Black-ish, “Pilot” (1.1) - TV Review



September 24, 2014, 9:30 PM (EST), ABC

Black-ish was controversial way before the premiere based on the title alone. Regardless of the intention, the title choice sparked fascinating conversations on the way black people talk about race and whether or not a comedy show was the format to discuss it in this racially charged period we’re currently experiencing. The show itself is actually quite tame and doesn’t push boundaries very far. It’s more warm and contemplative than combative. Above all it’s hilarious.

Andre Johnson is the charismatic, extroverted, and energetic patriarch of an upper middle class black family in Los Angeles. His wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) is technically biracial, which he weirdly teases her about. They have four adorable, sweet, and bright kids together. His sarcastic and slightly ornery father lives with them. Before watching the first episode, I really thought it was a show that revolved around the family like Modern Family, but really the vast majority of the pilot was from Andre’s perspective. He describes his background and relationships with everyone we meet on the show through voiceover. His observations and jokes aren’t particularly fresh, but his attitude toward potentially painful subjects is quite refreshing.

We learn that Andre is an advertising executive up for a promotion to Senior Vice President. He fantasizes about sitting on the other side of the table in the conference room at staff meetings, which is mostly white and has much greener grass. When the announcement is actually made, it turns out he’ll be heading up the “Urban Division” which he assumes is where the higher ups will relegate all the “black stuff.” This highlights two important issues about the society we live in: one is that we tend to self-segregate based on race, another is that there tends to be a ceiling for how high minorities can climb in companies so there’s still a lot of ground to break. He hungers to break that new ground at this predominantly white company instead of being part of a black company doing similar work. He looks to his wife and father for perspective and is able to take their opinions to heart in order to push through the uncomfortable feelings. The pushback he gets from his wife when he thinks of turning down his unsatisfactory promotion is fascinating because she isn’t automatically supportive. She challenges him and calls out his indecisiveness and petulance. She’s also unabashedly excited about the prospect of more money coming into the home, even though her own Anesthesiologist salary is probably nothing to sneeze at.

His son Andre Jr. is on the cusp of adolescence so he’s starting to express his individuality in ways that make him nervous. He likes to go by the whitewashed name of Andy around his friends, he chooses to try out for field hockey instead of basketball, and he wants to have a bar mitzvah like his Jewish friends. Andre’s reaction is to hilariously put his son through an elaborate and ultimately meaningless “African rights of passage ceremony.” After hearing Andre Jr. out, he realizes that his son may be making the right choices for himself. The father-son team strikes a compromise with the “Hip hop bro mitzvah.” The theme of that party hopefully speaks for itself.

The family’s dynamic is what you typically see in a family sitcom - love is shown through inside jokes and gentle mocking. Tracee Ellis Ross has always been a gifted comedian and seems really natural in her role already. Their four kids, two of them in elementary school and two in their teens, are all so bright and endearing in their own ways. I love how we can already see their individual personalities and how they’re allowed to speak up about what they want and how they see themselves. Laurence Fishbourne doesn’t have a lot to do except offer ornery quips every now and then but he does a lot with a little. He was frequently the reason for my uncontrollable giggles. Together, they form a picture of an authentic and tightknit family.

My favorite aspect of the show is how unwilling it is to let Andre get bogged down in the realities of cultural appropriation and racist stereotyping. These are unsettling things to come up against every day, but he does his best to make the best of things. Already, Black-ish has successfully struck a balance between serving up laughs and ugly truths. The underlying tension in the show stems from Andre’s ideal vision of his black family and the reality of their every day experiences, most of which seem to be positive. He’s the only one who seems concerned while his wife and kids enjoy the benefits of affluence. I can’t wait to watch the Johnsons live their black-ish version of the American dream and have a lot of fun doing it.

The Roundup

  • “How would a black guy say ‘good morning?’”
  • That look on Andre’s face when his son’s white friend goes digging in their refrigerator without asking.
  • Hip hop bro mitzvah

Already, Black-ish has successfully struck a balance between serving up laughs and ugly truths

  • GREAT 8.2

About Author

Simone is obsessed with stories and fits a scary amount of them into her routine with the help of recklessness, willpower, and caffeine. Her favorite character of all time is Malcom Tucker from In the Loop and The Thick of It for his virtuosic command of foul language. She's a feminist and a fierce advocate for meaningful diversity in film and TV. You can find her on twitter @symonymm.