Black-ish Cast

Last night, ABC premiered its much-anticipated new series Black’ish. The show, which stars Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis-Ross, and Laurence Fishburne, had already garnered a lot of attention for both positive (with another Black creator joining alongside Shonda Rhimes on the network’s prime-time lineup) and negative reasons (whether its comedic approach wouldn’t be taken seriously). There will be plenty of thinkpieces and overanalyses about what the show accomplished, failed to do, how it’s going to sink or swim based on how it compares to the Cosbys (or nah), but I’ll keep it simple. Whether you watched it along with #BlackTwitter last night or intend to catch the replay this weekend, here are four things to take away from the pilot episode of Black’ish.

1) It’s Safe

When series creator Kenya Barris first pitched Black’ish to ABC executives, I’m sure it elicited the same reaction Anthony Anderson’s character received when he made his mock pitch for an ad campaign to his boss. There was definitely apprehension – a series about a Black family from a tongue-in-cheek, satirical perspective? It could go left very quickly, and a Big Three network like ABC couldn’t have Chappelle-style humor (especially being Disney-affiliated). Thankfully, Barris’s pitch, coupled with his writing staff, make it easy to see from the pilot why Black’ish works for ABC: it plays it very safe. You have the standard Black family show set-up – an African-American extended nuclear family (bearing the default African-American surname “Johnson”), with a live-in grandfather, and four kids. The parents are successful and their kids go to private schools. And there’s nothing too over the top – not even when the eldest boy, André (with an accent mark over the “e” for Black affirmation purposes) is thrown a “Bro Mitzvah” blending elements of Judaism and hip-hop, right down to b-boys on the dance floor.

2) … but Is It TOO Safe?

Still, there’s no coincidence why the cast of Black’ish looks the way it does. You have Anderson and Ellis-Ross (“Joan from Girlfriends”) as leads, both of whom are best known for their comedic roles than their dramatic ones. Ellis-Ross’s character is revealed to be multi-racial – Ah-ha! So THAT’S why her name is “Rainbow!” (and who names their daughter “Rainbow?” Seriously…) Not to mention that she hilariously quips in a discussion about race with her husband, “If I’m not really Black, then tell that to my hair and my ass” – which also explains their light-skinned and brown-skinned children. Ah, and then you have Fishburne playing a Pops from Friday-style role that Furious Styles would have Stone Cold Stunned in a heartbeat if they ever saw each other on the street. Barris and her writers used the pilot to essentially put “Black life in a white society” under a microscope, right down to interjecting written blurbs – a la Malcolm and The Middle – in certain live-action scenes, i.e., the “us vs. them” scene in the boardroom. Its opening does a good job of preparing viewers for what to expect, with its hilarious use of a tour guide showing off Anderson as one of the Black people in the neighborhood as though he’s a tourist attraction. But this sort of comes and goes. One wonders if Black’ish has room to be serious about certain issues and, more importantly, if it does get serious, will people still find that something to laugh at?

3) All of the Black Culture References. ALL OF THEM.

What are some of the things you’d mention if you were writing a show that aimed to tackle the issues Black people face from a satirical stance? Blacks playing sports. Whether or not OJ murdered his wife. The idea of being – or “staying” – Black. White friends who are “down.” Oh, and of course, President Barack Obama. Black’ish‘s pilot manages to touch on all of these in its first episode alone. That makes for a somewhat funny discussion at the breakfast table when the younger children don’t know President Obama is the first Black President because “he’s the only President I know”… which in turn leads to a brief touching on of “they don’t see race” (this trope comes up again when the children ask to invite a classmate over without mentioning that she’s the only other Black kid in their class). Anderson’s character Andre makes sure to distinguish between the white men at his job who are “honorary Brothers” and those who are not. And when André fears his son might be “losing his Blackness” by wanting to play field hockey and having a Bar Mitzvah birthday party, he stages a “in-negro-tervention” with a mock African rites of passage, complete with dashikis and kufis on. We’ll see the HBCU vs. PWI education conversation come up by episode 3, no doubt.

Black-ish ceremony

Anthony Anderson, Tracee-Ellis Ross, and Marcus Scribner on the set of ‘Black’ish.’ Source: ABC.

4) … But It Dropped More Passes Than Calvin Johnson

Black’ish, probably so as not to interrupt the comedic feel of it all, approached topics that could have been points for dialogue but didn’t expand on them. There were missed opportunities to replace or discuss self-stereotypes that Blacks place on themselves, like the fact that Black boys are expected to play basketball or football – or that they must be especially talented at these two sports (Andre Jr. admits that he wants to play basketball towards the end of the episode, he just “sucks at it”). One angle that Black’ish will likely continually return to the oldest son, who seems to be navigating his coming-of-age amongst his white private school friends (he even changes his name to “Andy”). And the conversation Rainbow and André Sr. have in the bedroom about his promotion – “you wanted to be the first Black Senior Vice-President, but not the Senior Vice-President of Black stuff” – could definitely have gone further in terms of discussing how Blacks want to be invited to the table, but not as a diversity pick, if you will. And there are at least four more.

Black’ish isn’t terrible (yet?), but sooner or later, it’s going to be forced with an issue or circumstance that it will have to tackle head-on, without going for laughs (I’d bet the writers are currently struggling to write the episode where Andre Sr. has an incident with the police because of the Mike Brown ordeal in Ferguson). It’s in this moment where we’ll know for sure if Barris’s show will last for more than one season. For now, Black audiences will appreciate where it’s going and white audiences will appreciate being exposed to the intricacies of Black thought and culture in a way they haven’t been since CNN’s Black in America series especially since the “N” word will never be used.