While in quarantine during the summer of 2020, I turned to binge-watching as my central form of escapism. Many mornings began with laying on my couch and watching at least a few hours of television. I indulged in all of my favorite sitcoms, from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to “Everybody Hates Chris.” The humor of these shows was a perfect distraction from the uncertain realities of a peak-pandemic world.
My absolute favorite sitcom to watch is “Living Single,” which depicts the lives of six friends exploring their 20s in Brooklyn, N.Y. What I really love about this show is how multi-faceted each character is. While they’re all pursuing their own careers in the professional world, none of the characters fall into the “token Black character” trope as they still have their own faults and areas for growth and there are no central white characters in the show that their narratives revolve around, making them very fleshed-out characters. For a 30-minute sitcom, each of the central characters had a fully rounded-out story arc and the show had plenty of drama, making it the perfect series to binge all through my summer. While watching these shows, I couldn’t help but wonder as to why current Black TV lacked the same sort of effortless authenticity as some of my favorite shows from the late 90s and early 2000s. There seems to be a disconnect between older and more recent depictions of the Black American lifestyle; Many of the more recently produced Black TV shows, specifically ones created in the past several years, seem to be more directed towards white audiences.
In considering contemporary Black TV shows with questionable levels of authenticity, shows like “BlackAF” or “Black-ish” come to mind. While I do enjoy shows like “Black-ish” to an extent, many of these shows seem to be greatly catered towards white audiences, as they take time to explain aspects of the Black American experience that would otherwise be implied in a show that was simply just for Black people in America. Most episodes of “Black-ish” begin with the main character and patriarch of the Johnson family, Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), explaining some aspect of the “typical” Black American lifestyle. The audience for these monologues is seemingly non-Black, and more specifically white, viewers. This speaks to the larger commercial success that is seen when Black narratives are watered down to be made palatable to white audiences. However, this comes at the cost of sacrificing more elaborate depictions of Blackness. Wider audiences outside of the Black community may not understand the implied facets of Black American lifestyle and its niche cultural references, so these typically have to be spelled out for the sake of more widespread comprehension. While these may seem like insignificant sacrifices to make, this ultimately diminishes a piece of the tasteful charm of Black TV and somewhat reduces the standards to which Black stories can be told on television.
Generally, the show is able to have a lighthearted script filled with popular Gen-Z slang and (sometimes misused) African American Vernacular English buzzwords, appeasing white audiences because of the integration of AAVE into popular culture while skirting around political topics. In an interview about “Black-ish”’s infamous episode on police brutality, creator and writer Kenya Barris admits, “My fear is: I don’t want to piss anyone off. I don’t want to politicize the show.” In the episode, he goes out of his way to keep the Black Lives Matter movement from being explicitly mentioned throughout the episode, claiming that it wasn’t applicable to the family’s conversation about police brutality. I find this rather perplexing, since Black Lives Matter, as a movement, is one of the central movements directly associated with police brutality in the 2010s. It’s also difficult to discuss police brutality without involving politics because even though it should only be a matter of basic human rights, the discrimination of Black people in America has always been an inherently social and political issue. Perhaps excluding the mention of Black Lives Matter was an attempt by Barris to avoid any particularly harsh backlash from either side of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, it simplifies the nuances of police brutality and doesn’t dive into the conversation of its ramifications past the surface level.
The characterizations in “Black-ish” are similar to that of “The Cosby Show” in the late 90s, as they both depict well-off Black American families, headed by comedic patriarch figures. “Cosby”’s spin-off, “A Different World,” originally followed Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet), then later Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) throughout her years at a historically Black university. The show tackled more political topics than its predecessor, with episodes about homelessness, sexual assault and AIDS, a highly controversial issue at the time. “A Different World” never saw nearly the same amount of widespread consumption as “The Cosby Show,” but it was able to push boundaries in terms of what topics could be explored by Black television writers. This isn’t to say that every Black television show must tackle political topics in great depth. It is necessary to have Black television shows that exist to entertain audiences with humor and feel-good sentiments. However, contemporary Black shows like “Black-ish,” with such a large audience of white viewers, should not be consumed as a source for holistic discourse about social and institutional issues like racism.
Shows like HBO’s “Insecure” and ABC’s “How To Get Away With Murder” make me feel hopeful about Black TV’s future; both shows follow Black women and depict their experiences with a sense of honesty and rawness as they navigate discrimination, relationships and intimacy in their professional and personal lives. Both of these shows have garnered great popularity, with “How to Get Away With Murder” ending as one of ABC’s most popular shows after a six-season run. It is also no coincidence that they were also both created and directed by Black women. Issa Rae both directed and starred in “Insecure,” making her the first Black woman to create and star in a premium cable TV show while Shonda Rhimes produced “How To Get Away With Murder,” marking her third hit television show on ABC behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” These shows have incredibly well-written story arcs and address racial issues with honesty and complexity. These are the same qualities that made me fall in love with shows like “Living Single.” With this in mind, I hope there is a future for Black TV where Black stories can still be portrayed with integrity without having to be watered-down for mainstream consumption.
MiC Columnist Udoka Nwansi can be reached at email@example.com.