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“When you get to a seventh season, you kind of need a pandemic,” notes Black-ish showrunner Courtney Lilly, halfway joking about the fresh creative opportunities inherent in the global crisis that struck as the venerable series was mounting its most recent season. “Frasier went through one, Friends, I think they went through two pandemics,” he jests.
Kidding aside, Lilly and his writers room initially believed they were starting out ahead of schedule, with several story ideas already in motion before production ended on season six in early 2020. “Literally we were like, ‘We’ve got like four scripts — we’re going to go into this season way ahead, rarin’ to go.” He recalls. “And then everything changed.”
As the sheltered summer months wore on and plans on how to safely resume production were formulated (“We weren’t making a television show; we were in the midst of surviving a pandemic and keeping people in their homes and paying their mortgages and keeping people safe”), Lilly was unsure if, by the fall, the virus would still dominate everyday life and whether to include it in the show — and if so, would it be fodder for comedy?
But Black-ish had always kept one foot firmly in the real world. “When the show premiered in 2014, Barack Obama was president, and in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president,” Lilly says. “We didn’t think we could ignore it … We didn’t want to live in it for forever, but there were a couple of moments for us to reflect on the conversations that families were having around their dinner table, and that’s the genuine source and engine of our storytelling.”
That engine powered the show to its fourth nomination for outstanding comedy series, and Lilly spoke to THR to reflect on the creative challenges and opportunities that led there.
Once you got underway, how did the pandemic impact the nature of some of Black-ish‘s storytelling?
It felt like it actually gave us an opportunity. We did not run into a seventh season like, “Well, what do we do now? We’ve done everything.” But we were living in a place we’d never dealt with before and for Tracee [Ellis Ross] to be able to show Bow as a doctor dealing with this in our premiere last year, and for all the families who were doing remote learning and to be able to deal with that and the stress and the pressure of all that kind of stuff, it felt like it at least gave us a little bit of wind on our back, storywise, when we started.
We [had initially] built a story about having a blackout in California and Dre not trusting his neighbors and not knowing necessarily what that was going to look like if he felt like society was on the verge of breaking down. We wrote a draft over the hiatus, did all of that. And then the pandemic got to be what the pandemic was, and we’re like, “Does the story still work? How do we make this work?” This is kind of a nice allegorical way of exploring this idea, which also gets at the heart of some of this character — saying that for Dre, what is it like? He lives in a neighborhood where he doesn’t necessarily trust his neighbors. And I think during the pandemic, we all started looking around. Not only did we feel with the joy of like, “Oh, I can rely on my neighbors to do this. They are kind of considerate. It didn’t turn into The Walking Dead when the shelves cleared.” There was an application of joy and an understanding of those things.
So our story ended up being slightly more relevant, in a way, and we were able to return to it. We figured it out and it was nice to see that there was an idea that was there … there was that kernel of that story, and it ended up being more than a kernel you were able to really use. It was nice to see everybody pull together to make that pivot work.
The show has built into its DNA an impulse to take inventive creative swings to address topical issues, like with the “Juneteenth” episode, and this season found genuinely innovative takes on the Black Lives Matter protests, voting inequality and more. Describe the process this time around.
For us, it was like building from the ground up a foundation and then building our stories around that. Honestly, the attention on civil rights that was so apparent last year, police brutality, all those kinds of things, I think people have an expectation of what kind of story we’re going to tell, what kind of opinions we might have. And we’re never trying to be bombastic or preachy. What we want to do as much as anything is show the diversity of opinions within not only a family, but the Black community generationally, all those things. And seeing what families went through, we heard it. People talked about it. We had writers who found themselves in a protest.
There’s a line in that episode where Anthony [Anderson] as Dre says, “I found out I’m a daytime protestor.” And that was one from one of our writers who was in New York. He went down to a protest, it started getting dark. He saw somebody light up some newspaper and walk toward a cop car, and he’s like, “It’s time for me to go.” And it didn’t mean he wasn’t down with the cause or the ideas he went to support these things. He just had to make an evaluation of where he was vis-a-vis the identity he thought he was, vis-a-vis the crowd around him.
Stuff like that is the stuff that really we’re able to put into the show and give that kind of fullness. … These are all tragic circumstances. We didn’t want to be in a pandemic. We didn’t want George Floyd to be murdered. We didn’t want these things to happen. Then you just have to react and tell an honest version of the stories that come out of it.
I expect there were many different perspectives and voices in your writers room, and among your cast. Was it both exhilarating and nerve-wracking to zero in on what you wanted to say, as a show, about these things?
Kenya [Barris, the series’ creator] laid the groundwork for this. It all starts off with a discussion, and if we find half a dozen people having a conversation and we have half a dozen different opinions, then we know we have an episode. If we’re all agreeing on something, we don’t have an episode. We don’t have the points of view. We don’t know enough about the issue. Nobody feels strongly enough about something.
For us, it’s always finding it organically, and then it actually becomes fun. … This is just part of my process, too, creatively in trusting the process that I’ve done for 20 years in a variety of different ways as a writer before writing the show: You trust that you’ll find the story. You trust that it can get big enough and you trust you’ll find the right moments, because otherwise you’re forcing it.
Did knowing that you’d be concluding the series in the eighth season empower you to introduce some ongoing narrative threads, like Dre striking out on his own professionally?
[Network television] puts less pressure on us to have to always be driving a narrative, and Dre’s always had a strong kind of engine, and the series has kind of always been able to move off of that. And as we knew we were heading toward some sort of conclusion in the relative near future, we thought about it. … We had a sense of what our playbook needed to be so we could start to see some of those things. We knew it couldn’t really be out of nowhere.
As we’re getting into our eighth and final season, it’s a little more trying to go to the trust of it all, because we have a plan. We’re going to try to execute all these things. … It’s got to be building something a little bit more than we usually do. So there are differences, but ultimately, too, we’re just sitting there like, “You know what? You’ll find it. It’ll be fun. It’ll be funny. It’ll be big. It’ll be honest, and our actors will knock it out.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
The only broadcast comedy in the main race has had a spotty record over the years. A total 21 nominations across seven seasons have thus far produced just one win — for hairstyling. And while stars Tracey Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson are perennial frontrunners, the show itself hasn’t been nominated for best comedy since 2019. Its history has paved an unlikely road to victory, but there’s still a chance that broadcast nostalgia (and admiration for 21 episodes produced during COVID) might inspire a surprise. — Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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