Black-ish Is Beautiful

Alyssa Rosenberg declares the ABC sitcom “the best new comedy pilot of the fall television season”:

The series focuses on an upwardly-mobile black Los Angeles family, headed by Andre (Anthony Anderson), an advertising executive, his doctor wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), Andre’s father (Laurence Fishburne) and their four children. Andre appreciates the opportunities that are open to him, including a nice home and a possible promotion at his firm, but when “Black-ish” begins, he is also gravely concerned that his kids are drifting from his own sense of what it means to be black, in part because they have grown up in such relative comfort. …

But the tension Andre is feeling does not simply play out in his own family, where he and Rainbow–who is mixed-race–have radically different perspectives on everything from their own children’s choice of sports and attraction to Judaism to an ongoing disagreement about whether O.J. Simpson is actually guilty. Instead, the great insight of “Black-ish” is that everyone has a relationship to black culture now, as well as to issues of class and gender, and that there is great comedy and great insight to be mined in looking at the fine-grained differences in the perspectives everyone brings to blackness (and whiteness), family life and money.

While watching the first episode – available in full here – Judnick Mayard felt a pang of recognition:

The pilot, which airs this week on ABC, follows “Dre” on the day he is promoted to senior vice president at the ad agency where there are no folks of color on the management team. To his surprise, he is named SVP of the Urban Division, essentially boiling his job down to black man in charge of black stuff. His boss insults him further by requesting that he also keep it real on his first pitch, which incenses Dre into a mad spiral of reaffirming his blackness to himself and his family. Dre’s anger and antics throughout the rest of the episode come from feeling like his blackness (and his family’s blackness) is being attacked. It’s a feeling that many of us can understand.

Linda Holmes contends that “while the racial politics of Black-ish are interesting and feel pretty fresh … what’s even more unusual is Dre’s mention of money”:

What makes the show interesting and the comedy more pointed, for me, is that there’s a candor about the way that having money affects Dre and Rainbow’s sense of who they are and how they’re raising their kids that’s very uncommon in a world where the obviously rolling-in-dough families on Modern Family, for instance, almost never discuss it. That’s not to even mention, of course, the many much-maligned examples of people living in palatial New York apartments they would never be able to afford in their proffered professions, from everyone on Friends to Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, who was somehow supporting herself in high style and hot shoes by writing one column for one outlet, rather than living in a closet with four roommates and a cockroach infestation. Black-ish concerns itself largely with the way Dre’s sense of racial identity intersects with the introduction of wealth.

Willa Paskin adds, “What ultimately gives Black-ish so much warmth – a warmth reminiscent of, yes, The Cosby Show – is its optimism that audiences, of all colors, will not be turned off by its specificity”:

Black-ish is about the affluent black experience, no apologies, no soft-pedaling. And that experience, of course, encompasses the anxiety of raising your children, the sustaining of a great marriage, and the ongoing project of being the person you most want to be. Like the many, many sitcoms about the affluent white experience, this is a show that is meant to be seen and enjoyed by everyone.

But Kellie Carter Jackson longs for more all-black casts:

How is it that in the “Age of Obama,” there is even less black programming on TV, save the ratchet reality TV shows of Love and Hip Hop, Basketball Wives, and the Real Housewives of Atlanta? Not only are these reality shows a false and horrible representation of black culture, but they are essentially made for pennies on the dollar when compared to a network drama or comedy.

Of course, if reality TV such as Love and Hip Hop was about authentic, complex characters, I’d watch it. I’d watch a show about drug dealers, if it were authentic and thoughtful. Who didn’t love The Wire? Who doesn’t love a good anti-hero? Black TV isn’t always about the politics of respectability. What American television should be about is presenting America with a world as diverse and complex as it really is. TV’s visual binary should not consistently be limited to that of black success or black struggle: Most of us live somewhere in between.

Perhaps in the age of Obama, the decline of all-black casts is simply because African-American actors are more woven into the fabric of TV overall. If anyone knows of any demographic data pointing either way, email us at dish@andrewsullivan.com.