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One of the more intriguing shows of the new fall season is ABC’s Black-ish, a sitcom that’s both funny and about something. Or, in this case, things.
So few comedies actually have a point of view or something to say — they’re about friends hanging out or some contrived situation. In Black-ish, created by Kenya Barris, a lot of attention has been paid to the fact that this is a show about an African-American family and the African-American experience. Well, that’s true in a sense, but as Barris and star Anthony Anderson have said, it started out as a show about parents who succeed at doing what all parents want to do: give their children a better life than their own. Of course, when that happens, the next step is that parents immediately worry they’ve spoiled their children and, if there’s a cultural element, that the children have completely lost who they are and where they (or more accurately their parents and grandparents) have come from.
“When I started doing it, it was a way of sort of looking at the world from where we are today,” Barris said. “And it could be black, but at the same time you could be Asian. You could be Jewish. You could be from Middle America. We’re taught to give our kids more than we have. That’s just the international rule. But sometimes in doing that, you lose a little bit of what you remember or what you thought your upbringing was, and it’s like … how do you now raise your family?”
Black-ish revolves around Anderson as Andre “Dre” Johnson, a very successful advertising executive. His biracial wife is named Rainbow (yes, they went broad with that), played by Tracee Ellis Ross. She’s also extremely successful, and they have lovely kids who, to the immense admiration of Rainbow, now see the world as essentially colorless. This grates on Dre and amuses his father, Laurence Fishburne, who has the very sitcom-like (but very funny) job of commenting on how Dre’s family is, um, modern.
One of the funnier bits in the pilot might seem like a stretch, but comes from Anderson’s own life. In the show, his son Andre Jr. wants a bar mitzvah. (He also wants to change his name, an ongoing joke that should keep paying dividends.) “My son was 12 at the time,” Anderson told critics over the summer, “and he came home, and we had a serious conversation because he said, ‘Dad, I don’t feel black.’ … I grew up in the hood, in Compton, Calif. And the existence that my son knows is nothing short of privilege. Being in private school since the age of 4 and his surroundings in that environment is what he was referring to … He said, ‘OK, Dad. For my 13th birthday, I want a bar mitzvah.’ … So we had a compromise. I told him, ‘Well, you know, that’s not our culture. That’s not who we are and what we do. But I will throw you a hip-hop bro mitzvah.’ And that’s what we did. I trademarked the name bro mitzvah, and I threw him a party. And to this day — he’s 14 now — all of his Jewish friends say that was the best bar mitzvah they’ve been to.”
Anderson brought in Larry Wilmore to help run the show, and of all the fall comedies, Black-ish is the most complete and probably has the brightest future. (And ABC is finally getting its scheduling right on Wednesday nights, letting Black-ish follow Modern Family.)
It’s not a perfect pilot; most sitcoms aren’t. But like a precious few others, you can see that everyone involved is funny and connected to the concept. Anderson and Ross are terrific together, and Fishburne looks to be having the time of his life. The kids are cute and not annoying, which is a godsend.
More than anything else, however, Black-ish has something to say about cultural identity and parenting and the changing world around us. Those are universal issues, and Black-ish is a true bright spot in a bleak fall TV landscape.
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