I’m dating myself with this reference, but anything for the greater good that is television, right? There’s been so much comparing of the new ABC comedy Black-ish, which premiered last night, to African-American family sitcom The Cosby Show. And while it’s complimentary to do so, it’s a little like comparing Grey’s Anatomy to its hospital drama predecessor, ER. While it makes sense to hold them up together given the similarities—well-written, groundbreaking programming and basic storyline parallels—you’ve got to give credit to their differences as well.
As Black-ish creator/executive producer Kenya Barris told the Wall Street Journal: “The Cosby Show, probably one of my favorites of all time, was about a family that happened to be Black, and our show is about a family that absolutely is Black.”
Anthony Anderson stars as Andre Johnson, an advertising executive dad, married to Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays the, ahem, doctor mom (see: different. The dad was the doctor on Cosby), Rainbow. They have four kids and a colonial house in the ’burbs. Ross has described Black-ish as a family comedy “about a Black family dealing with their ish.”
What’s their ish? The Johnsons are working at balancing old-school family values with modern-day accomplishments. As a Black man with “all this success, sometimes I feel like an oddity,” Andre says in the debut show. In order to “make it,” do Blacks have to drop a little of our culture? Has success brought too much assimilation for this Black family? That’s the question Black-ish tackles every week… with a big dose of humor, of course.
How far does it go? When son Andre Jr. wants a bar mitzvah, Dad overenthusiastically throws him an African rites of passage ceremony for his 13th birthday. Mom pulls Dad aside and tells him to check himself, quickly. The compromise? A hip-hop themed “bro mitzvah.”
But as Dad tries to enforce a more African-American lifestyle for his family (and at the office) Mom is the more liberal one, pointing out the beauty of their children not seeing color. Andre’s old-school dad, Pops (Laurence Fishburne), not only provides comic relief but a dose of that honesty about race and stereotypes that’s been missing from the modern TV landscape.
“What is this mess you’re doing?” Pops says referring to the African ceremony. “This ain’t no mess, this is our culture,” says Andre. Pops quips back: “This ain’t our culture. We Black, not African… Africans don’t even like us.”
What’s so refreshing about Black-ish is the same thing that’s rubbing some people the wrong way: the spot-on social commentary. As Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” plays in the background, Andre thinks to himself: “Black folks have dropped some of their culture and the rest of the world has picked it up. They even renamed it ‘urban.’ And in the urban world, Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke are R&B gods. Kim Kardashian’s a symbol for big butts, and Asian guys are just unholdable on the dance floor. C’mon! Big butts, R&B and dancing? Those are the Black man’s go-tos!”
We laugh and relate to that because hate it or love it, it’s true. “Not that I want to go back to being the big, scary Black guy, but I have to admit, it did kinda have its advantages.”
When Andre happily anticipates a promotion at work, he’s insulted to realize his new gig is as the senior vice president of the urban division of the company, and is asked by his boss to “keep it real” for an upcoming project… but also knows that he has to.
The conversation about race is long overdue, though we know not everyone is going to be ready for it. Last night, social media conversations ranged from people calling the show “mad relevant” and “relatable” to others calling Black-ish racist, not because it is, but because it slyly exposes the racism upwardly mobile Blacks experience. One African-American woman tweeted: “I’m not the demo for this show. It’s written 4 mass appeal. An off-key caricature of what upper middle class Black life is like.”
And then there was this on Twitter: “For every person who tweets something about how Black people would be outraged about a show called Whiteish, remember Friends.”
For his part, exec producer Kenya Barris thought it was fundamentally important the show have a universally relatable quality. “I’m not going to have a show called Black-ish and not have Black writers. We have a very good mix,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s the Benetton-commercial-mix of Indian and White and Black and Jewish writers, and a lot of women. It was important for us to take what America is now and put that into the room. We wanted people who are honest enough about their own experiences, and their ignorance, prejudices, misunderstandings and feelings about the world we’re living in today.”