Tweetable Takeaway: Things are getting much funnier on black-ish, but it has already lost its own message.
Airtime: Wednesday at 9:30pm on ABC
By: Brett Salinas, Contributor
Birds do it. Bees do it. And it’s a safe bet that parents will probably talk about it. This week on ABC’s most promising new series, BLACK-ISH, fumbling father Dre is tasked with the unenviable duty of having “the talk” with Andre Jr. Whatever the pilot lacked in breadth or scope of comedy, this episode makes up for in spades.
“The Talk” opens with the all too identifiable moment of Dre walking in on Andre Jr. during, shall we say, some “me time” in his room. For any man who has formerly been a young man and even more formerly been an adolescent boy, it’s a tragically relatable experience. Compounding the offense of the whole scenario, Rainbow then reveals to Dre that she apparently has already had a heart-to-heart with Junior about it. Not on Dre’s watch. With fierce dedication to his own integrity and self-appointed title of household proctor, he decides to have “the talk” with his son, however icky it may be. Ok, we get it, parents having a sex talk with their children isn’t exactly an earth-shattering concept for a family sitcom. But this ill-fated chat doesn’t end after one session: per Pops’ caveat, the father-son shirtless bonding bro-out moment unleashes a flood gate of unexpressed urges and lingering questions on Junior’s part. Dre is in way, repeat WAY over his head. Junior’s curious but hilarious predilection for Helen Mirren was a brilliant touch.
Meanwhile, Rainbow, played by the ever-brilliant Tracee Ellis Ross, is tackling a communication issue of her own. Her daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) has broken her silence and comes to her for advice when trouble arises in teen town, which is a real win for Mom. But in congratulating herself on her own good parenting too early, she completely misses Zoey’s story…whoops. The episode deftly navigates the latest batch of parenting malfunctions. It would be very easy for Dre and Rainbow to come off cruel and self-absorbed, but the actors handle the comedy well enough that any ethical questions are sidestepped here.
What’s probably most charming about this episode is watching the youngest members of the Johnson brood, Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin), hatch their own plan to get their parents’ attention and find out what “the talk” is exactly, which obviously they’re blithely clueless about. Brown and Martin are extraordinarily talented actors for their age, and their adorably precocious repartee has already lent to some of the funniest moments on the show.
‘Funny’ is really key this week. While the pilot was riding a comedy wave that was essentially all byproduct of the show’s general concept, “The Talk” gets into how funny the characters’ specific dynamics can be. Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson continue to have sensational chemistry with one another, and their relationship is truly endearing, in its own competitive, pugnacious but ultimately cute way.
Pops (Laurence Fishburne) is back: still peripheral, but doubly hilarious. If he is to be permanently stationed on the sidelines of the action, at least his lines are punchy enough to keep his character afloat. He also acts as a great foil to Dre. Most notably in this episode, his conversation with Dre on his version of “the talk”, which consisted of dropping off a box of condoms in Dre’s room, was great. “Oh, you wanted a hug, too?” he adds.
The one real problem with this episode is how stark it feels abutting the pilot. “Black-ish” kicked off as a show with a very strong concept that deconstructed and established a commentary on racial lines in America. But in only one week, the show seems to have totally dissolved its politically charged mission statement. While undeniably funny and full of quote-worthy moments, there was very little that was investigatory about this week’s episode. Granted, sustaining a consistent, intelligent layer of commentary throughout the entirety of the show’s run was a very lofty goal, but it feels clear that no attempt was even made here. To the extent that the pilot overstated its premise, “The Talk” seems to abandon it. At best, the show still ranks high on its own comedic merits, but at worst it feels like the audience was somewhat cheated on the concept it was sold.
Breathing life and authenticity into the otherwise generic template of the “family sitcom” is hard. Great writing helps (a lot), compelling characters are essential, but breaking barriers seems to be the common denominator among the greats. “Black-ish” is still straddling the line between being a rather good show and being a show for the ages. They have the funny down, let’s just hope they can master their message.