black-ish: a show for everyone, not just black people

The show drew mixed opinions even before it even aired, but this powerful and lighthearted comedy has the potential to become our generation’s All in the Family.

When I first saw the trailer for ABC’s new comedy black-ish, which premiered last Wednesday, I was skeptical. I saw Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as leads and envisioned a revival of the UPN block of the late 90s and early 2000s. This was the height of the “The Hughleys/Jamie Foxx/Bernie Mac Show” era. While I loved those comedians (I can go line for line with anyone on The Original Kings of Comedy), I looked at those shows as “been there, done that” and wanted something fresh. As fresh as a new outfit from the Steve Harvey Collection.

Suits on suits on suits

I had several questions about the upcoming show. Who was the target audience for black-ish? Will the show attract non-black viewers? How long can a network prime time show thrive on racial stereotypes alone? Back to the title, what does “black-ish” even mean? Did Kenya Barris, the writer-producer of black-ish, have an agenda with the show?

After watching the entertaining pilot, I answered some of my questions, sparked new ones, and have some key insights.

black-ish is not just for black people.
It‘s for all viewers and deserves its prime time spot.

Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson) plays a rising ad executive and father struggling with his family’s ethnic identity. While Andre fights to “keep it real” as a black man by identifying with his cultural roots, his biracial wife, Dr. Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross), and the rest of their family provide a counterbalance to Dre’s motifs. In the pilot, Dre questions almost everything he encounters, including his promotion to the Urban Division (or as he calls it, “black stuff”) at work and his son’s desire to have a Bar Mitzvah, even though the family is not Jewish. Dre’s father, “Pops” (Laurence Fishburne) frequently delivers well-timed one liners to calm Dre down.

Meet the Johnsons. Not the Huxtables, Winslows, or the Obamas.

The pilot balanced a comedic and lighthearted delivery while resting on an undercurrent of cultural and racial topics. In 2014, racial discussions are still discussed among many groups of people. If a prime time comedy can make us laugh while resting on these issues, then it can serve both as a reminder for those who discuss these issues often, and a catalyst for those who discuss them less frequently.

It’s not an easy feat for a show, but this is not the first time a sitcom has effectively delivered this to its viewers. How different is black-ish from CBS’s hit show from the 70s, All In The Family?

All in the Family has long passed the water cooler test.
Will black-ish pass the test?

All in the Family, Norman Lear’s influential series, was a game-changing sitcom which rested on topics such as racism, homosexuality, women’s rights, religion, and any politically-charged topic you could possibly think of. While All in the Family received much criticism in the 70s, the show had mass appeal across different race, genders, and beliefs. While I grew up watching the reruns, I can only image what is was like to watch this show during its original run and during the climate of America in the 1970s.

It ranks with The Cosby Show and American Idol as the only shows to hold the number 1 spot on the yearly Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years. By popularity alone, it passed the “water cooler test” of discussing the show among co-workers and colleagues in different settings. The high ratings and multiple Emmy awards speak for themselves.

While All in the Family is focused on a white family in the 70s, black-ish focuses on a black family in present day. CBS definitely took a big risk in airing All in the Family, and they successfully proved that America in the 1970s was ready for the weekly antics and outrageous comments of a bigoted, working-class white man. The question now is whether America in 2014 is ready for the weekly antics and outrageous comments of an upper-middle class black man?

Sammy Davis, Jr. caught Archie slipping in this iconic photo. #NoFilter

Archie Bunker (the late Carroll O’Connor), All in the Family’s main character, was a New Yorker living in the post-civil rights era. Archie’s family and friends frequently played on the foolish beliefs and statements he regularly made. He had something offensive to say about anyone who wasn't a conservative white male working-class New Yorker (pretty much anyone except himself). The show thrived on his actions and commentary.

Although it was a fictional comedy, Archie’s issues and struggles were current for the 70s. The show drew much controversy and made many viewers feel uneasy because of the issues it exposed, especially on a major network. While Lear intended to satirize and expose bigotry for America to see, critics believed the show was bigoted and wrong itself. Despite the opposing viewpoints, Archie’s character was a great spark to have conversations with friends about the bigotry that existed in America at the time.

How many African Rites of Passage Ceremonies do you think have taken place since last Wednesday?

In that same vain, black-ish is also extremely timely, because many Generation X middle-class black parents were the first to be raised in the post-civil rights era and may relate to Dre’s identity conflicts.

When Dre created the African Rites of Passage ceremony and dressed himself and Andy in dashikis, Pops uttered out, “We Black not African, even the Africans don’t like us”. It delivered a hilarious sting to Dre’s absurdity to make up his own ceremony, while providing viewers with a window to other cultural issues that exist. The relations and conflicting perceptions among different ethnic groups of black people (Africans, African-Americans, West Indians, etc.) is not a new topic, but black-ish surfaces it for viewers to think about as well.

What also makes black-ish intriguing is that the show is just as much about Dre’s children as it is about himself (at least for now). While Archie Bunker’s daughter and son-in-law had heated disagreements with Archie on their ideologies, Dre’s kids don’t have any political agenda whatsoever; they are just being themselves!

In the pilot, Dre’s daughter describes the only other black girl in her class by her clothing and accessories, not by her race. His children also refer to Barack Obama as the only President they know, not highlighting that he is black. Dre’s son, Andre Jr., now goes by “Andy” to come across as “edgy but approachable”. All three of these moments are viewed as more lighthearted exchanges, but they all drive the underlying intent and purpose of the show and the discussions it can spark.

Barris and Anthony Anderson have unsurprisingly drawn some criticism for black-ish; from embarrassing black culture to falling short in comparison to The Cosby Show. In Barris’ words himself, “[The Cosby Show] was about a family that happened to be black, and our show is about a family that is absolutely black.” The Cosby Show was iconic and relevant to its era, just as black-ish is unique to this era. Because the shows are different, the discussions around them should also be different. black-ish’s pilot alone can spark several interesting topics:

Should I educate my children on their cultural and racial identity? Should I teach them the societal differences between other races and cultures?

Should I be upset or happy if children don’t see race when they see leaders in powerful positions?

If I get promoted at work and feel that I received racially-influenced treatment, like a promotion to the Urban Division, or hear “backhanded praise” (e.g. you’re so articulate — black people; you’re not too pushy — women), how should I react?

Thought provoking questions like these are very similar to the types of questions Archie Bunker and company sparked 40 years ago.

What types of words are offensive to use when referring to different groups of people?

Should I feel comfortable to call out my family members if they express racist beliefs?

How should I react if a friend, who I believe is a good person, makes an insensitive comment?

For black-ish, the verdict is still out on who it will draw as regular viewers and what the cultural impact will be. There is much to be determined, but this is the same scenario that All in the Family was in when it originally premiered. The potential for black-ish is there.

While the show’s title has long been a discussion piece in itself, that may have been Barris’ intention. Perhaps it is intended for us to question our surface impressions of particular issues and topics. I take it as a sign that we should feel comfortable digging deeper beyond our initial perceptions and not letting the name of any show turn us away. It’s a great opportunity for all viewers to enjoy one of the more interesting shows to premiere this fall. We weren’t sure if we were ready for Archie Bunker and company back then, but we proved that were. Are we ready for Dre Johnson and company?

If you haven’t seen it, check out the black-ish pilot on Hulu.

I’ll be hanging out by the water cooler. I won’t wearing a flashy Steve Harvey suit though.

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