Critic's Notebook: The Baffling Blandness of the Shelved 'Black-ish' Episode

BLACK-ISH - Please, Baby, Please - ABC publicity 2-H 2020
Courtesy of ABC

Since it was pulled from ABC's schedule in the spring of 2018, the "Please, Baby, Please" episode of Black-ish has been notorious primarily for being notorious, controversial for having been the subject of controversy.

At the time, Channing Dungey, then ABC's entertainment president and since departed for Netflix, emphasized that there wasn't a specific topical reason for the decision not to air the episode — that it basically hadn't come together creatively and there had been a collective determination that it wouldn't air. Series creator Kenya Barris, who directed the episode and co-wrote it with Peter Saji, agreed that it was a "mutual" move, simultaneously plowing ahead with his work at ABC and picking up his overall deal and moving it to Netflix.

That meant that, in lieu of parsing actual points of discord, critics and reporters were left speculating about what aspects of "Please, Baby, Please" had been too hot for ABC primetime. There was consensus that the episode was about Dre (Anthony Anderson) attempting to calm his infant son in the middle of a disruptive storm, in the process comparing it to the level of discomfort and unrest many Americans were feeling a year-plus into the Trump administration.

Since it would not have been the first time that Black-ish tackled sticky political subject matter — much less the first time the show expressed concern about Donald Trump and his divisive impact on the nation — folks were left to latch onto rumored tidbits from the episode as justification. Specifically, there was a narrative that the reason the Black-ish episode was too spicy for the Disney overlords related to a plotline involving Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the National Anthem performed before NFL games. That made as much sense as anything.

This Monday (August 10), Barris tweeted a statement announcing that "Please, Baby, Please," which was originally produced in November 2017, was now available on Hulu following a plea to Walt Disney Television. ABC had recently re-aired several of the show's more provocative episodes, including "Hope" and "Juneteenth," making the time right to premiere this one, which now finds itself tagged to the end of the series' fourth season.

Given the nebulous nature of the whispering about "Please, Baby, Please," it probably isn't surprising that the actual episode is less a landmark piece of television and more a perfectly so-so and serviceable illustration of the Streisand Effect, by which attempt to censor something only results in generating more publicity around the thing.

After watching the 22-minute episode, I find two things immediately clear: First, there was absolutely no reason for ABC to raise a stink about the episode much less not to air it. And second, that doesn't mean that Dungey's assessment of the episode's quality was in any way incorrect. "Please, Baby, Please" is not a very good episode of Black-ish, nor is it a horrible episode. It feels like exactly what it is, namely the product of a smart and talented writer being frustrated about the state of the world, without knowing exactly what to say on the subject, or how to say it (but still arriving at a point of uncertain optimism that's not without resonance).

Maybe viewers turn to shows like Black-ish to help process chaos. Barris has certainly succeeded in offering a prism through which to engage with disheartening bedlam in the past; maybe in this episode, he just wanted to capture the enduring necessity of simple hopefulness amid societal unease.

There's nothing wrong with the sentiment, and it's played with real sweetness and sobriety by Anderson, as he struggles to quiet DeVante while Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) tries to sleep, Pops (Laurence Fishburne) tries to drink, Junior (Marcus Scribner) grapples with a student council decision involving student-athletes kneeling for the National Anthem and Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin) freak out about global warming.

Unlike Very Special Episodes like "Hope" and "Juneteenth," "Please, Baby, Please" makes little effort to utilize humor. There are punchlines about how Clippers fans understand oppression and about how Pops used to slip whiskey into Dre's milk when he wouldn't sleep, but generally it's a straightforward, fairly serious-minded bottle episode dedicated mostly to news footage and some tremendous needle-drops starting with "Change Is Gonna Come." If "Hope" distilled Barris' quandary explaining police violence to older children, this episode is intentionally simple and reductive, leading to a conclusive statement — "Nobody knows exactly what the future will bring, but what we do know is there are more of us who help than those of us who hurt" — that I'm not sure Barris or Dre even believe.

What could have caused wariness among ABC executives? I honestly haven't the faintest idea. Dre refers to white pride activists as bigots and Pops states, "White pride is not like a real thing." It's unimpeachable stuff, especially if you can say with reasonable conviction that the Venn diagram of Black-ish viewers and white pride crusaders consists of two unconnected circles. Nobody would have noticed or cared. Disney would have faced no blowback.

And what of the National Anthem protest worries? Even if you consider the intermingled relations between Disney/ABC/ESPN and the NFL, the gist of the episode's stand on National Anthem kneeling is, "Sports and politics have been connected forever and Colin Kaepernick's protest has a message that isn't at all disrespectful to the troops and is, in fact, just an exercise of free speech." Not to say that there aren't people who would disagree with that statement, but they're probably not Black-ish viewers and nothing in this tiny corner of the episode was discussed in enough depth to generate anything more than a minuscule squabble. More boldly combative and creatively unsuccessful episodes of Black-ish have aired without comment, as have episodes with a more pugnacious take on our president.

With the episode now made available for viewers to experience, ABC is semi-validated, because "Please, Baby, Please" really isn't as cohesive and clever as Black-ish normally is. And Barris is also semi-validated, because two years later, the sleeplessness and dyspepsia have only increased — as have our difficulties processing our ideologically divided nation.

But is the notoriety-saturated "Please, Baby, Please" worth rushing to watch, perhaps out of fear that it might get pulled again? Nah.