Critic's Notebook: 'Black-ish' and 'American Crime' Are the Best Shows on Broadcast TV

Critic's Notebook - H 2016
Courtesy of ABC

This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

As the controversy about the film world's whiteness rages on, ABC has very quietly assembled an implicit corrective: a pair of shows, Black-ish and American Crime (airing back-to-back on Wednesdays at 9:30 and 10 p.m., respectively), that grapple with issues of race, are models of diversity both behind and in front of the camera, and, in the process, have become the very best series on network television. Hollywood would be wise to pay attention.

Their approaches couldn't be more different: American Crime is an hourlong drama with enough heart to earn viewers' tears; Black-ish is a half-hour comedy whose razor-sharp humor generates laughs aplenty. What they have in common is their fearlessness in tackling American demons that have proven stubbornly difficult to tame and their willingness to allow their fiction to creep uncomfortably close to the realm of reality.

When it premiered in September 2014, Black-ish largely explored African-American identity via traditional sitcom plots: Rainbow's (Tracee Ellis Ross) struggles to relate to her mother-in-law, Ruby (Jenifer Lewis); Dre's (Anthony Anderson) inability to get the family to join him in Halloween pranks; and various other broadly relatable, light-hearted scenarios.

But gradually, steered by showrunner Kenya Barris, Black-ish has become fiercer and more focused in its commentary. It has woven the debate over gun control, the use of the N-word, the role of the church and the barber shop in African-American communities, and much more into its storylines. It has alternated smartly between debunking stereotypes and playing with them for comic effect (see Dre's recent refusal to let his neighbor believe he couldn't swim, only to nearly drown in her pool). And as it's grown braver, the series has flaunted increasingly superb acting by Anderson, Ross, Laurence Fishburne, Lewis and a juvenile ensemble that's second to none on TV (Marcus Scribner's nerdy Dre Jr., Yara Shahidi's popularity-hungry Zoey, Marsai Martin's wicked Diane and Miles Brown's dim-but-upbeat Jack).

The kids were front and center in the powerful and much-discussed episode (entitled "Hope") that aired Feb. 24, in which a pending verdict in a fictionalized case of police brutality led to a 22-minute discussion on the fraught relationship between people of color and the police.

Black-ish has always kept the focus on laughs, even when dealing with painful subjects. But in this episode, the balance tipped. There may have been jokes about Peabo Bryson and O.J. Simpson, but the episode was a sobering and clear-eyed consideration of a stinging reality: that the Johnson family's pleasant, upper-middle-class enclave can't shelter them, emotionally and psychologically, from certain injustices.

Directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller, "Hope" felt more didactic than usual, but intentionally so, full of "teachable moments" and, at times, real emotion. That said, it was still Black-ish; the kids all reacted to the case in character-specific ways, proving that this is a show that can get serious, even earnest, without losing itself in all the good intentions.

I wouldn't be surprised if some viewers were upset that Black-ish dared to go there without the more comforting cushion of comedy, or perhaps that Black-ish dared to go there at all. And while I don't think the series should put out a "very special episode" every week, or even every month, "Hope" was an example of how the show has used race to challenge and push itself — to flex its muscles.

American Crime's boldness also is paying off in a big way. Creator John Ridley looks at television-making the way a savvy tourist looks at a Las Vegas buffet, filling his plate with the richest offerings and rarely worrying about the downside of excess. In the anthology series' first season, Ridley took on the black-and-white divide in the legal system, as well as our growing religious schism, and the results sometimes slid into off-putting melodrama. In the far superior second season, Ridley has been even more aggressive in reaching for big issues, but his grasp has grown firmer and more confident. He kicks off the season with a scholarship student at an Indiana prep school accusing a player on the basketball team of rape, then expands it, fascinatingly, to explore the way economic disparities impact education and become intertwined with racial frictions.

Ridley likes dealing in ironies and reversals, so in season two of American Crime, it's the attractive blond cheerleader who's a drug dealer, the African-American family that's affluent and Regina King's character (the mother of one of the implicated students) who has the chummy relationship with the police. Meanwhile, the white characters played by Lili Taylor and the remarkable Connor Jessup (as a single mother and her maybe-victimized son) discover how easily their community dismisses its less wealthy members. The accuser finds himself ejected from a world in which money seems to erase racial divisions and plunked down in a public school where black, white and Latino students are pitted against one another.

If the first season sought to show how scorchingly close to the surface issues of race remain when it comes to matters of justice in America, the second season has plunged deeper, suggesting how those same issues are a bit more insidiously buried — but still ever present — in our education system.

Like Black-ish, American Crime seeks to instigate tough conversations, taking the rawest ripped-from-the-headlines stories, demanding we examine our own assumptions, and not always giving us the comforting comedic or dramatic beats we crave. It also comes closer than most series out there to all-encompassing demographic representation — though, to the show's great credit, nobody is a token, and nobody speaks for everybody.

Excellence aside, are these shows the game-changers they deserve to be? Thanks in no small part to its Modern Family lead-in, Black-ish is a success, but doesn't get the ratings of a Big Bang Theory or the Emmy attention of its cable and streaming brethren. And while American Crime netted a supporting actress Emmy for Regina King, that attention and strong reviews haven't helped it generate much of an audience.

Too bad. Not only are these shows the best broadcast television has to offer right now — they're also exactly the right shows at exactly the right time.