After four years and nearly 100 episodes, “Black-ish” executive producer Kenya Barris says he finally feels like the hit ABC comedy has hit its stride. “This year was a special year because it really for us pushed us over,” he told the audience on Saturday at an Emmy For Your Consideration event for the sitcom. “It made us feel like we’re a show, we feel like we have our fans, we feel like people know our characters and we get to tell stories that we might not have been able to tell that first year.”
The landmark fourth season of “Black-ish” kicked off with “Juneteenth,” a musical episode about celebrating the day in 1865 when the last slaves were freed in the United States. The episode, inspired by “Hamilton” and “Schoolhouse Rock,” featured contributions from the Roots, Aloe Blacc, Fonzworth Bentley and others.
“We started the season so strong, I think that Juneteenth episode is one of the strongest episodes of television I’ve been involved in, and it gave us a lot of momentum to try and do some interesting things,” Barris told IndieWire at the event.
“I had trepidations,” Ross said of the storyline. “It’s scary to pull a couple that’s so beloved and that I love apart into a difficult space and a difficult time. But I also think it’s really real. Couples go through this. And one of the things I thought was beautiful about the way they did it is no one is to blame. It was just unfolded over time with this couple.
“The anchor of our show is usually that love, respect and enjoying of each other that Bow and Dre have,” Ross added. “There’s a really solid partnership that they have. For that kind of foundational anchor to be loosened felt and feels really uncomfortable. I’m grateful to the audience for hanging in here with us.”
Ross directed the show’s previous episode, “Fifty-Three Percent,” and said it was challenging to both helm and star in that show’s scenes because of the storyline. “The place that I live with Dre is that they love and enjoy each other. For them to not enjoy each other was uncomfortable. And it was a hard one to watch,” she said.
Anderson noted that the episode title referred to the fact that 53 percent of all marriages end in divorce. “Divorce is uncomfortable and making this episode was uncomfortable for us and it should be uncomfortable for an audience to be the fly on the wall and watch this happen,” he said. “I think it’s something that should be spoke about.
“You look at this perfect family, or we think it’s perfect, living in this utopian environment for the past four years and not having any major issues, now we’re exploring what happens when there is a problem, and a problem that can’t be solved in a 30-minute episode,” he said. “Something that’s much larger than that. I think it’s pretty brave for a show like us to deal with it.”
What happens next? The show’s stars were mostly mum, although Marsai Martin, who plays youngest daughter Diane, hinted that there’s more drama to come as Bow and Dre potentially separate.
“It turned into a drama real quick!” she said. “But a lot of kids they can relate to this. Divorce is a pretty tough title, or separating. With Diane being her tough self you wouldn’t think she’d be scared, but being a kid she’s sensitive to that topic. This is a pretty tough episode. I can’t tell you anything, but stay tuned.”
“Black-ish,” of course, has rarely shied away from edgy topics, such as police brutality or guns. But the show did make headlines recently when an already-produced episode was pulled before air — reportedly because of creative differences. Barris declined comment, but at the time Variety wrote that the episode tackled multiple political and social issues of concern to Dre, including athletes kneeling at football games.
“Hopefully one day we will see it,” Anderson told IndieWire. “I don’t think it’s as controversial as people think it is. But, hopefully one day it will be aired. The lost episode of ‘Black-ish’ will see the light of day. I’d be interested to see and hear the comments once it does air. But everything we do is pretty good and I think that was one of our better ones, so hopefully it does see the light.”
The situation has led to some speculation that Barris might be looking to leave his ABC Studios deal early in order to set up camp at Netflix or another home. But at the “Black-ish” FYC event, held on the Disney lot, the producer specifically saluted his studio and network: “Just when I think back at this year and the things we were able to do — ABC Studios, thank you, and ABC as a network, thank you.”
The FYC event featured a table read of this season’s fifth episode, “First and Last,” written by Laura Gutin Peterson. Anderson, Ross, Martin, Laurence Fishburne, Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown, Marsai Martin, Jenifer Lewis, Peter MacKenzie, Jeff Meacham, Nelson Franklin, Anna Deavere Smith, Jennie Pierson and Barris (filling in for Deon Cole) all participated.
“I worked on a lot of shows, and this cast and what they can do is unlike almost any other cast that I’ve seen,” Barris said. “Single-camera comedy is hard in a table read because of a lot of time it’s made in the edit. People have come to our table reads and say you can tell that they love each other, they really embrace their work.”