Kenya Barris’ decision to end the second season of “black-ish” with a loving spoof of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking inner-city comedy “Good Times” wasn't just a great idea, it was a much-deserved victory lap.
With a remarkable second season that managed such incendiary topics as the N-word, gun ownership, police brutality and religion with great humor and humanity, “black-ish” has joined the Lear-led pantheon of socially significant comedies.
“Black-ish” isn’t just a modern and upscale answer to “Good Times;” it’s a modern melding of “Good Times” with “All in the Family.”
So it’s important to remember the widespread conniption fit “black-ish” caused well before its premiere in 2014 when no one on God's green Earth knew What To Think of that title. Many black Americans were immediately offended (what’s with the “-ish”?), many white Americans were immediately outraged (“How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled "Blackish"?," tweeted Donald Trump. "Can you imagine the furor of a show, "Whiteish"! Racism at highest level?") Petitions were circulated, essays written, boycotts called for, and white television critics (which is to say most television critics including me) bit their nails and hoped for the best.
Which, frankly, they didn't get, at least not at first. Comedy pilots are notoriously difficult — even the most beloved and critically acclaimed series take time, often entire seasons, to find their rhythm and "black-ish" was no exception. Barris’ widespread declaration that he wanted to write a show about a black family as opposed to a family that just happened to be black seemed initially bogged down by the broad goofiness of Dad/Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) as he worried that his kids weren’t "black enough" and poked fun at his biracial, and far more sensible, wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross).
But Dre grew on you and so did "black-ish." By the end of the first season it was a solidly funny, very smart comedy with an increasingly strong multigenerational family, including Laurence Fishburne, Anna Deavere Smith and Jenifer Lewis, that dealt with all sorts of issues through the eyes of a modern black family.
Then Season 2 opened with an episode called "The Word" in which 6-year old Jack Johnson (Miles Brown) is suspended for using the N-word while performing the explicit version of the Kanye West hit "Gold Digger." As the family engaged in a hilarious and deceptively sophisticated debate over who can and cannot use the word — Rainbow was, for example, behind the school's zero-tolerance policy — it became clear that "black-ish" had found its footing.
The 22 episodes that followed were a well-paced mix of silly and serious, universal and specific. The Johnsons debated the wisdom of owning a gun and going to church, dealt with Halloween traditions and a college campus visit, reviewed their spending habits and definition of "spoiled." Deftly using flashbacks to Dre and Rainbow's very different childhoods, "black-ish" often addresses class as much as race, and many of the situations transcend both, but Barris and his writers moved with increasing confidence into topics that more than explained the show's title.
One episode ran with the stereotype that blacks can't swim, which Dre objects to even though he cannot; another revolved around the culture of the barbershop, and on Feb. 24, "black-ish" took its show, and television comedy, to a whole new level with an episode entitled "Hope."
Constructed more like a teleplay than a situation comedy, "Hope" follows an ongoing conversation among all the Johnsons as they watch the coverage of a hearing involving a white police officer charged with brutalizing a young black man. Discussing their own experiences and many actual cases, each family member, including Dre's parents (Fishburne and Lewis), brings a different perspective — Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) channels Ta-Nehisi Coates. Humor is provided by the family's attempts to shield Jack and Diane (Marsai Martin) from the coverage and the conversation, but that becomes the biggest heartbreak of all: That even now a reality of black American lives is something from which children should be shielded.
Wisely, Barris chose to air this episode in the middle of the season; subsequent episodes returned to a more signature mix of family issues — the insanity of kids' sports, the drama over childcare, Dre's concerns about money (he fears he will lose his job) and status (Junior gets rich friends) — before ending, as the first season did, with a "special episode" finale.
Which in this case was just more of the same; the whole second season of "black-ish" was special.