‘Black-ish’ Season 1 Effortlessly Balanced Universal Family Plots With Specifically Black Experiences


When Black-ish first premiered, the sitcom was notable because of its visible diversity, especially considering it closed out ABC’s very white Wednesday night comedy lineup (joining The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family). As it progressed, the show continued to tackle storylines specific to black culture — teaching children about the importance of black history, worrying about whether you’re “black enough,” homophobia in the black community, etc. — while also including more typical family sitcom tropes, such as a married couple switching chores or disliking their daughter’s boyfriend. It provided a good balance for a sitcom: enough universal plots to appeal to a wide variety of viewers, but also plenty of focus on an often-overlooked minority group, making it one of the year’s best new comedies.

Last night’s finale, “Pops’ Pops’ Pops,” was another funny and original episode, as well as a nice way to end a great season of television. It played around with the format by dipping into a different era, as Pops tells his family a story about their heritage. (The children are putting together a family tree report for school, and as many black people know from experience, going back into our family histories for a school project can get pretty depressing — and both embarrassing and alienating when it comes to presenting them in front of a largely white class). The episode mostly takes place during the Harlem Renaissance and features flashy costumes and guest stars (P. Diddy, Mary J. Blige). And it maintains Black-ish‘s perfect balance: the story was reminiscent of ’90s TGIF sitcoms — such as Boy Meets World‘s back-in-time episodes — but it was also decidedly about African-American culture at the same time. Pops clearly took some liberties: “Who’s telling the story?” he repeatedly questions his family whenever someone interrupts to fact-check a particular detail. But, as we learn in the end, the important thing isn’t the specifics of the story — it’s the fact that this story is being told at all.

This thesis statement is one that speaks to Black-ish‘s first season as a whole. Throughout the 24 episodes, there were ups and downs as the show sometimes veered too much into the cliched (the bickering-couple Valentine’s Day episode or the grossly overdone “man lies about his vasectomy” plot), but it still made sure that it was always saying something — and, more importantly, it made sure it was always saying something about being black. Of course, the specifics of being black vary from person to person, and the ways in which we exist within or celebrate our black culture differs. And that was the basic premise of the show: Are the Johnsons black enough? Are they well-versed enough in their culture? Are they sellouts for having money, for living in the suburbs, for playing field hockey or dating outside of their race? But Black-ish exists under the assumption that there is no right or wrong answer.

Black-ish gracefully handles so many different narratives. One episode focuses on Andre Jr. joining the young Republicans — much to his parents’ dismay; in disbelief, they sputter out, “But we’re black?!” — first to impress a pretty girl but then he begins to actually like the politics. (The writers find a clever way to have the parents disagree with Republican fundamentals without turning the episode into a full half-hour of conservative-bashing; a rival black couple extolls the virtues of being black Republicans while Dre marvels about how Cheney is a “hero” and a “pimp.”) Teen Andre later becomes a Democrat because of another pretty girl. Another episode, featuring guest star Raven Symone, deals with black homophobia. I had been dreading the episode because of Empire‘s clumsy portrayal of the same problem, but Black-ish got it right by discussing the issue in smaller terms — confining it to the Johnson family, mostly focusing on Dre’s deeply religious mother — instead of trying to take on the way it might manifest in the larger world. (Empire‘s insisted that basically every black person, especially in the hip-hop community, is homophobic.)

As with Fresh Off the Boat, there are going to be viewers who believe Black-ish isn’t going hard enough when it comes to portraying a black family — because there are so few narratives about black families currently on television that Black-ish has been unfairly tasked with representing all black families. There will also be viewers who believe that the show focuses too much on race and would prefer that it was never mentioned. It puts Black-ish in a no-win scenario, but it’s a scenario that the series has been aware about and one that it’s worked with by inserting specifics about culture into its broad plots. Like Pops did in last night’s episode, the show is taking liberties with its portrayal of the black experience, because no black experience is the same — but what it’s important is that Black-ish is making sure its story gets told.