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‘Black-ish’ Takes a Funny, But Not De-Fanged, Look at Race in America

'Black-ish' Takes a Funny, But Not De-Fanged, Look at Race in America

In the wake of New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley’s instantly infamous essay on Shonda Rhimes, it’s interesting to look at how TV critics — who are, as a group overwhelmingly white — are dealing with ABC’s “Black-ish,” which premieres tonight on ABC. Created by Kenya Barris, a TV veteran who developed “America’s Next Top Model” and wrote for shows like “Are We There Yet?” and “Girlfriends,” “Black-ish” stars Anthony Anderson as an Andre, advertising executive whose success has left him alienated from his roots — as his father (Laurence Fishburne), who never misses a chance to bring up his part in the Civil Rights movement, never misses a chance to remind him. Early on, we see a fantasy sequence where a tour bus swings by Andre’s sumptuously appointed (and, of course, sparkling white) house to give tourists a glimpse of “the mythical and majestic Black Family.”

The trouble, at least from Andre’s POV, is that Andre’s wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and their four children don’t feel out of place in that world: Andre, Jr., who’s taken to letting the white kids at his high school call him “Andy,” is trying out to play not basketball but field hockey — or, as he calls it, “fee-hock.” His younger children either don’t know that Obama is the first black president or they don’t think it’s a big deal; hasn’t it always been that way? Rainbow, who shares a name with Barris’ wife, is biracial, and thinks it’s great that their kids live in a world where they don’t seem to see color, but Andre feels his grip on his own culture — or what he feels should be his own culture — slipping away. In a world where Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke are R&B stars and Kim Kardashian reps the big booty, what do black folks have to call their own?

In its pilot, which was co-developed by Larry Willmore, who helped break 12 more episodes before decamping to head up Comedy Central’s “Minority Report” in the former “Colbert Report” slot,” “Black-ish” paints with a broad brush, and critics are wary that it will continue to do so. But its bid for broad-based appeal is part of what makes “Black-ish” at least potentially revolutionary. Critics may want a show more explicitly concerned with race, but the “-ish” is there for a reason; one imagines some weeks will be more “-ish” than others. Its broadness isn’t dumbed-down so much as it is welcoming, inviting its potential audience to sit down to a nice home-cooked meal before hitting them with some humorously phrased but still uncomfortable truths.

Brian Lowry, Variety

Created by Kenya Barris and infused with semi-autobiographical elements, “Black-ish” broadly speaks to a fertile topic regarding minority communities — the fear that greater assimilation to embrace a non-ethnic mainstream comes at a price. Yet in the pilot, the writing hews toward the obvious and predictable, perhaps in part because it’s racing along to establish the premise.

Neil Genzlinger, New York Times

You know the formula: Dad behaves clumsily; Dad has eyes opened; episode ends in compromise (in this case, a not very convincing one). If that’s going to be the pattern for this series, it will probably stay amusing enough. But the ingredients are in place for something substantial here: The cast is decent, and there’s a willingness to at least voice race-related themes that you won’t hear on many other shows.

Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

It’s funny, but it’s not revolutionary. Granted, it’s just a comedy — it shouldn’t have to be revolutionary — but when you give your show a big-umbrella title that speaks to racial identity in 2014, you’re setting up high expectations. 

James Poniewozik, Time

“Black-ish’s” first episode is full of incisive racial observations, intra- and inter-. (It’s co-executive produced by Larry Wilmore, once “senior black correspondent” for “The Daily Show,” who is stepping back his role to host Comedy Central’s “Minority Report” next year.) But it also works simply as the kind of oddball family comedy that ABC can do well, if not always well in the ratings; the awkward son taking up field hockey, for instance, recalls the late, lamented “Trophy Wife.”

Eric Deggans, NPR

What makes this show special is that Anderson is an African-American father worried his wealthy kids have lost touch with their black heritage; that they’ve gone from black to black-ish. At a time when so much talk about race is so serious, it’s a pleasure to see a show which has a good time poking fun at everyone’s misconceptions and hangups.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

When Dre says he wants his kids to be “black, not black-ish,” he’s trying to get at something very culturally specific, and yet — and this is the beautiful part — as soon as he names exactly what’s eating him, he (and we) realizes that it’s not as specific as he thinks, and that, in fact, he’s on a quixotic quest. He might as well be trying to cup some water in his bare hands and keep it there forever. How much of Dre’s anxiety comes from race and culture, and how much is midlife crisis in disguise? We wonder, and “Black-ish” seems to wonder along with us. In its own sweet way, this is a landmark show.

LaToya Ferguson, A.V. Club

In between the laughs, “Black-ish” brings up a lot of good questions, especially in regard to what it means to be “black.” How does one maintain cultural identity in the face of peer pressure and minority status? What is black to an African-American man working in a predominantly white corporate setting, living in a predominantly white neighborhood? What is black to a mixed-raced woman working as a doctor? What is black to adolescent African-Americans? What is black to the audience? These are all questions with a variety of answers, all which, combined, boil down to one ideal: black-ish.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

Though race is the show’s primary topic — and class (as much of a rarity in contemporary TV) a close second — “Black-ish” neatly achieves the “make the universal specific and the specific universal” goal to which most family comedies aspire. I have not dealt with Dre’s exact issues, but I could recognize many parallel ones to my own life. (Though I suppose Dre would just file that away as another reason why Andre Jr’s bar mitzvah dream is so troubling.) There have been a number of fine comedies that ABC has scheduled after “Modern Family” (and there have also been “Mixology” and “Super Fun Night”), but I’m not sure ABC’s had a spiritually better pairing for it to date.

Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post

Though the home-life stuff is fine, the workplace scenes are probably the strongest segments of the “Black-ish” pilot. Anderson’s character is one of the few African-Americans in a senior position at his firm, and as such, he’s constantly called upon to code-switch and calibrate just how black he can be in a given situation. A few months ago, BuzzFeed published a hilarious/sad list called “31 Things You Have to Deal With as the Only Black Person in Your Office,” and I get the impression that Andre could have written it.

Hank Stuever, Washington Post

The rock has rolled all the way back to the bottom of the hill, in the form of jokes about fried chicken, grape soda and “Roots.” But if this summer’s events in Ferguson, Mo. have taught us anything, it’s that the subject of race is still being interpreted on a remedial level by many. Depending on how far it’s willing to press and poke at the issues it raises, “Black-ish” displays a welcoming sense of humor that might be illuminating in the present context.

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