Note: I pitched this to a pub, but it was shot down, so since there’s no kill fee/agreement, I decided to post it here on my own site. Enjoy!
There’s a line toward the end of ABC’s “Black-ish” – officially premiering Sept. 24, but already available for free download on iTunes – where Andre Jr., the teen son of the protagonist, tells his father during a one-on-one basketball game that, “I’m just being me, I’m just not quite sure who that is yet.”
Inadvertently, this could be the tone of “Black-ish” going forward. The sitcom takes its name from dialogue in the pilot episode, in which Anthony Anderson plays an ad executive wondering if his family is “real” enough – and by “real,” we mean “black.”
Rarer these days are the network sitcoms that offer inside views of non-white families, but this season is shaping up to be a banner year – at least with ABC — with “Fresh Off The Boat” and “Cristela” peeking into Asian and Hispanic households, respectively. Neither of those shows, however, will likely be compared to similarly cast predecessors. “Black-ish,” a show about an upper-middle-class suburban black family, will, though.
With black families, we’re either the Evanses or the Huxtables, with the latter always having served as the answer to the former and rarely any middle ground. “Good Times,” as the theme song noted, was about a family barely keeping their heads above water. Save for the short-lived “Julia” and the occasional soap opera, “Good Times” was the ultimate culmination of decades of small-screen black characters – maids, nannies, other servants — in the working class.
But as time has put distance between the Evans family and our current conscience (even the real-life Chicago housing project where the family lived has been demolished) most of today’s creatives have been taking their cues from “The Cosby Show.” Bill Cosby wanted all African-Americans to aspire to be the Huxtables, but showrunners had the loftier goal of their creations having that show’s longevity and impact.
“Black-ish’s” parents have been in this space on other shows, swinging and missing. Anderson paired up with – of course – “Cosby” alum Tempestt Bledsoe for NBC’s “Guys With Kids,” a not out-and-out black sitcom but featuring a portrayal of a black family nonetheless. Tracee Ellis Ross was screen-married to another “Cosby” kid, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, for BET’s “Reed Between the Lines.” All four actors, but especially Warner and Bledsoe, were forced to address the inevitable Huxtable comparisons in press surrounding those shows, both of which were canceled.
Perhaps several shows with predominantly black casts are often upheld to the “Cosby” standard because there are so few outstanding examples to begin with, making their intended audiences their harshest critics. When BET gave us “Being Mary Jane,” an hour-long drama about a single, successful, career-driven woman dating a married man, the similarities to ABC’s “Scandal” couldn’t be overlooked. (“Mary Jane” star Gabrielle Union would exacerbate these comparisons by revealing she had pursued the role of Olivia Pope before being turned down in favor of Kerry Washington.)
Endless comedies about 20-something friends can stand alone next to, well, “Friends.” The comedy graveyard is filled with “Cosby” clones — “Charlie & Co.,” “Minor Adjustments,” “Me and the Boys,” “The Royal Family,” “Built to Last” – and those that can’t be mentioned with the Huxtables in its footnotes – “The Bernie Mac Show,” “The Hughleys,” “My Wife and Kids.”
To be sure, “Black-ish” seems funny enough. Laurence Fishburne is a scene stealer; it’s as if we’re catching up with Dap from “School Daze” at the 25-year Mission College alumni picnic. Ross’ character is biracial, as is she. And Anderson finally seems to be growing up, after years of being the kooky sidekick.
But if “Black-ish” can survive a first season – and ABC hasn’t had a successful, long-running sitcom with an all-black cast since the aforementioned “My Wife and Kids” ended nearly a decade ago – it, too, may be asked to take the “Cosby” test. And then again, maybe not.
“Black-ish” confronts identity issues head-on in its pilot, dancing in the middle of the intersection of class and race rarely touched on in “The Cosby Show,” and given, at best, the very-special treatment in later shows like “Sister, Sister” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Turns out, those issues are what fans of the latter show have held in higher regard. Few recall the time an armed robber held up the Banks family during Christmas, but everyone remembers when Carlton’s blackness came into question when he tried to pledge a fraternity.
It’ll be interesting to see how far “Black-ish” can go, what it wants to be, and whether audiences won’t be worn thin too easily. And let’s say “Cosby” never finds its way into conversation. It’ll then face the next issue so many other black sitcoms face: unnecessarily being compared to white ones. It’s Wednesday night lead-in? Another suburban-family farce, “Modern Family.”