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At the end of last season, the married couple at the center of ABC’s Black-ish saw their relationship abruptly disintegrate. It was a dramatic detour that raised some audience concern not because it was badly handled — Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross have maybe never been better — but because it shed a dark, almost condemning light on two characters and a union that, previously, we hadn’t been used to viewing with such concern or disdain. It was raw and probably honest TV, but it wasn’t exactly Black-ish.
In his new Netflix comedy #blackAF, Black-ish creator Kenya Barris has crafted a show better equipped to handle that cynicism and edgy discomfort. The easy instinct is to call #blackAF Barris’ Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I don’t think Larry David has ever truly used his HBO comedy as self-exposing therapy in the way that Barris does here. Where David has generally been gleefully smug about Larry’s misanthropy, #blackAF is either caustically self-lacerating or bleakly disingenuous about the idea of “Kenya Barris” as a character.
AIR DATE Apr 17, 2020
That’s not a qualitative commentary on either show, mind you. #blackAF takes a little while to settle into its voice and tone, but by the excellent fifth episode, it has its own smart groove, one driven unexpectedly by the toxicity — autobiographical or not — of the main characters.
You’ll spend a lot of #blackAF wondering, “Are the characters supposed to be coming across as such bad and incompatible people?” and even if I’m pretty sure the answer is, “Yes,” that won’t necessarily make everybody want to spend time with them.
As depicted here, Barris is wildly wealthy, crazily insecure and inexplicably proud of his limited parenting skills for his six children. His relationship with wife Joya (Rashida Jones), a lawyer who put her career on hold to delegate responsibility of raising the family to an assortment of hired help, is only fitfully affectionate. This week’s Black-ish focused on Anderson’s Andre explaining the dangers of knowing which buttons of insecurity to press in your spouse. In the world of Black-ish, love reigns over psychological warfare. On #blackAF, Kenya and Joya press those buttons without hesitation.
The narrative of #blackAF flows through an apparently hugely ambitious documentary that Kenya’s daughter Drea (Iman Benson, delivering expert reaction shots) is producing as part of her NYU college application. Kenya, wealthy off of his new Netflix deal, has given Drea a seven-person film crew, an editing suite and full access to tell the story of her family. Or, as Drea puts it, “Apparently my dad hates his money and wants to make sure that he spends every bit of it before he dies.”
Certainly Kenya’s financial excesses are at the root of much of the series’ drama, whether it’s the fancy sports car that leads to mockery from guest star Steve Levitan; the conspicuous gold chain that earns him commentary wherever he goes; or a season-ending vacation to Fiji on which Kenya plays a game of one-upmanship against himself.
It isn’t exactly clear if Drea is an especially big fan of Black-ish or if Kenya’s life seems to flow naturally in and out of Black-ish-esque lesson-teaching arcs, but #blackAF has a “Here’s the show ABC probably wouldn’t let us make” undercurrent without any direct addressing of the literal episode (or maybe episodes) ABC wouldn’t let Kenya make. So if the tackling of representations of black success, sexualizing of young black women and celebration of Juneteenth feel like things Black-ish would do or has done, that’s the point.
You’re just supposed to watch these topical episodes and ponder how those topics are being addressed with the ability to swear, with the perpetually exhausted and disgruntled Kenya as a less upbeat tour guide, with running times of between 30 and as many as 48 minutes, and with a running joke that ties each episode’s theme to slavery. The show’s title, changed pre-premiere from Black Excellence, is all about the presumed contrast between the partiality of “-ish” and the totality of “AF,” even if both are constructs.
And if the topicality is similar to Black-ish, the characters are even more directly aligned. The game is seeing how similar scenarios and characters function in their “real” incarnations, while simultaneously being aware that if Anthony Anderson plays Kenya on Black-ish and Kenya plays Kenya on #blackAF, they’re both scripted TV characters, one just giving an illusion of realness through amateurism.
Anderson is a better salesman for the character than Kenya is, but one presumes that Kenya is very much aware of his own acting limitations and he’s equally aware of how much he’s upstaging himself casting the remarkably sharp Jones, an executive producer and director on #blackAF and a successful writer in her own right, as his wife. Is he setting himself and the character up to be a second banana? Yes. Is that a way to get us to almost pity him for his professed inadequacies as a husband and father? Perhaps. Does that make the apparent candor come across as less, well, candid? Here and there. It’s excuse-making and unapologetic at once and it’s OK to feel conflicted about that.
It’s very hard to tell whether Barris is criticizing himself and his earlier show for the middle-of-the-road approach required by a broadcast network. That’s what the fifth episode suggests, while also implying that this white TV critic probably shouldn’t be in the business of defining what either show is. The installment is a scathing look at the importance and necessity of self-examination and self-critique within the black community, featuring a tremendous video conference call of African American entertainment luminaries and a visit with Tyler Perry that I’d compare to the Dane Cook cameo in the first season of Louie. It’s a “Take me as I am or get bent” declaration of intent that highlighted my irrelevance to his pursuits in as clear-eyed a way as I can imagine.
The episode, with that 48-minute running time, is a provocative essay in TV form, one that I’d be eager to write more about except that it makes no bones about the suggestion that my writing more about it would probably be overcompensating for my whiteness in some way. Fair.
A lot of #blackAF is in that TV-essay mode, as if Barris, leaving the broadcast confines for the world of Netflix, felt the need to spend eight episodes looking backward and then realigning before moving on to whatever other shows he hopes to do. Sometimes it’s a postmodern exercise. Sometimes it’s a sour smirk at audience expectations. Sometimes it’s self-flagellation. I found it often funny and was invested in trying to decode the layers of fictional autobiography. As to whether the layers of cynicism and discomfort are actually pleasurable to watch? That’s a tougher question.
Cast: Kenya Barris, Rashida Jones, Iman Benson, Genneya Walton, Scarlet Spencer, Justin Claiborne, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Richard Gardenhire Jr.
Creator: Kenya Barris
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
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