Ideally, the first episode of a new comedy is both laugh out loud funny and possessor of a clear comic point of view. But if I had to choose one or the other as a marker of what will be a better comedy in the long run, I'd go with the point of view. If a sitcom has something to say and a distinct way of saying it, then that's a sturdier foundation for humor than a half-hour that's not really about anything but has a bunch of good jokes crammed into it.
That's why ABC's “Black-ish” (it debuts tomorrow night at 9:30) is the new network comedy I'm most enthusiastic about. There are other shows this fall that made me laugh louder and more often (even if not always at moments designed for laughter), but “Black-ish” arrives as a comedy that knows what it's about, and how it wants to be about it in a very smart way.
Created by Kenya Barris and produced by Larry Wilmore and co-stars Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne(*), “Black-ish” tells the story of Dre (Anderson), a well-to-do marketing executive with a doctor wife (Tracee Ellis Ross) and four kids. He has raised himself up from modest beginnings to a palatial home (complete with a walk-in closet just for his sneakers and hats), is in line to be the first African American to be named senior vice-president at his agency, and seemingly wants for nothing. But in climbing so high up the socio-economic ladder, he begins to fear that he's lost something – that he, his wife, and their kids are losing touch with their roots and becoming “black-ish” rather than “black.”
(*) Fishburne is technically a guest star on the show, and has said he'll be splitting time this year between this and “Hannibal” (which has first contractual position for his acting services).
Dre spends much of the pilot in a lather about his son Andre – who at school goes by “Andy” because, “I think it says I'm edgy but approachable” – requesting a bar mitzvah for his 13th birthday like all his Jewish friends have had, while simultaneously taking offense because his promotion at work involves being placed in charge of the company's brand new “urban” division.
“Did they just put me in charge of black stuff?” he asks in voiceover.
Anderson spends much of the pilot freaking out about the question of whether he's too black or not black enough. Though Barris and the other writers(**) would probably do well to dial back his intensity on the subject just a hair – if for no other reason than to spare Anderson's voice, since he spends so much of the pilot shouting at the top of his upper register – they clearly have a lot of things to say about both ends of that spectrum.
(**) Wilmore, who has already shepherded one terrific black family sitcom in “The Bernie Mac Show,” was brought in to help Barris fine-tune the show after the pilot, but not long after he got hired, Jon Stewart named him as Stephen Colbert's 11:30 Comedy Central successor. Ultimately, he helped break the stories of the next 12 episodes, then left to begin prep work for “Minority Report with Larry Wilmore.” Hopefully, he imparted a lot of wisdom before his role shifted to, as he puts it, “visible cheerleader.”
At work, Dre has to deal with white colleagues asking him, “How would a black guy say, 'Good morning'?” At home, his black-ish paranoia even leads him to suggest that his bi-racial wife “technically isn't even really black,” which prompts an eye roll and retort of, “Well, if I'm not really black, can someone please tell my hair and my ass?” And as Dre tries to push Andy to have an African rites of passage ceremony instead of the bar mitzvah, his own old-school father (Fishburne) notes that there is a difference between being black and African: “Africans don't even like us!”
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.
Did I double over in laughter at the “Black-ish” pilot? No. But nor did I a season ago at the pilots for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Enlisted,” two shows that also made clear that they understood the worlds they were depicting and the take they had on them. When you start from there, the laughs can come – and did in abundance in those cases. With three strong comic actors in Anderson, Ross and Fishburne, and a sharp and clear voice from Barris, I'm hopeful “Black-ish” can follow the same trajectory.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org