BLACK-ISH is a show with a definite point of view. The principle character, Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson), is living the American dream – he’s an upstanding African-American family man with four beautiful children and a loving wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross). Dre is also an executive at an Advertising Agency who is currently being promoted to the distinguished title of Senior Vice President. He is notably the first black man to hold this title in the company’s history, an achievement that he takes in great stride. The one hiccup in Dre’s otherwise idyllic life is his very explicit disappointment with the slow disintegration of black culture that he sees in his community. While he comes from humble beginnings, he and his family now live comfortably in a markedly “white neighborhood,” where he fears his kids are losing touch with their cultural roots.
When Dre’s new position is made public at work, he’s hit with the stark reality that he’s to be, in fact, the Senior Vice President…of the company’s new “Urban Division.”
“Did they just put me in charge of black stuff,” he remarks. As a self-made man, Dre is insulted by this, feeling like a shallow token amongst his colleagues.
But Dre’s troubles continue at home. His son, Andre Jr. (who insists on being called Andy among his peers) is trying out for a spot on the field hockey team and wants a Bar Mitzvah to fit in with his friends at school. This does not sit well with Dre, who thinks that American society has become colorblind to a fault. So, he decides to take matters into his own hands by arranging an African rites of passage ceremony for his son, which ultimately inspires nothing but resentment.
As a political response to what he sees as his novelty title at work, Dre decides to put together a completely inappropriate presentation for the company’s Los Angeles Tourism Account, featuring gun-toting gang members, police arrests and blaring hip-hop. The stunt doesn’t go over well and puts Dre’s job at risk. This makes Rainbow none too happy.
Dre is at a loss. His professional life is suddenly in a sticky spot and he’s driven a wedge in his own family. Pops (Laurence Fishburne), his father, tells him, “Screwing things up is just another part of what it means to be a father…it’s how you learn to fix things.” Picking up the pieces of his own mess, Dre turns his life around: He harnesses his unique ability to “keep it real” and creates a whole new presentation at work which dazzles the whole team and secures his new position. And finally, he gives in to his son and puts together the Bar Mitzvah he wanted – but with a special twist. It’s a “Hip Hop BRO Mitzvah.”
Black-ish starts off with a fairly promising pilot, but one that is certainly not without its flaws. The show’s thesis is so explicit, between its dialog and Dre’s generally unnecessary voice-overs, that the sameness of its storyline stifles some of the opportunity for comedy. Many of the laughs feel stemmed from the same joke.
Anthony Anderson is strong as the lead and generally carries his role very well. But in a family comedy, it feels as though he is helming the story a bit too much. The ultimate disservice of this pilot is that we never get to explore the rest of the excellent ensemble cast. Tracee Ellis Ross is delightfully hilarious as Rainbow and has sizzling on-screen chemistry with Anderson, but most of the characters (including hers) never have time to fully ripen in the twenty-minute run time. Fishburne has charming, chuckle-worthy moments as the peripheral wisecracking commentator, but doesn’t feel used to his full potential.
Dre also becomes an increasingly difficult character to empathize with, as his quest to preserve racial integrity with respect to his family often feels like a crusade of self-interest. His selfishness is, albeit, redeemed by the episode’s end, but the plot often lacks an amount of richness with Dre exclusively driving the drama of the story.
The show excels in the sweet, elegant way it’s able to open a dialog on the subject matter. What starts out as an archetypal discussion about what it means to be black in the modern world, ends on an endearingly personal note. Dre comes to accept the powers that be, the muddy, societal evolution of racial lines in America, but finds purpose in how he’s able to express himself within those lines. And in the end, it extols the virtues of family, which is really what the show is about at heart.
The bottom line is that black-ish is a charming and pleasurable show to watch. While the pilot is often bogged down by its own overly stated purpose, I’m hopeful that subsequent episodes will find their footing in further exploring the other characters and the family dynamic. But in the world of TV comedy, it’s nice to know that there’s still room to send a message.