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Why America Needs 'Black-ish' More Than Ever

Depictions of black families and black culture on television have become more essential—and comforting—than ever.
November 11, 2016, 4:00pm
Photo courtesy of ABC

If there's one thing I've seen echoed by numerous fellow pop culture writers since the election, it's that writing about entertainment feels especially meaningless lately. There are obviously bigger, more pressing things in the world than grading a movie or recapping last night's episode of television. But at the same time, most of us have been taking solace in this same pop culture because it's what we know—it's what we find calming. I've half-jokingly compared binge-watching to therapy, but there's some truth there: in the hours between late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, when it was becoming terrifyingly clear that Donald Trump would win, I switched from the news to a dozen episodes of The Simpsons, hoping to hold off a four-year-long panic attack for just a few hours longer. Last night, after spending the day obsessively reading and re-reading all of the rights that will eventually be stripped away from me, my family, and my friends, I finally closed my computer and got caught up on the current season of Black-ish.


The majority of ABC's recent sitcoms have fallen into two categories: swiftly canceled newcomers (Selfie, Manhattan Love Story, Uncle Buck) and long-lasting shows that people often forget are still airing (Modern Family, The Middle, Last Man Standing). But some of the network's sitcoms are not only still plucking along, but becoming bolder and stronger as they age, determined to make a mark lest they become forgotten, too.

Black-ish is one of these sitcoms. The Kenya Barris-created comedy debuted in 2014 to a level of fanfare that signaled how desperately we needed (and still need) black sitcoms; its stellar first season regularly ruminated on both the larger struggles and smaller intricacies of being black in America. The second season kept that aim going, from a premiere centered around a funny debate about the usage of the N-word to a standout, emotional episode centered on police brutality. Now in its third season, the conversation around Black-ish seems to have dissipated a bit, but the series is still going strong and proving its importance to right now.

The series hasn't lost its edge. Instead, it may have even narrowed and sharpened it, refusing to let the show be anything other than what it is: about black people.

There wasn't anything particularly exceptional about last night's episode, "Jack of All Trades," but that wasn't the point: It was funny, and it was black, and those are two things that we currently need. It was also a reminder that Black-ish has remained fantastic throughout this third season, expertly bouncing back after an admittedly droll Disney-centric premiere (and anyway, aren't all going-to-Disney sitcom episodes the worst?). The series hasn't lost its edge. Instead, it may have even narrowed and sharpened it, refusing to let the show be anything other than what it is: about black people.


This reminder comes early in "40 Acres and a Vote," a vaguely-election-themed episode that aired October 5 and opened with an amateur slideshow of the Obama family set to Boyz II Men's "It's so Hard to Say Goodbye." That Dre, the overzealous family patriarch, called out of work to make this presentation for himself is absurd, but it's also a heightened and comical version of the feelings of sadness and hopelessness that many of us have been navigating for weeks—and it feels especially resonant while watching now.

The episode also doubles as a stealth course in history, which isn't new for Black-ish'; the prior episode, "God," took eldest daughter Zoey's declaration that she may not believe in God to teach viewers about the historical link between religion and black culture, as well as between slaves and faith. In one especially affecting scene of "40 Acres," a cartoon depicts a historical timeline of some highs and lows of black voters, right up to 2011's voter ID laws. For an ABC sitcom, it's a notably political episode, even in the silliest ways.

"40 Acres" builds parallels to our real world through a subplot about an elementary school's vote for a class pet: it's clear the snake is there for show; voting is being held during chicken stars day lunch so no one will show up; and eventually Jack, the, er, dimmer of the twin children, isn't even allowed to vote because he gets detention. (To be perfectly honest, "40 Acres and a Vote" was a pretty tough episode to rewatch post-election; save it for a few weeks.)

These threads of blackness weaved throughout—depictions of black culture that also serve as reminders of the necessity of black community— are as comforting as Black-ish's basic sitcom beats are funny. The fourth episode this season, "Who's Afraid Of The Big Black Man," ends on a perfectly neat sitcom note, but what's important is what comes before the end: Dre's ongoing struggle of having to make himself seem "harmless" to the white people around him, and his family's reassurance that he can let his guard down because things have changed. They haven't, of course—in the same episode, police rough up Dre's brother-in-law—but Black-ish wants to explore both sides regardless.

And that's the stealth balance that exists within Black-ish; last week's Halloween-centric episode "The Purge" was about as strictly comical as it gets, but it still found something to say about the relationship between black fathers and sons, and about white people still thinking it's OK to touch our hair. Even the aforementioned Disney-centric episode found a way to talk about class and blackness—particularly as it pertains to different generations, while the family waited in lines for rides. That itself is a testament to Black-ish's commitment to telling stories about identity—and, if nothing else, it's comforting to know that Black-ish will continue doing so.

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