BLACK-ISH Sneak Peek: Not quite the same old song and dance (because nobody even does that anymore)

Courtesy ABC

ABC’s newest offering on its Wednesday night comedy block brings some familiar faces back to the small screen, but its spin on cultural identity brings the heart to the popular lineup.

It’s funny — you could be forgiven for thinking the opening moments of ABC’s new comedy Black-ish are a retread of the network flagship Modern Family, right down to the introductory images of the protagonist’s multigenerational family standing in front of the Spanish colonial house like in the latter’s credit sequence.

But in short order, Anthony Anderson’s latest TV venture reminds you just how different his Johnson family is from the Pritchetts, Where Jay and the gang are really a variation of a very old dynamic, Andre Johnson and his crew are new everything: newly wealthy, newly upwardly mobile, and newly reawakened with the awareness of their stature in their community.

Courtesy ABC

Courtesy ABC

Andre (Anderson) is a lower-level manager at a Los Angeles advertising agency, tapped to become the new senior vice-president in the firm. He doesn’t mince words about being one of the few black employees in management at his office, or how his promotion will make him the first black senior VP in his company’s history. He’s proud of his accomplishments — overcoming a rough childhood to graduate college and become successful at a white agency — yet when the moment of truth comes, he’s disheartened that he’s now the SVP of the urban division.

It’s an interesting discussion about the role of tokenism and racial prejudice in the modern workplace. Unsurprisingly, Andre is frustrated that despite all his hard work and dues-paying, he’s been pigeonholed into what he perceives as promoting only stereotypically black markets. He wants to be known as an SVP, period, and even nearly sabotages his first “urban” account in protest of his position.

Courtesy ABC

Courtesy ABC

Not helping matters is the cacophony of opinions he encounters at home. His wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), pleads with him to just get over it and take the opportunity to advance himself, as she has as a doctor. His father Pops (the always-wonderful Laurence Fishburne), a 1960s civil rights activist (or so he says), admonishes his son for not having gone to work for a “black” company when he had the chance, instead of following the money. His eldest son Junior (Marcus Scribner) seems to be rejecting his “natural” calling to basketball in favor of field hockey and calling himself “Andy,” ostensibly to fit in with his predominantly white friends at school. Andre is even upset his grade-school aged twins Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin) — and I’m sure there’s a whole episode coming at some point about that particular naming choice — fail to identify their only other African-American classmate by her race.

It all comes to a head when Junior decides he’d like to have a Bar Mitzvah for his upcoming thirteenth birthday, to which Andre firmly puts his foot down and decides it’s time for his family to reconnect with their heritage. Yet what follows is an exploration of just what exactly that cultural identity is. Andre spent so much of his time focusing on lifting his family out of the circumstances in which he was born that he struggles to define what makes someone black.

Courtesy ABC

Courtesy ABC

He writes off biracial Rainbow for not being “really” black, to which she’s predictably not amused. (Insert the obligatory OJ Simpson argument here.) He decides to throw Junior an African Rites of Passage ceremony — hindered by the fact that he doesn’t actually know what that is, and wings it from a book in their backyard, much to everyone else’s irritation. (Pops points out that this African custom is no more his culture than Judaism is.) He nearly gets fired for his LA Tourism Board pitch being closer to Cops than an actual marketing campaign. In short, things seem to be spiralling out of control.

It’s a conversation he has with Junior and Pops that puts things into perspective: it isn’t about fitting yourself into a defined box, it’s about finding what’s right for yourself. It’s a lovely scene that showcases the potential in the series, and raises the dynamic from sitcom trope to honest self-discovery about what it means to be part of a larger community, and the different roles each of us navigates.

Courtesy ABC

Courtesy ABC

The actors are what really sell it. Anderson may begin as a typical boisterous sitcom dad exasperated with his family, but his scenes with Fishburne and Scribner reveal a vulnerable layer of a guy trying to do his best. Ross initially comes across as a wife obsessed with her family’s income, but it quickly becomes apparent how important Andre’s promotion is to both of them, and she maintains a cool composure amidst his ranting, and plays the straight-woman to his loudmouth with unshakeable calm. I really liked the chemistry between Ross and Anderson, to boot: I think they portray the long-term couple believably, and play the teasing vibe just right. Even young Scribner gets his time to shine, demonstrating that Junior is less an indifferent teen and more a sensitive, astute young man.

Courtesy ABC

Courtesy ABC

Black-ish undeniably has a lot of heart, and it’ll be curious to see how audiences respond to it. It doesn’t have the laugh-out-loud slapstick antics that, say, Modern Family pulls anytime Phil Dunphy opens his mouth, but on the flip side, I think it does delve into what makes a modern family (pardon the pun) with more realism than its network mate. While Black-ish wasn’t on my radar earlier this summer, it’s definitely going to be a show I’ll tune into to see how the discussion unfolds.


Black-ish premieres Sept. 24 at 9:30pm on ABC. The pilot is available for a free preview right now on iTunes.

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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