Check out our full review coverage of new and returning fall TV here.
The problem with sitcoms, other than their long history of being distinctly unfunny for the most part, are lessons. There’s always been a strong, unquestioned moral backbone to the sitcom format, which is one of the many reasons that they’ve been criticized for their repetitive storylines and pedestrian-at-best thematic concepts. For a long stretch, South Park had a standing joke-tradition of a character saying “I learned something today” right before the lesson was undermined or proven simply untrue right at the end. For Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it was a way of nodding towards the influence of sitcoms while also mocking the lunacy and rigidity implied in such moral high-grounds. There’s more than a few similar nods to the influence of classic sitcoms in black-ish, Kenya Barris‘s consistently guffaw-laden sitcom about an affluent African-American family, and as Season 2 of the show premieres, there’s a similar snap against moral absolutes in society weaved into the show’s episodic narrative.
In the Season 2 premiere, “The Word,” the Johnson family, led by Andre (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), find themselves tangling with the N word following Jack’s (Miles Brown) performance of Kanye West‘s “Gold Digger” at a school talent show. Due to a zero-tolerance policy at the school, an effort spearheaded by Rainbow, Jack is set-up for expulsion from his school, spurring a family-wide discussion about the term at home, as well as a few discussions at Andre’s work as well. These two settings help outline the show’s fascination with contrasting how major issues are discussed intimately with family members or close friends as compared to how they are discussed in society or the media. The discussions in the house are messy, hypocritical, and excited, whereas the talk that Andre has with his boss and close work colleagues is more awkward, witty, and outlandish, and this mix makes for black-ish‘s distinct and consistent comedic tone.
Though the entire cast is resolutely excellent, it’s especially heartening to see Anderson find a sturdy showcase for his generous sense of humor and raucous delivery, after years of floundering in horror and action films (the less said about his roles in pap like Grudge Match and The Big Year, the better). As a sitcom character, Andre is refreshingly unpredictable, neither sticking stridently to his masculinity nor pushing his essentially progressive stances to the point of sermonizing. Similarly, the message that’s imparted about using the N word is far more openly subjective and complex than one might expect from a sitcom, let alone an ABC sitcom, and the writers add in a subplot about progressive eco thinking, involving Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) and Zoey (Yara Shahidi) battling over how much shower time they should be allotted. Though its not nearly as daring or wise as the main plot of the episode, this side plot again suggests a thoughtful consideration of the gap between personal comforts and societal responsibilities, which have always been central to the sitcom format but rarely have been pulled off with such humility, humor, and sense of actual lived-in experience as they are in black-ish.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — A great start