Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) is a successful guy. He has an intelligent wife, adorable twin kids, and two moody teenagers. They all live together in a big house, and they all seem to get along quite nicely, although they tend to get into tiffs and spats that can usually be resolved amicably after twenty minutes or so. Dre, it would seem, is your typical sitcom protagonist, but with one exception: he’s black. Now, a show with an all-black main cast should not feel so revolutionary; it should be something normal, and we should be able to discuss it as any other show. But given the current (though slowly changing) state of television, which is replete with white antiheroes, it is nothing short of monumental to get a show about a group of likable characters who happen to be black.
Of course, the protagonists’ blackness is not incidental to the show. The series is called Black-ish for a reason, and nearly every episode deals in some way with issues of black identity. Dre, raising his kids in a mostly white neighborhood, often panics about them not behaving as black as he would like, but in a more “black-ish” way, as he terms it, hence the title. Sometimes his concerns and requests are reasonable, like when he asks his son Andre to create a sense of community by making at least one black friend. Other times, they enter the realm of the irrational, like when he ambushes Andre with an African rites of passage ceremony that even his otherwise supportive father, Pops (the great Laurence Fishburne in an uncharacteristically lighthearted recurring role), finds excessive.
However, as important as that element is to the show, Black-ish can be enjoyed on another, more universal level, as it takes the form of a fairly standard sitcom, with an amusing problem of the week structure (Dre feels conflicted about physically punishing his son, Dre attempts to switch roles with his wife for a week, Dre thinks that his children have grown up spoiled and takes measures against that, etc.) which has to be successfully resolved by the end of each episode. It’s refreshing to have a strong, non-serial show with very little ongoing narrative to pay attention to. In this way, it’s more traditional than other current sitcoms, like New Girl or Parks and Recreation, that tweak the formula to adapt to long term stories. Yet Black-ish is unafraid to innovate and to mess around with form. Dre’s self-reflexive narration breaks the fourth wall and occasionally takes a turn towards the bizarrely meta, such as when he watches an episode of the show on a movie theater, commenting on his actions alongside chatty audience members.
Anthony Anderson is an actor who has been doing really solid work for years now without getting the proper credit for it. He takes full advantage of his first significant leading role, playing Dre as a smart, socially conscious man, while at the same time embracing the craziness. Dre knows he’s good at his job. He’s also aware that he is the first black executive of his advertising firm, which requires him to be careful. But this still doesn’t prevent him from occasionally going nuts, like when he prepares a provocative “Urban L.A” campaign his bosses assigned him — which Dre takes to mean they put him in charge of black L.A — that sets all of his colleagues on edge. While he might mean well, and usually has showrunner Kenya Barris and his writers on his side, the show is smart enough to acknowledge when Dre goes over the top. On these occasions, the series turns to Dre’s biracial wife, Rainbow (the fabulously talented Tracee Ellis Ross), and his “blackish” kids, giving them enough space to deal with what they think being black means, without sticking to one set interpretation. They also get one or two memorable subplots per episode, such as when Rainbow, a doctor who repeatedly lets her children know that “mommy saves lives!”, takes her seven year old daughter to a hospital, where she witnesses all manners of horrors that fascinate her.
Black-ish often has the same combination of smarts and zany energy that made The Bernie Mac Show, created by this show’s producer Larry Wilmore, such a pleasure to watch. Maybe the situations get a little out of control and the characters become a bit cartoonish from time to time, but the show never loses sight of its core principles. In the end, it always comes down to a father trying to provide the best life possible for his children. As Dre says in the pilot, “isn’t that the American Dream?” Black-ish is not a great sitcom. It is not a great black show. No qualifiers are needed. Black-ish is just a great show.