For the last five years, ABC’s primetime schedule has trended downward, both from a creative and commercial standpoint. But perhaps the network’s most egregious misstep has been its handling of the post-“Modern Family” timeslot. Since the start of the five-time Emmy award winning comedy, its 9:30 p.m. lead-out has amounted to a revolving door of remarkably similar, “Friends”-inspired comedies — “Cougar Town,” “Happy Endings,” “Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23,” “Super Fun Night,” “Mixology” and others, few of which worked and only the first of which is still running (albeit on a different network). Despite consistent attention and acclaim, “Modern Family” has yet to bestow its ratings success and good fortune upon a series worthy enough to maintain it. That is, until now.
Wednesdays 9:30 p.m.
“Black-ish” is the sitcom ABC has been waiting for — smart, engaging, relevant and laugh-out-loud funny. Starring Anthony Anderson (“Guys With Kids”) as Andre, a father who fears his family has lost touch with Black culture, “Black-ish” is a diversified depiction of American family that is still sorely lacking on broadcast television. But just as “Scandal” paved the way for a host of minority-led dramas with its success (such as this year’s “Red Band Society,” “Empire” and “How To Get Away With Murder”), “Black-ish” has the potential to do the same for its genre. All told, it’s one of the best half-hours to premiere in years.
What’s most surprising about “Black-ish” is how introspective it is for a comedy series — it goes beyond its one-note conceit and instead successfully navigates a much more thoughtful story. On the surface, the comedy poses the question, “are we Black enough (or only Black-ish)?” Sure, it’s funny and edgy and most certainly pushes broadcast television’s (rather white) envelope, but there’s so much more to the sitcom than a cheap logline and a catchy title. In reality, “Black-ish” is far more contemplative. How does a family maintain a unified racial identity when each generation’s experience is so different? How does a father embrace change without neglecting his storied past? And of course, how have white guys Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke become the Kings of R&B?
“Black-ish” also extends outside its box as a family sitcom, with some of its strongest scenes playing out in the workplace. Where “management is diverse, but senior level management, not so much.” Where Andre becomes his company’s first black Senior Vice President, only to discover he’ll be in charge of the “Urban” division. And where Andre’s boss asks him to bring his “swag” to a presentation. “Just keep it real,” he advises Andre.
Such moments will undoubtedly elicit a varied response from the audience, ranging from mindless laughter to concern over the character’s seemingly very realistic treatment. And in anticipation of that,“Black-ish” cleverly props up two of its lead characters to represent this dichotomy — one an angel on Andre’s left shoulder, one a devil on the other (which is which, however, you’ll have to decide for yourself). Andre’s father, Pops, (Laurence Fishburne, “Hannibal”) would posit that his son has lost touch with his roots, allowing his son to play field hockey over basketball and joining the “white firm” when he could have already been CEO of the Black one. On the other hand, Fishburne’s foil is Andre’s wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross, “Reed Between the Lines”), who encourages her husband to stop dissecting every little thing, holding it up to preconceived standard. Not only are the characters exceptionally well-cast (can Fishburne do any wrong?) but also written with dimension, elevating the series’ ensemble nature.
But that’s not to say “Black-ish” is perfect (though series premieres rarely are). The series is undone by pacing issues in its final act that dilute the impact of the episode’s big moments. And despite how inventive the writers seem to think it is, the “bro mitzvah” is slowly turning into one of entertainment’s newest tropes. However, “Black-ish” does so much right in its first offering that these criticisms are more nit-picky than do they substantially detract from the premiere’s success.
In the end, despite what society might dictate and despite what the voices in his head — mainly Pops’ and Rainbow’s — might tell him, Andre is just a father trying to make the best decisions for his family. And in that regard, “Black-ish” is a series for everyone; the rare “broad” comedy that doesn’t substitute the wit of its narrative in favor of drawing in the masses. Because the best comedies can be both smart and far-reaching, and “Black-ish” is just that — never dull nor dumb, universal in its appeal and ultimately, the perfect companion for “Modern Family.”
ABC, you finally did it.