black-ish premieres at 9:30pm tonight on ABC, locked into it’s cushy post-Modern Family slot (a “cushy” slot mostly in theory only; just ask Suburgatory, How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life), and Mixology), and fresh off a wave of hype and good reviews across the web this week. But is it hype deserved? I’ve already shared brief thoughts about the pilot at Sound on Sight – but after watching the pilot for a third time today (my first watching the final air version), I still remain torn on both the show itself, and the reception around it, which at times feels like overcompensating white guilt, misdirected praise at a show that attempts to solve a glaring, obvious problem on network television right now (and pretty much throughout the entire history of broadcast television).
I’ve gone through my head over and over again why I feel so indifferent to black-ish; maybe it’s a disposition to not become attached to new comedies, lest they break my heart like Ben and Kate and Bent. But that’s definitely not the case: black-ish is neither funny or charming enough to grab my attention, outside of the fact that it’s a show starring a completely black cast, something that hasn’t happened on network television since… well, it’s been more recent than Family Matters, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it sometimes. And it’s certainly not the show’s attitudes towards what success is: Rainbow’s materialistic ways (“that promotion does come with a raise, right?” she asks at one point) and Andre’s acceptance of it (he basically says “I made it out the hood and got rich” while standing in front of an obnoxiously-arranged (and sized) sneaker collection. Look at all these things, it screams to the audience – and when Andre starts going in on his son Andre Jr. about tradition (going so far as to have a stereotypically “African” ceremony with burning herbs and dashikis), the show’s attempts at telling jokes start to undermine the points it’s trying to make about heritage and what it means to live a happy life (“If you took that job at the black firm, you’d be making half the salary”, Rainbow points out in another scene).
However, I can’t fault black-ish directly for its consumerism; it’s something most American shows are obsessed with, whether it’s highlighting certain pieces of technology, vehicles, or whatever other cross-promoted object appears on-screen for characters to gab on about (New Girl and Ford is a great example, as are The Walking Dead‘s always off-putting collection of new vehicles). And at times, it feels like the show’s jokes about African-Americans are almost a meta reference on the state of television in itself, the narrative equivalent of Andre “keeping it real” at his advertising executive job; people will pay more attention to you if you confirm their beliefs, and black-ish‘s jokes about grape soda and dashikis could be interpreted as the show pandering to its audience, commenting on how white America wouldn’t watch if the beats weren’t familiar (like Andre defending O.J. Simpson, a trope that’s nearing its silver anniversary in American culture).
Maybe it’s just frustration I’m feeling because there are moments when black-ish is a sharp little show about race: there’s a new scene in the pilot, a cutaway, where Andre visualizes what the “us” (low-level, minority executives) and the “them” (white-washed big wigs) lived like, and what it would feel like to cross onto the other side. There’s also the opening scene where Andre details how fish-out-of-water it feels to be a financially successful African-American family, with a genuinely hilarious bit featuring a Hollywood tour denoting the “magical” family in the neighborhood. But these moments often feel too light – unless that is, they’re being force fed to Andre Jr., diatribes about culture and heritage that don’t quite hold the weight the pilot expects them to.
Or maybe it’s because black-ish feels like its being prematurely praised; the overwhelming “Thumbs up!” it feels the show is given across the internet feels too quick. Sure, black-ish is one of the most fully-formed pilots of the fall, but that’s not saying much: the children don’t feel like characters (the son is “kid who is into white kid stuff, some of it a little gay!” and the daughters are “girls who don’t know the presidents”), and the show rides a fine line between Andre being a pissed-off man of priviledge, and a man truly torn between his self-perception, and the world’s perception of him. But boy, do people like black-ish: and to each their own, but if this was a show full of white people saying the same lines (without the racially-tinged undertones), would anyone think this show is actually any good?
It’s only a pilot, but black-ish neither confirms my fears or gives me hope for the future of the show; if it can get (a lot) funnier, and find ways to be poignant without being preachy (or predictable), black-ish could be one of the most rewarding, emotional comedies on network television by the end of its first season. It could just as easily become the next Self-Important Comedy (like Modern Family did, once it started winning Emmys and GLAAD awards), and quickly devolve into a slapstick series about how hard it is to fit a brown peg in a square, white hole, something I’d rather not see a talented cast get wasted on (or the important conversation about race perception, on television and off). All I’ll say for now is that there’s something about black-ish that both draws me and repels me from it, and it’ll keep me watching, at least for the near future.