Once you get past its pejorative and provocative title, ABC’s new family comedy “Black-ish” is extremely intelligent and funny.
Anthony Anderson stars as an affluent advertising executive named Andre Johnson. He’s married to a beautiful doctor named Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and they have four gorgeous kids. They live in a posh neighborhood, in a big and beautiful house and they have awesome clothes, shoes and cars. Laurence Fishburne (who is only nine years older than Anderson in real life, by the way) costars as Andre’s outspoken and cantankerous dad.
In other words, “Black-ish,” which debuts Wednesday night after “Modern Family,” has all of its sitcom basics covered. But what makes the show bold and necessary is that it dares to address what it means to be an African American in this country in broad and specific ways. Most of the jokes work, some of them don’t but creator and executive producer Kenya Barris never stops addressing race in unflinching ways.
For instance, Andre has a couple of culturally troubling conundrums in the pilot. First off, his son Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) is playing field hockey instead of basketball, goes by the name Andy in school and asks his parents if he can have a bar mitzvah despite not being Jewish. To make matters worse, Andre’s promotion at work turns out to be less than ideal when he finds out that he’s the senior vice president of something called the “urban division.”
To be sure, not all African Americans are walking around bemoaning whether or not their kids are too assimilated because of their upper class stations in life or rolling their eyes because they’ve been put in charge of “black stuff.” Given the choice between rich people problems such as these and poor people problems such as struggling to pay bills, a lot of poor people — no matter the race — would love to be in Andre’s fictional but cozy shoes.
But here is the rub and here is what “Black-ish” says without saying — being black in America means you never stop thinking about being black in America. Even when your wallet gets super fat and your zip code gets terrifically tony, it always comes back to race.
This is why Andre is worried about his son. He wants Junior to be well-adjusted and make friends and have fun but he doesn’t want his son to be caught off guard when he is racially profiled by a store clerk or a cop. And sadly, no amount of money or field hockey playing can protect the younger Andre or black boys his age from such injustices.
Yet “Blackish” never spells this out. Instead, this sitcom trusts that the audience gets the young, black and male part of the equation and still finds humor in it all. Andre is not going to give his son a bar mitzvah but instead concocts a cockeyed, made-up rite of passage that includes African garb and chicken bones. He is also not going to quit his job but nearly gets fired when he turns in a tone-deaf and overly militant sizzle reel.
Even the title of the show “Black-ish” is a dig at African Americans who are not “black enough.” While that stings for anyone who has ever been called an “Oreo,” it’s oddly funny to think that in 2014 people could believe that there is only one way to be black. See, black people can laugh at themselves, too.
After all, it’s been three decades since “The Cosby Show” premiered and proved to mainstream America that black families can be affluent and educated but, best of all, they can just be families. Now “Black-ish” is doing the same but instead of a family that happens to be black, the Johnsons are consciously black.
Although this is exciting material to plumb — they could do a whole season on black hair alone — Barris and company must tread wisely. If they rely too heavily on jokes driven by race and culture, in every episode, the show will become a parody of itself.
No, the Johnsons aren’t the Huxtables and they don’t have to be. But they are a family and even in a pilot filled with relevant racial references and topics, that family bond is what makes the show endearing. If “Black-ish” leans more on the familial aspect and less on the button pushing, the comedy like “The Cosby Show,” will be the best kind of hit — the kind that makes us think and laugh.
“Black-ish” premieres at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.