Tweetable Takeaway: The Johnsons face some mommy issues when Dre’s mother arrives. The problem is, she’s pretty dull and so is this episode.
Airtime: Wednesday at 9:30pm on ABC
By: Brett Salinas, Contributor
As the Thanksgiving holiday looms, and the American public prepares to coat its dysfunctions with booze and crapulous befuddlement, it’s time more than ever to be amongst family. BLACK-ISH, a show rooted in family values at heart, throws a new divisive character into the mix to shake up the Johnson household (let’s be honest, someone had to). Dre’s revered and caustic mother Ruby makes a visit this week, and Rainbow does her best not to totally unravel. The problem is, that’s about as far as the show goes, and the details are ultimately just downright dull.
As the title of this week’s episode, “Oedipal Triangle,” suggests, Dre is caught in the middle of this tug-of-war match between his wife and his mother. Because, in classic my-husband’s-mother fashion, Ruby is like an insult crop-duster around Rainbow, spouting passive aggressive jabs from here to the horizon. Perhaps the funniest moment of the episode is the “Game of Thrones” reference they were able to squeeze in when Rainbow (in a dramatized cutaway), clad in some kind of wild animal pelt murmurs the House Stark motto, “Winter is coming,” in anticipation of Ruby’s arrival. But the biggest problem with the premise is that the show never pushes the pugnacious Ruby-Rainbow dynamic to the nth degree. The mother-in-law angle is an exhausted story, and the whole scenario just feels soft. A smattering of snarky insults just isn’t enough to make for a fresh half-hour of comedy. And what was flawed about last week continues here: The storyline just feels overly broad, and lacking specificity. We’ve seen the whole judgmental mother-in-law thing time after time, so how does the show put its own spin on Ruby’s character? The answer is, it doesn’t. It’s hard to get a grip on who she is, let alone why we’re supposed to care about her. With the exception of her very colorful gifts for the kids (a thong and a copy of Grand Theft Auto, namely) and her persistent fake coughing fits, there’s very little interesting about Ruby.
Speaking of uninteresting, Zoe and Junior lead a truly forgettable subplot, in which Zoe coaches the young lad into getting a date, via a Cyrano-esque Bluetooth feed. And while he actually does snag a girl, it turns out he was ultimately played and tricked into editing her The Bachelor audition tape. Zoe, the consummate social savant that she is, takes offense at this, as the puppeteer behind the set up. But with a whopping two-scene contribution, this B-story just feels like an afterthought. Though it’s nice to see the two head-butting siblings working together.
As we’ve seen several times before, Dre takes his problems to work, soliciting help from his rag-tag group of colleagues. And as we’ve also seen before, their advice inevitably backfires. Dre tries to wine and dine the two most important ladies in his life, but this does little to mitigate the raging feud, since they’re both vying for the top notch on Dre’s list of affections. What is actually refreshing about the dynamic is that Rainbow isn’t at all afraid to speak her mind and frustration around Ruby, ditching the Waspy repression that you might see in an episode of Friends.
Ultimately, Dre has to man up and tell his mother point blank that he loves her, but that Rainbow is his #1. Ruby slyly shrugs and hands over the throne to Rainbow, with a very confusing last word, saying, “I raised you an amazing husband…you’re welcome.” Huh? With Ruby’s truly unwavering cockiness, we’re left with a “so what?” moment at the episode’s end, being that there was very little emotional development on her part. She was merely a vacant pawn to drum up drama with the family.
Point blank, “Oedipal Triangle” was just plain boring for the most part. The show’s stories find themselves becoming way too insular. What’s going on at the kids’ schools? Is Dre gelling with his new position at work? Does Rainbow have any friends or enemies at her job? Is there a prom or a birthday coming up? And seriously, where is Pops? There’s a whole world of options out there to draw subject matter from, but it feels like Black-ish is just stuck at home, and in the character’s heads. What we need is more drama, higher stakes, and after the last two offerings, better jokes.
What the show excels at is the quirky cutaways and tangential fantasy sequences, which all feel very specific to the show, but those are even becoming few and far between. It’s a good comedic angle, but if that’s the angle you’re going for, then run with it. 30 Rock was able to master the art of the cutaway, peppering each episode with them but not over-seasoning anything with kookiness. On Black-ish, the cutaways are great but ultimately just make you think, “oh right, that’s still something they’re doing sometimes.”
As much as it pains me to say it, the show seems to be on a slow decline. Each episode is becoming more and more trivial and less and less interesting. While Dre still emerges as a charming and exceedingly empathetic leading man, the other characters are sinking into a shallow rut, offering less and less in the way of surprises and more in the way of clichés. After such promising heights that the show hit in the beginning, the past few times up at bat have been pretty disappointing. Black-ish, we haven’t given up on you yet, and things could still turn around, but as is stands…you could do better.