Tweetable Takeaway: The roaring ’20s are back in the Black-ish finale, and it delivers in heart, charm and high-profile guests. Tweet
Airtime: Wednesday at 9:30pm on ABC
By: Brett Salinas, Contributor
When BLACK-ISH premiered thirty-four weeks ago, I thought I had a pretty good grip on what the show was going to be about, in a good way. And for the most part, that notion seemed to hold pretty true. But ultimately – and I can say this now, finally, that the freshman season has wrapped on up – that the show rings with a much richer tenor than I had expected nearly a season ago.
After a probably-too-long hiatus, Pops (Laurence Fishburne) is back for this final outing with the Johnsons until fall, and he’s packing caustic wisdom by the handful and some no-nonsense grit to spare. But this time, things are a little different. Not too much unlike those weird episodes of News Radio back in the day where the cast were suddenly working on the Titanic or in space, the bulk of this week’s action takes place in 1920’s Harlem, framed in Pops’ fabulously fabricated – or at least wonderfully embellished – story of the family’s roots and preceding generations. Jack and Diane toil away on a school project charting their family tree, but hit a wall when their knowledge of the Johnson lineage skids to a halt beyond Grandma/Grandpa’s generation. So Pops, naturally without solicitation, launches into a tale of his great grandfather, Drex, and how he propagated the family as they know it into existence. In a delightful twist, if not a sound cost-effective measure, the principle cast members beautifully folded into the flashback to play their own ancestors. And it’s wonderful.
Drex (Anthony Anderson), the hapless ice deliveryman who pulls out a routine stop at the Savoy Ballroom nightclub, falls recklessly in love with one of the resident dancers, Bea (Tracee Ellis Ross), and endeavors to make her his woman. The problem, inevitably, is that the tender young flower is under the superintendence of Elroy Savoy (Sean Combs), the club’s owner (Uh-oh!). The episode ultimately, beautifully celebrates the theme of overcoming oppression, whether it be a racial issue or otherwise. Dre reminds us immediately that while their ancestors didn’t ride to America on the Mayflower, they did sail over on a boat; they just “came with a receipt.”
After delivering ice to some very white advertising executives (played by Dre’s real-life colleagues), who volley some starkly racist ideas about African Americans during their pitch meeting to one another (as we would come to expect, obviously), Drex gets a surge of gusto to stand up to Elroy after their unexpected council. Marching back to Savoy, he challenges Elroy to a dance contest – knowing that his skills are lacking, to say the least – in exchange for his consent to run away with Bea, throwing down his life savings ($5) as collateral. But Savoy, being no fool, sends a young boy (Miles Brown) in his place…and that kid’s got skills. Drex narrowly edges out the competition on the dance floor, even with a hurt leg, inventing break dancing along the way, but ultimately gets disqualified – and it’s every man for himself. Drex makes a run for it with Bea, scooping up a rag-tag group of orphans (played by the same actors who play the Johnson kids) along the way. Now, the story might be righteously unbelievable, but when Pops is telling it, you have to respect the authority.
“Pops’ Pops’ Pops” was a blowout closer to a somewhat inconsistent, but largely wonderful first season. If not for the brilliant little details, like Yara Shahidi’s 1920’s counterpart pioneering the text message through Morse code, or the revisionist-history-reference to Langston Hughes, then for what the episode says about oral tradition. The majority of Black-ish, as a show, grapples with a sense of displacement, and the feeling that the current cultural identity of African Americans is fractured and distorted in our “Post Racial” world. But this episode paws around at the idea that each echo of the past may conform to each new generation’s ideals, and that’s okay. Pops’ obviously altered retelling of their family’s story carries more resonance with each tweaking of the facts, and as he puts it himself, “Who’s telling this story?” And so, the point becomes not how closely it all hews to the truth of what really happened, but how it’s able to inspire the new generation. Because, after all, Pops’ story brought unity to the family, and that really is what this show is all about. The Johnson ancestors’ story is still being told, regardless of how sensationalized that story may be.
This wasn’t the funniest episode of the season, not by a long shot, and the guest stars (including Mary J. Blige, lest I forget) were mostly underused here, but there is something so irrepressibly charming about this finale. The show has had its ups and downs, but I can’t think of a better way to end it than this (end it for the time being, anyway). Any sitcom willing to buck the format and play with new ideas will not see any resistance from my end. The Johnsons aren’t reinventing the wheel of American television the way I think a lot of people had originally expected, but they’re becoming a family you want to watch every week. And come September, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.