'Mixed-ish': TV Review

A decent start — maybe the laughs come later?
9/24/2019

Thanks to a strong cast, ABC's '80s-set 'Black-ish' spinoff suggests the unlikely franchise has more to say about racial identity.

Sept. 24 marks the fifth anniversary of the series premiere of ABC's Black-ish, which must mean we're also approaching the fifth anniversary of then-reality TV host Donald Trump's tweeted outrage, "How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled "Blackish"? Can you imagine the furor of a show, "Whiteish"! Racism at highest level?"

Back then, who could have predicted… well, who could have predicted any of it. For the moment, let's focus on: Who could have predicted that five years later, not only would Black-ish be chugging along into its sixth season as a perennial Emmy nominee, but that it would be the nexus for the most unlikeliest of TV franchises? The "-ish" universe began its extension with Freeform's Grown-ish, approaching its third season, and continues with ABC's new comedy Mixed-ish. This latest "-ish" spinoff has ample potential and a strong cast in place, though I'd have much more confidence if ABC had been able to get a single post-pilot episode to critics since it's a project in at least some flux.

One thing Mixed-ish immediately has going for it that Grown-ish did not is a solidly established central character. Grown-ish was built much more around the idea of Yara Shahidi's star potential than anything related to the character of Zoey. Mixed-ish is building off of what we know about Tracee Ellis Ross' Bow, including her hippie mother and flighty brother (Anna Deavere Smith and Daveed Diggs in multiple Black-ish episodes), a set of traits and backstory details worth exploring even if they haven't always been consistent.

The Mixed-ish pilot, which began life as a Black-ish episode (hence almost two full minutes of Anthony Anderson and company at the top of the show) and underwent some recasting and refinement, starts in the summer of 1985. Bow (Arica Himmel) is 12 and her family has been living at a commune that the show really, really, really doesn't want us to ask questions about. The commune is busted by the feds — again, not for anything dark and disturbing — and Bow finds herself uprooted to the suburbs along with her parents (Mark-Paul Gosselaar's Paul and Tika Sumpter's Alicia) and younger siblings Johan (Ethan William Childress) and Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris).

Bow and her brother and sister have never experienced things like indoor plumbing, television or the idea that having a white father and an African-American mother might make them different. The pilot contextualizes a mid-'80s view of biracial identity, in terms of societal acceptance and visibility.

Helping or hindering in the family's transition are Paul's extremely conservative corporate attorney father (Gary Cole) and their outspoken Aunt Denise (Christina Anthony, serving a function comparable to the one Jenifer Lewis serves wonderfully on Black-ish).

There's a generational divide in the Mixed-ish pilot, written by Kenya Barris and Peter Saji, with Ross also credited as creator.

Gosselaar, a replacement for Anders Holm, and Sumpter are obviously capable actors, and Paul and Alicia embody some of the pilot's more probing points about identity and privilege. That said, neither character is funny or has any specific voice — quite the opposite in Alicia's case, if you make any attempt to compare what Sumpter is playing to what Smith has played on Black-ish. Both adult stars are probably too recognizable to be playing second bananas to the three juvenile actors, so I'd need to see subsequent episodes to know if they find a way to structure their storylines such that they add value.

Also, as CBS' very short-lived Fam proved this past spring, Cole is absolutely a performer who can get laughs even when the material isn't quite there, but why would networks keep making him prove that? Nothing in his parade of smarmy '80s greed-is-good cliches here is funny on its own.

The contrast, then, is that all three kids are terrific.

As basically a straight-woman lead, Himmel has a task of underrated difficulty, navigating between two experienced adult performers and two unleashed scene stealers. She also has to kinda play Tracee Ellis Ross, or at least be recognizable as the Rainbow we'll eventually know. So far so good. And so far so good for both Childress and particularly Harris, who provide the only laughs in the pilot and have the most instantly defined voices. Some of those laughs are probably on the facile side. Harris being outspoken and stubborn and reciting pop culture jargon probably isn't going to be endlessly effective.

Later this week, I'll pair reviews for a couple of comedy pilots that I wanted to like but didn't and can't bring myself to give the benefit of the doubt. I'm more inclined to give Mixed-ish some leeway because the young cast and a sense of the show's overall purpose are hard things to come by. There are a lot of conversations about race that an 1980s period setting can open the door for, and that can include DeBarge jokes. But Mixed-ish probably shouldn't rely quite as exhaustively on pop culture unless it's just going to be a less frivolous version of The Goldbergs, a show that does what it does reasonably well and doesn't necessarily require replication.

To see where Mixed-ish lands on the comic spectrum, I guess we'll just have to wait around for a second episode. This is a decent start.

Cast: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Tika Sumpter, Christina Anthony, Arica Himmel, Ethan William Childress, Mykal-Michelle Harris, Gary Cole
Creators: Kenya Barris, Peter Saji, Tracee Ellis Ross
Premieres: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)