jerk and highly imaginative reaction of Charlie pulling out a gun. Josh—who has always been the character most likely to ask if he can say the n-word—blurts out a “negro,” despite knowing better. Later, when Charlie and Curtis create a list of who can say the n-word (such as Rosie Perez) and who can’t (such as J. Lo), it’s hard not to step back and think about how this all came out of something that started simply enough (as unexpected as it was). As much heart and genuine emotion as Black-ish can mine from its stories (the final scene between Dre/Jack and Dre/Pops are the perfect examples), the weirder it gets, the funnier it is.
That’s true even outside the professional setting of Dre’s office. Dre’s typical overzealous nature and attempts at displaying “true” blackness get him (and, as a result, Jack) into trouble throughout this episode, but instead of taking over the episode, it all balances out with Rainbow’s own extreme behavior. Black-ish is at its best when it shows its husband-wife duo as two sides of the same coin (which explains why they’re happily married), and this episode appears to realize that more than ever. While Dre is carrying the episode just fine on his own, Bow slowly takes things over as soon as the flashback for the zero tolerance rally appears. By the time she’s calling people for support in saving Jack from being expelled, it’s her episode completely. When the meeting with the disciplinary board is just her and Jack on trial, her physical comedy in trying to pull the race card with her own son is absolutely brilliant. Tracee Ellis Ross has been the MVP of the series for a while, and this is the perfect episode to remind the audience why or even just inform new viewers. While some of early season one painted her slightly as the put-upon wife to the manic Dre, those days are long gone.
Junior’s eco hero (another example of him being susceptible to suggestion, except for at home) storyline is perfectly in character, but the little screentime it has is more than enough, and it is completely overpowered by the A-story. The final beat of the plot reads as being the easiest way to just end it all, which is understandable enough. Marcus Scribner is great in this role, as Junior’s absolute ignorance about the world around him is both honest (as such a sheltered kid) and absolutely bonkers (as such a smart kid). But because of those character extremes, his storylines can be pretty hit or miss.
Compare the weakness of this small B-plot to the even smaller—yet funnier and more effective—roles of Pops and Ruby here, and it sticks out even more in such a strong episode. Then there’s the episode’s terrific end tag, which is enough to leave the episode with a “what if” about the B-story possibly being about Zoey, who, despite how good she is in this episode, remains the least fleshed out member of the Johnson clan. Until the tag, Zoey’s mentioning of her white guy friends (and incarcerated Tyrone) constantly saying the n-word is almost throwaway. As a quick aside it works perfectly, but as the alternative to Junior’s environmental rampage, it’s hard not to want more. Plus, Junior is the kid who tends to have to learn the most lessons, but Zoey could stand to as well, especially with a circle of white-bread friends (and maybe one mixed one, based on the tag) who throw around the n-word like it’s no thing.
Personally, I can maybe count on one hand the number of times I’ve said the n-word out loud, and even during those times—usually in quoting something—to me, it’s never felt right coming out of my mouth. Much like the spanking episode, “THE Word” isn’t a 30-minute episode about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to the subject matter. At least not completely: The consensus is still that white people shouldn’t say the n-word and for good reason. But it’s about opening up a discussion and making the audience laugh while doing so. The debate between Dre and Pops is the real argument though, even when it devolves into Pops saying the word constantly (either in the present or in the past with his flashback Jackson 5 wig). It’s not a new argument, the idea of the black population reclaiming the word (as their “birthright,” perhaps) versus the idea of the black population wanting nothing to do with the word because of its past (and present) use. But it’s not exactly an argument you would usually see on ABC prime-time, aside from maybe Thursday nights (with much less levity).
- Fun fact: Back in 2002, the first season of The Bernie Mac Show tackled the n-word, with Bryana repeating the word after overhearing her Uncle Bernie call their family “nigga rich,” not “rich rich.” There was even a countdown on the screen for the impending word, which actually wasn’t bleeped like it is here in “THE Word.”
- Dre’s brief interactions with the principal at Jack and Diane’s school is a little like a crash course in Denzealotry, immediately commending the man for “lookin’ like St. Elsewhere” and then quoting Training Day (which the principal has, sadly, not seen). I hope this is mentioned on the Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period podcast soon.
- Obviously, Jack’s name has always been “Jack Johnson,” but this particular episode’s repetition of his name really stuck out to me. What were Dre and Bow thinking when they named their youngest children?
- I got a kick out of the chart of who can say the n-word saying that Nigerians (and all Africans, really) can’t say the n-word. My Nigerian mother tried to act offended at first by the exclusion, but she accepted it.
- Poor Nicole Sullivan. I don’t think you’re a “water whore.”
- Diane basks in the media attention of Jack’s fall from grace, reminding us all how much television has been lacking in the charmingly sociopathic youth department in Black-ish’s absence.
- As much as I enjoyed the shirtless sex talks last season, “shower buddies” was Junior taking things way too far. Dre actually saves a good portion of Junior’s subplot by simply reacting to how weird it all is and moving on. “Oh god. He’s such a disappointment.”
- Deon Cole remains a delight, as Charlie just “making funny sounds with his mouth” has become another facet of his ridiculous personality.