in Television

‘Black-ish’ Pilot Review: Using Laughs To Explore Racial and Cultural Identity

black-ish

From everything I’ve watched, Black-ish is the standout sitcom to come out of this incredibly dull fall TV season. Half-hour comedies like Selfie, also airing on ABC, stand out for other reasons – they’re excruciatingly painful to get through – but I can say with full certainty that Black-ish is quality programming.

Anthony Anderson plays Andre “Dre” Johnson, a hard-working family man who loves his wife and kids but gets in a little over his head and winds up making a lot of mistakes. In the pilot, Dre’s primary concern is with his family’s racial identity; he thinks they’re losing their black-ness and become black-ish. It’s an interesting topic to explore, especially on network television in 2014 where the lines between race, culture, and class are become more and more blurred. In pop culture, black music is permeating the air waves and often times it’s white artists who are appropriating black style and popularizing it for the masses (see: White Ladies and Cornrows).

Black-ish asks the questions of what it means to be black in America in 2014. It’s a subject that has been written about plenty of times online, but we’re just now getting to see it talked about on a network sitcom starring an all black cast. (I believe the last time we had a black sitcom it was… Everybody Hates Chris? My Wife and Kids? Either way, it’s been too long.)

Anderson does a wonderful job of selling the show to us in the pilot. This was one of the few times where a voice over was actually adding something to the show, instead of distracting us or telling us something we already know. His co-stars are no slouches, either. Tracee Ellis Ross plays the family matriarch Rainbow Johnson, a successful doctor who’s acknowledged as being biracial. Laurence Fishburne, hot off his appearance on the second season of NBC’s Hannibal, plays Dre’s old fashioned father Pops; it’s worth noting that Fishburne is only nine years older than Anderson (but I can get over it). Rainbow does a brilliant job of grounding Dre, while Fishburne’s character gets to be a little more in the background – although his presence is felt throughout the episode as a reminder to Dre that he and his family are black.

The episode primarily deals with Dre getting promoted to SVP at his company and Dre’s son Andre (or “Andy,” much to his father’s chagrin) wanting a Bar Mitzvah.

The only thing Dre didn’t expect going into work was getting promoted to the “Urban” Division, which sets loose a hilarious chain of events culminating in an African rites of passage. When Dre finds out about the conditions of his promotion, he simplifies it very clearly for the audience: “Wait, did they just make me in charge of all the black stuff?” What Dre perceives as a subtle form of racism spurs him to take matters into his own hands regarding his son.

Black-ish tackles some very serious topics in a humorous and lighthearted way. Now, the question for Black-ish is whether or not it can still thrive without executive producer Larry Wilmore, who left the show back in May to concentrate on his upcoming Comedy Central talk show. After such a promising pilot, I really hope so.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • Black-ish uses “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West as its opening soundtrack, so I already loved it from the get-go.
  • Dre’s assistant is an “honorary brother.”
  • There’s a very interesting sequence where Dre talks about the lower and upper management at his company.
  • The kids are pretty endearing although they’re each clearly defined by superficial personality traits to set them apart from one another. We didn’t get to see much from them, except for Andre Jr., but I already love the youngest daughter.
  • Overall, I would really recommend this.