Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) bans hate speech at her children’s school by taking to the barricades. She punches through a banner and chants into a megaphone, protesting in a shirt that reads “SHE-RO,” and although her passion proves too intense—she tosses a brick through a parked car’s window—her gesture of triumph is perfect. Tilting her head back in exultation, Ross emerges as the unsung star of Kenya Barris’ “Black-ish,” and the emblem of a sitcom character reborn: I am mother. Hear me roar.
Along with ABC counterpart Constance Wu, of Nahnatchka Khan’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” Ross, as the successful surgeon and mother of four, adapts the most familiar figure in American television—see: Carol Brady, Clair Huxtable, Roseanne—to the medium’s modern age, in which single ladies—see: Liz Lemon, Leslie Knope, Hannah Horvath—lately seem to attract the most attention. In part, this is due to the dearth of comic roles for women of color, and to the distinct perspectives with which Ross, who is biracial, and Wu, who is Taiwanese-American, imbue their performances. But their revival of the sitcom mom runs deeper, and wider, than that: In their hands, Bow Johnson and Jessica Huang become their series’ centers of gravity, holding their families in orbit.
In “Black-ish,” which follows an affluent black family in present-day L.A., Ross, with her bright eyes, broad smile, and elastic expression, often seems a transplant from silent comedy: Her face speaks for itself. The camera closes in on her grinning and grimacing as if she were a matinee idol, drawn to the dialogue written across Bow’s brow, to the point that her demonstrative bearing “narrates” the series with the same vigor of her husband’s voiceover. (If the writers cut her lines altogether, it’d still be one of the best performances on television.) As Bow and Dre (Anthony Anderson) navigate the challenges of childrearing, work, and marriage, inflected by issues of race and class, it frequently falls to her to negotiate between their home and the world: Biracial, liberal, and born to privilege, Bow represents the intersection of the series’ controversial title, where blackness meets “Black-ish.”
This might, for an actress of lesser talents, become a thankless task—as Bow says in the second season’s excellent, essential “Hope,” which focuses on police brutality, “Can I just play Devil’s advocate here?”—but Ross lends the character such warmth, such expansive emotion, that it’s impossible not to respect her side of the argument. “I am beloved!” she bellows at one point, attempting to reverse the aforementioned ban on hate speech after her son, Jack (Miles Brown), drops the n-word at school, and to viewers, if not always to her neighbors, she is: Bow is a mother bear we can relate to whatever our background, brilliant, funny, and fierce.
Jessica Huang is a woman of similar qualities, though one of the pleasures of watching “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” in tandem is seeing the alternate route Wu takes to get there. Where Bow is a forthright presence, a fount of manic energies, Jessica is small, still, crafty, with a slightly accented, bone-dry delivery that sharpens each word into a comic shiv. “I don’t know how to relax,” she tells her husband, Louis (Randall Park) during an impromptu “Family Business Trip.” “I could be marinating meat, or driving.”
Yet Wu refuses to rest on the “tiger mom” trope, turning Jessica’s tough, tightly wound manner away from mere traditionalism. In Clinton-era Orlando, she pursues a career of her own, earning her real estate license, and revels in the melodrama of “Melrose Place”; she pinches pennies and urges her children to excel, but tempers her competitive fire with a modicum of foolishness. (Before she fires her middle son’s tennis coach, none other than Billie Jean King, Jessica asks after her longtime crush, Pete Sampras.) As with Bow, she’s the emblem of her series’ defining experience, which is to be not one thing or the other, but both, and much more besides. Within the well-trod conventions of the sitcom mom, Ross and Wu discover veins of rich characterization that reflect, and refract, the genre’s heyday.
Both strong contenders for nominations in the Emmy race for Best Actress (Comedy), Ross and Wu—not to mention Allison Janney, who’s won Best Supporting Actress (Comedy) for her terrific turn on “Mom” two years running—suggest a path forward for network sitcoms, particularly as perennial nominees “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” near the end of their respective runs. In these series, their role as mothers is central to their characters, and yet none are constrained, in ambition or affect, by life in the domestic sphere. Unlike Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen), of “Modern Family,” or Debra Barone (Patricia Heaton), of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” they aren’t lost in large ensembles or relegated to huffing at their husbands; unlike Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) of “Veep” or Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) of “Nurse Jackie,” they’re not so dark or damaged that their comedy draws blood.
The middle ground that both Bow and Jessica inhabit turns out to be more honest, in its way, than the sharpest satire or the broadest comedy, because Ross and Wu embrace the ambiguities of their position, as women of color, professionals, mothers, and wives, without being soured by them. Call them what you want—mother bear, tiger mom—but Bow Johnson and Jessica Huang are ferocious advocates for themselves and their families, always standing up instead of backing down. In a word, they’re she-ros.