Black-ish, the new ABC show about an upper middle class black family trying to hold onto its culture in a white neighborhood, shows its promise within the first ten minutes.
After several minutes of Andre Johnson's (Anthony Anderson) mostly obnoxious internal monologuing, he's in a conference room waiting for his promotion to be announced. He shuffles through the crowd too early, bumping into people and excusing himself too loudly. In any other sitcom, this would be the moment when his boss announces that, actually... Howard is getting the promotion. Instead, Andre is promoted to Senior Vice President ... of the Urban Division.
For people whose favorite TV families as a kid were the Huxtables, the Winslows, and the Banks-Smiths, we were ready to be disappointed by black-ish. At least, I was. I didn't watch the premiere because I'm a huge fan of Anthony Anderson (I'm indifferent), because I like ABC shows (with the exception of Scandal, I don't), or even because I like most sitcoms (I don't).
I watched it because it's a show about black people, and I wanted to see how well it would capture my experiences. In that sense, it didn't disappoint — when Andre Johnson goes home, his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) points out that he's mad because they put him in charge of the urban (aka black) division, but he would be just as mad if they put a white person in charge of it. Writers of color in the predominantly white media industry are intimately familiar with this.
Best of all, that scene was laugh-out-loud funny. It was unexpected, and Anderson's face as he says "I'm sorry ... did you say urban?" is priceless.
Still, I've tempered my expectations. black-ish is no Cosby Show. Yes, they're both large upper-middle-class black families, and Cosby and Anderson both play dads who act like idiots sometimes. There's even an oft-present grandfather, though Laurence Fishburne's character is a bit surlier towards to his son. The big difference is that The Cosby Show did what it did first, and better.
If anything it's My Wife and Kids, the ABC show starring Damon Wayans that aired from 2001-2005. Wayans played the same role Anderson here, as the tough and slightly backwards father. Both are perfectly fine shows that will be remembered for being funny enough (and adding some much needed diversity to our week nights) but not for being one of the best shows on television. Then again, I hope black-ish makes me eat my words.
Last night, Shani Hilton at BuzzFeed joked that "tonight is the night we sort black people by how they react to blackish." To build on that, Grandpa Johnson (Lawrence Fishburne) would hate black-ish — he didn't face fire hoses and march on Washington to live in a world where the only black sitcom on network television exists in a post-racial fantasy world. Rainbow would wait to see if it has more high points than corny low points.
Whether Andre Johnson would like the show, I have no idea. The central thesis of the episode is that sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do — play field hockey, be the Senior Vice President of the Urban Division — to get what you want. Success has a price, and sometimes that includes having white people tell you to keep it real.
In this case, people rooting for the show want a return to a golden age in television when we had more than one black family sitcom on network television, even if that means watching Anderson tell his wife she's not really black because she's biracial and tease his son for playing a "woman's sport" like field hockey.
And so we'll wait and see if it gets less corny, or if there are more moments like the promotion scene, when the show actually delivers on its promise.