Kenya Barris has created a TV empire by mining his real life for comedy. In 2014, the America’s Next Top Model co-creator and The Game writer-producer pulled from his own home dynamics to create black-ish, an ABC sitcom about a successful dad from South Los Angeles (Anthony Anderson), a mixed-race mom who can’t stop mentioning her advanced medical degree (Tracee Ellis Ross), a popular eldest daughter (Yara Shahidi), a nerdy eldest son (Marcus Scribner), a pair of trouble-making siblings (Marsai Martin and Miles Brown), and a character named Pops (Laurence Fishburn). Cascading off the success of black-ish, currently in its sixth season, Barris spun off Shahidi’s Zoey to grown-ish on Freeform and gave Ross’ Rainbow an ABC prequel series with mixed-ish. Now Barris has launched his first series since leaving ABC Studios for Netflix, #blackAF, which centers on a successful dad from South Los Angeles (Barris), a mixed-race mom who can’t stop mentioning her advanced law degree (Rashida Jones), a popular eldest daughter (Genneya Walton), a nerdy eldest son (Justin Claiborne), a pair of trouble-making siblings (Ravi Cabot-Conyers and Scarlet Spencer), and a character named Pops. Sound familiar?
When first announced, #blackAF—originally titled #blackexcellence—was touted by Netflix as Barris’ attempt to “reboot the ‘family sitcom’ in a way we’ve never seen before.” And #blackAF delivers on that promise: The series is presented as a documentary, but unlike Modern Family, the footage is directed by the family’s 17-year-old, Drea (Iman Benson). Many scenes appear to be partially improvised, and the profanity flies free from characters of all ages. The result can be very funny at times. It’s just unfortunate that the traditional family sitcom Barris is “rebooting” is his own, which is still on the air and enjoyed by millions every Tuesday.
The series is self-aware when it comes to these similarities. Barris, playing a version of himself, even watches—and compliments himself about—black-ish at one point. But fans of Barris’ ABC work will likely find much of #blackAF’s eight episodes redundant. In the first few episodes, Barris’ Kenya and Jones’ Joya grapple with white gaze; the family celebrates and educates about Juneteenth; and Joya discusses the disproportionate adultification of young Black girls with her daughters. And while those are all important subjects that deserve to be discussed far more often, #blackAF doesn’t present them in ways all that new or different from Barris’ ABC sitcom.
But something happens about halfway through the season. Perhaps counterintuitively, given the above criticism, #blackAF gets better when it gets closer to Barris’ real life, transitioning into an intriguing look at being Black in Hollywood. At one point, Kenya and film-school hopeful Drea find themselves in the minority criticizing a Black director’s movie. Joya urges Kenya to “hashtag support all things Black,” but he can’t bring himself to do it. The storyline leads to cameos by Tyler Perry, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, Ava DuVernay, Tim Story, and Will Packer, all with interesting takes on white critics and Black cinema. It’s no surprise that theme is front and center in the series’ trailer:
It helps that this pivot comes at the same point the comedy calms down on the frenetic editing and tightens up the storytelling. (Episodes range from 32 to 48 minutes, and Barris and co. perhaps benefited from the time restraints imposed on them by network TV schedules.) Barris also improves as a performer over time, buoyed by the effortlessly amusing Jones, while Benson is a strong and charismatic narrator, leading an energetic cast of young actors who balance being Disney Channel adorable without being Disney Channel cheesy.
Less glossy and laugh-out-loud funny than black-ish, #blackAF is most effective at being a “reboot” when dealing with serious marital strife. A black-ish season-four arc saw Dre and Bow facing possible divorce, a storyline that mirrored Barris’ relationship with his wife, also a mixed-race anesthesiologist named Rainbow. (In real life, Rainbow Barris filed for divorce in 2014. The couple reconciled and welcomed a sixth child in 2016, but Kenya Barris filed for divorce last August after 20 years of marriage.) It was impossible to imagine Dre and Rainbow splitting for good on ABC’s Tuesday-night anchor, but it seems like anything can happen on #blackAF. It’s that kind of unpredictability and refreshing tone that make the idea of future #blackAF seasons exciting—as long as Barris continues to follow the advice his character gets from Tyler Perry: “Tell your own experience. Can’t nobody tell you how to be you.”