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We Need to Talk About ‘Black-ish’

 

As it finishes up its fifth season, the sitcom black-ish has solidified itself within the televisual landscape as a landmark project.  It has won over two dozen NAACP Image awards since airing in 2014. Yara Shahidi (Zoey) has successfully landed her own spin-off, Grown-ish, where she serves as the series’ star.  Marsai Martin, who plays Diane, has become one of the youngest executive producers in Hollywood, with her hit film, Little starring herself alongside Issa Rae and Regina Hall.  Comedian Deon Cole (Charlie Telphy) who served as writer and correspondent for Conan prior to signing onto the sitcom, has further expanded his avenues and become the latest spokesperson for Old Spice.  black-ish has served as a tremendous platform for the actors, producers, and writers and has once again proven that a majority black cast can pull in primetime numbers.  I have been following the show since its beginning; I can honestly say that I have not missed an episode. However, if I am continuing to be truthful, I find the show to be only slightly entertaining and not funny.  I find myself feeling mostly frustrated by the parenting style of Dre (Anthony Anderson) and annoyed with his tantrums and the way his family entertains them. My lack of laughter at watching the show makes me question if black-ish is meant to be read as a satire?  Although, I am not convinced that it is nuanced enough to live within that label.  Whatever the case may be, I believe that the sitcom struggles with what I can only think to call “staleness” for these reasons:

 

The characterization of Dre.

 

Dre is a bad father and husband.  He is like an overgrown child who always has to have his way and for the life of me, I cannot understand why Bow seems to always concede.  In S5E8 “Christmas in the Theatre,” the family takes a vote on which movie to see. Pretty much everyone, save Dre, decides it would be best to see the new action film.  However, since Dre thinks that it’s blackest to support the latest, but poorly done, civil rights movie, the entire family must appease him. While this is just one instance, this is typically how conflicts are solved within the Johnson family.  Everyone else’s desires are subverted to quell the tantrums of Dre. The breed of the family dog was selected in a similar manner. Everyone wants one kind of dog, Dre wants another. Dre wins. What is extra mind boggling is that even when Bow is on the opposing side, she always acquiesces.  I have no clue what she even sees in him; which is a slightly different story.

 

The turning of Charlie into a stereotype.

 

 In the first few seasons, Charlie was hands down my favorite character.  He was odd and entertaining. However, over the last two seasons he has turned from the quirky co-worker who occasionally says slightly off things to a cartoon who barely makes any sense when speaking.  Lately, they have him pushing what is apparently his new tagline. During a conversation Charlie eventually realizes that he left his son somewhere and says firmly aloud, with bugged-out eyes, “Heustess.”  He then immediately leaves the room to collect his forgotten child. His character has gotten so ridiculous that it has been uncertain how he manages to maintain such a well-paying high profile job as a black man.

It’s extremely formulaic.  

 

While most sitcoms follow a specific structure there is something extremely rigid about their layout that it makes it uninteresting.  Dre has a problem at home. He ignores the advice from his wife and other family members and instead talks about it with his daft and privileged co-workers.  They give Dre some horrible advice that he follows. After dealing with the consequences of following the bad advice everything works out. Dre learns something within the individual world of the episode.  What he hasn’t learned despite countless instances, is not to take the advice of his co-workers. This is how every single episode plays out and as a longtime viewer, I would appreciate a switch-up.  It could be refreshing.

 

It’s turning into this weird vehicle of advertising within itself.  

 

In S5E20 “Good in the Hood,” Dre prepares for a trip to his sister’s house with Jack and Diane in tow.  After being called out by one of the twins about Dre not remembering his sister’s address viewers watch him as he plugs it into the myBuick app.  The camera which began zoomed out on Dre looking at his phone, narrows in so that his android takes up most of the screen and we can clearly see the landing page for the app.  We then follow Dre as he climbs into his Buick truck, and the camera zooms in on the dash so we can see that the address he typed in his phone has automatically been uploaded to the SUV’s navigation system.  This flagrant commercial within the show feels cheap and further weakens the narrative structure of the sitcom. Unfortunately, this tactic is found in a subsequent episode which leads me to believe that it is becoming their new modus operandi.  In the following episode S5E21 “FriDre Night Lights,” after ruining Diane’s first date by serving as an over-involved chaperone, Junior makes it up to his little sister by decorating the back patio and inviting her crush over. Diane asks him how he managed to pull it off when her eyes land on some target bags strategically placed in the corner.  The show transitions to a flashback where we see Dre using the Target app to select items and then we watch him walk through the door bags in tow, to a voice over of him explaining how easy it was to shop at Target. While I know whenever I am watching something there is always the potential to be sold something, the obviousness of the show’s use of the internarrative advertising feels somewhat like a betrayal.

 

Why do I continue to watch Black-ish if I have such strong, not-so-positive feelings towards it? I’m not sure.  When speaking with a friend about it, she offered that perhaps it’s because there is a huge lack in black sitcoms.  I think she might be right. Besides The Last O.G., I cannot name any black sitcoms on television right now.  So, until Atlanta, Insecure, and hopefully Black Monday return, I guess I’m stuck with annoying ass Dre, or nothing really at all.  Help me y’all. I do hope that this is reflective of pressures put onto the show by the network and I look forward to seeing how Kenya Barris takes advantage of presumably more creative freedom with his yet-to-be-revealed work with Netflix.

MJ VanDevere

MJ VanDevere is a doctoral candidate at a predominately white elite institution in the South who uses humor to combat racism, sexism, and all the other –isms that seek to diminish her greatness. She is a self-proclaimed “stand-up snob” who does not have a favorite comedian, so please don't ask unless you have several hours to spare. Some of her favorite movies include, Life, Dead Presidents, and Happy Feet. If, she could only do one thing for the rest of her life, it would definitely be laugh, and maybe write. Adulting is her greatest work in progress.

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