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ABC's 'black-ish' gamely takes on racial identity

 ABC's 'black-ish' gamely takes on racial identity
Tracee Ellis Ross, left, and Anthony Anderson star in ABC's new family comedy "black-ish." (Adam Taylor / ABC)

Into a culture perpetually roiling over the role of race comes a comedy that questions America's fairly recent quest to become colorblind.

As its title implies, Kenya Barris' "black-ish," premiering Wednesday on ABC, will not be pussyfooting around political correctness. The series is about three generations of a black, upper-middle class Los Angeles family headed by two working parents, a premise that will inevitably lead to comparisons with the "The Cosby Show."

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That should tell you everything you need to know about the state of what is now called "diversity" on American television. Bill Cosby's NBC sitcom debuted 30 years ago, for heaven's sake, and subsequent hit comedies about people whose ancestors do not hail from Western Europe can still be counted on two hands.

And it's not just comedies. The shifting racial demographics of our country notwithstanding, the majority of television shows still revolve around white people.

This has begun to change, but only recently and with a decided preference for characters who "just happen to be" black, Asian, Latino, Indian, etc. Their race or ethnicity is usually acknowledged only in passing, often with ironic or pointed references that manage to leverage stereotypes while appearing to contradict them.

Even as (mostly white) critics fall all over ourselves to cheer the arrival of strong or central characters of color, we all seem to long for a day when race "doesn't matter," as if the only way in which race can matter is, by definition, problematic.

Indeed, "colorblind" has become shorthand for "not racist," and, as "black-ish" attempts to point out, that's a problem. Not just because it's a cultural impossibility, but because it's an extremely odd goal when you think about it. Colorblindness is, after all, a limitation — given the choice, who doesn't want to be able to distinguish green from brown, purple from blue?

More important, the notion that equality can be achieved only by ignoring differences is, well, totally racist. (And sexist. And homophobic.) Civil rights leaders of the 1960s did not exhort their followers to become people who, as Stephen Colbert likes to mockingly repeat, "don't see color." They just wanted society to treat people fairly.

As the fervor with which "black-ish" is discussed as a "game changer" makes clear, we still see color quite plainly; how many "game changing" black family sitcoms will it take before "black" is an unnecessary qualifier?

ABC is betting at least one more.

In addition to heavy marketing, it's given "black-ish" the coveted post-"Modern Family" time slot, a decision that makes perfect narrative sense. The Johnson family of "black-ish," who also live the portico-and-walk-in-closet version of life in L.A., could be barbecue buddies of the Pritchett clan.

Which is the show's central conceit and conflict. Having achieved his dream of rising from a rougher, more economically challenged part of town, Andre "Dre" Johnson (Anthony Anderson) is having a "wait a minute" moment.

A successful ad executive, he's married to a biracial doctor (played by Tracee Ellis-Ross and rather pointedly named Rainbow) and father to four children. None of whom, he suddenly realizes, seems to know that they're black, or at least Dre's definition and experience of being black.

When his older son, Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner), announces one morning that he is trying out for field hockey, would rather go by "Andy" than Andre and wants a bar mitzvah, Dre hits the roof. (Needless to say, the Johnsons aren't Jewish.)

It doesn't help that Dre's own father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne), is on the premises, expressing disgust over Rainbow's "fried" (as in bake-fried) chicken, and murmuring "I told you so's" when the kids seem to neither know, nor care, that Barack Obama is the first African American president.

More pointedly, Dre's exultation over an upcoming promotion is dampened when he is told that, yes, he has become his company's first black senior vice president, but of the "Urban Division."

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"Urban" being white-people code for "black."

Feeling cheated by both the trend toward colorblindness and its exact opposite — his family may not realize they're black, but his boss certainly seems to — Andre goes on a campaign to remove the "ish" from "black-ish."

This involves, unfortunately, a dashiki scene, several jabs at Rainbow's biracialness and an in-your-face presentation of what "urban" looks like (i.e., riots).

All of which adds up to a pilot that is much more admirable in its intent than its execution, a better conversation-starter than episode. It has funny moments — Ellis-Ross' Rainbow is particularly wry and witty, and Fishburne is, of course, a hoot — but the first half-hour of "black-ish" often seems intimidated by its own ambitions.

The humor goes broad, the emotion gets sticky sentimental more often than it has to. Although the frustrations Dre is experiencing are legitimate, he is something of a buffoon, stomping around, unable to express himself except in tantrums, and quickly backtracking to the position of "I just want my family to be happy." He comes up with a slickly diverse definition of urban, and Andre gets his bar mitzvah, with no attempt at addressing what a bar mitzvah actually symbolizes.

In many ways, "black-ish" is a familiar construct. Assimilation has been a key theme in American comedy, with members of the older generation attempting to keep the Old World alive even as they sacrifice to ensure their children's equality in the New. The ensuing contradictions and tensions allow writers to address problems of past and present — the nutritional issues of fried chicken, for example.

But to state the obvious, the African American experience is not one of easy assimilation into mainstream culture. What makes "black-ish" potentially great is Barris' recognition of that, and his refusal to dance around the complications of racial identity. In the show's already most-quoted scene, Dre accuses Rainbow of not even being black, to which she retorts, "Tell that to my hair and my ass."

Would it have been more interesting if the Johnsons weren't so rich? Maybe. But one hopes Barris will use the wealth of his protagonists to explore issues of class, another topic with which American TV remains uncomfortable.

The primary defining force of the Johnson kids is money, not color. They are children of privilege, and like all children, they do not understand what that privilege represents. Dre is caught in the contradiction felt by parents throughout the ages: They want a better life for their children, but not at the price of historical amnesia.

Because for all our talk of colorblindness, we don't really want to dispense with the idea of race so much as we want to lose the "ism."

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'black-ish'

Where: ABC

When: 9:31 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG-DLV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)

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