A sitcom about the magnetic push-pull of messy, sticky familial love, Black-ish includes some of the most thoroughly fleshed-out kids on television. Ironically, those kids are much more comfortable in their skins than the father who’s so worried about molding them. The series centers around volatile marketing exec Andre “Dre” Johnson’s (Anthony Anderson) obsessive attempts—which often involve facing off against his sweetly conciliatory, biracial, raised-by-hippies wife, Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross)—to ensure that his children experience various aspects of being African-American in exactly the same way he has. He usually learns his lesson by the end of an episode, ruefully admitting the wrongheadedness of whatever agenda he was pushing, but while those mea culpas often feel formulaic, his kids’ immutable individuality never does. Eldest daughter Zoey’s (Yara Shahidi) entitled cool-girl narcissism, Junior’s (Marcus Scribner) nerdy innocence, Jack’s (Miles Brown) adorable mischief, and the imperious self-assurance of Jack’s pint-size twin sister, Diane (Marsai Martin)—provide the show’s most resonant retort to Dre’s insecure insistence that there’s just one “right” way to be black.
Ross speeds up her speech to signal Bow’s beta-dog need to be liked, widening her big eyes, while Anderson narrows his to play the stern, all-knowing paterfamilias. They’re an updated version of Lucy and Ricky, except both are more Lucy than Ricky, trying desperately to do things just right, but getting just about everything wrong. The broad-strokes acting and writing style can render the series a little corny and the plots too sitcom-y. But it’s also what makes the semi-taboo topics about race, like why black parents spank their children more than their white counterparts, more easily digestible. Dre’s opening monologue in the season premiere underscores a provocative aspect of race relations in America: Who still uses the N-word, and is that ever okay? It starts when Jack uses the word at a school talent show and is threatened with expulsion, and his parents scramble to excuse (Bow) or defend (Dre) his behavior.
While it presents a variety of perspectives, these scenes hit only the most familiar notes to present a funny but fairly glib gloss on the subject. Dre insists that using the word is Jack’s birthright, but that white people should be forbidden to utter it. Dre’s father (Laurence Fishburne) and mother (Jenifer Lewis), who add a welcome dose of old-school gravel to the series in their too-infrequent appearances, say nobody, black or white, should ever use the N-word—though, as their reactions to each other and a pair of quick flashbacks make clear, both of them do. Parents and son agree on one thing: Zoey’s generation is crazy, because they don’t care who says it. And back in Dre’s marketing firm, his white co-workers, who often provide a crude version of the white perspective on an episode’s theme, talk about how much they miss being able to use words like “colored” and “Negro.” Meanwhile, Bow, smiling a little too brightly and talking a little too fast, tries to sweet-talk a skeptical administrator into letting Jack off the hook because, well, just look at that adorable face. It’s Black-ish at its most engaging and its most frustrating: Funny, endearing, and studded with little truths about family life and race relations, it tackles a topic network TV rarely dares to touch—but says little we don’t already know.