Tweetable Takeaway: With some of the humor lacking, and only a somewhat clever story, this week’s episode feels only slightly above being filler.
Airtime: Wednesday at 9:30pm on ABC
By: Brett Salinas, Contributor
It’s not exactly common, or even precedented, for a group of adults to look at a new generation of children and say, “yeah, these kids are on the right track.” A new crop of young people has always been, and will always be problematic for the older, established incumbents. This week on BLACK-ISH, what has essentially been driving the story the whole time really crystallizes and comes to a head – kids today are just plain spoiled. The premise shakes out nicely, but the comedy isn’t quite up to par this week. With only a few laughs and a smattering of clever bits, “The Gift of Hunger” is just good enough to buoy itself above being filler.
As part of his ongoing campaign to bring his kids to a likeness of his own younger self, Dre takes the family to “The Beef Plantation,” a buffet-style steakhouse in the hood that offers vaguely edible meat at staggeringly low prices (an old favorite of his). As you might imagine, the kids aren’t having this, not for one second. They treat Dre’s old haunt like a truck stop bathroom, to which going to bed hungry would be a better alternative. And so, a new thorn in Dre’s paw presents itself: these kids of his are just ungrateful brats. The obvious solution, in his mind, is to deprive his offspring of food and assign them jobs, which will theoretically instill in them the value of a dollar. And, in what’s becoming an all-too familiar pattern, Rainbow clashes with Dre on his latest efforts of edification, thinking he’s overreacting. BUT, when Jack and Diane solicit help from a neighbor, leading them to believe the family is hungry and destitute so that they will contribute food, Rainbow has a change of heart – maybe these kids are just entitled brats.
And, while seemingly a decent springboard for an episode, the story lacks a certain specificity, which is why the comedy feels particularly dulled this week. With a show like Black-ish, which teases thoughtful messages of social commentary amidst its wacky humor, it can be tricky to leaven episodes with a culturally relevant message and still provide unique, compelling stories. Specificity is the meat and potatoes of comedy, and the story of “The Gift of Hunger” feels too informed and shaped by its own premise, and not the other way around. This story could apply to a number of TV families, and this is not just any TV family, so let’s not act like it is.
So back with the work force, Dre commissions Zoey and Junior to come work for him at the agency, while Ranbow helps man a lemonade stand with Jack and Diane. The social media-obsessed Zoey and generally uncoordinated klutz Junior flounder to master the art of coffee runs and janitorial duties. But Dre sees a spark in Zoey when he gets a glimpse of her online makeup tutorials and her scads of virtual followers. But in an effort to foster Zoe’s talent and ambition, Dre completely hijacks her project to make a presentation that’s market-viable. As a self-made man in the corporate field, his model for helping others is to take over the duties himself, which creates a huge rift between Dre and his daughter. This is where the episode gets interesting, because the specific dynamic between Dre and his kids elevates the plot in an a character-tailored way. Ultimately realizing the err of his ways and putting his ego aside, Dre reverts to Zoey’s original concept and gets a decent job lead from a top cosmetic company. Yay, happiness is restored, though Junior is still as hapless and dorky as ever (not that there’s any sign of this changing anytime soon).
But on the subject of Junior, Marcus Scribner’s performance here feels too broad and over-the-top, a problem that’s been escalating since the pilot. Scribner just isn’t nailing the fumbling nerd of it all, or at least not using it to its full potential, airing more on the side of overly exaggerated slapstick to a fault. I think a simple consideration of “less is more” might benefit the young actor.
Rainbow actually leads the funniest plot in the episode, when the neighbor who was approached to donate food to the family (played by MadTV alumna Nicole Sullivan) thinks Rainbow and the gang are dirt poor. Rainbow, being the fierce one-upper that she is, strives to ensure this woman that they are in fact financially stable, but of course every time she encounters her, she happens to be manning a lemonade stand alone or wielding a rake beside a gardening truck. Rainbow’s unceasing efforts to maintain her image and appearance is finally beginning to feel properly mitigated, and the funny that comes out of her self-promotion is eclipsing the annoying. In previous weeks, her weak, near persecution-complex-level insecurities just made the character less memorable, but Rainbow is feeling much stronger now…in her insecurity.
So Dre, somewhat echoing several of the past episodes, realizes that while his kids are afforded a much more comfortable standard of living than he was at their age, everyone has their own struggle and their own talents. And ultimately, if these new kids can survive the unstoppable force that is Dre Johnson, they can live through anything. A comfortable lifestyle doesn’t kill ambition, so long as there is someone to put things in perspective now and again. And ultimately, I think this is a thoughtful takeaway. What the episode sets up well is the extent to which the kids really are a little spoiled. Even though Dre is the driving force in the show, it’s often easier to identify with the kids who are often far more grounded and reasonable. But we can all relate to feelings that the new generation is too entitled, so it proves for a more empathetic jumping off point for Dre’s shenanigans.
What’s really missing this week is the humor. Black-ish has already proven that it can be riotously funny, and it has generally set a very high bar for jokes, but this week just didn’t deliver in laughs. Even the character of Charlie (Deon Cole), whose very presence can liven up a scene, couldn’t boost the comedy this week. Although, admittedly, his bit about being hit by a car as a child provided a nice comedic pop to an otherwise slow first act. But for a show with a lead-in from Modern Family, it can’t afford to have inconsistent laughs. Television is a tough business, and in the sitcom world, funny is money.
So, another week and another episode of Black-ish later, things seem to be stagnating a bit. This week’s episode wasn’t completely bankrupt of clever or even heartwarming moments, but when those moments are few and far between, coupled with a script that’s only funny-ish, the material starts to feel a bit like filler at times. In all fairness, filler this episode is not, but it’s not too far above it either. In the coming weeks, the show needs to tighten and focus its storylines and punch up that comedy. Being trite is just as serious of an offense as being bad.