‘black-ish’ takes on Black Lives Matter in a very excellent special episode

Some thoughts on tonight's excellent black-ish coming up just as soon as I explain Peabo Bryson to you…

The '80s and '90s gave the concept of Very Special Episodes a bad name, because they tended to involve superficial sitcoms clumsily tackling important issues – Arnold Jackson avoids being molested by the man at the bike shop! Jesse Spano gets hooked on caffeine pills! – because it seemed like the right thing to do, and not because anyone involved was particularly adept at it.

Other sitcoms of the period like Taxi, Cheers, and Frasier would turn serious so frequently, and so deftly, that the concept of A Very Special Episode seemed besides the point; an episode where Sam talked about his drinking problem was just another episode of Cheers.

“Hope” was in many ways A Very Special black-ish, with the entire Johnson family gathered in the living room to talk about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, while in the process of watching news reports about a fictionalized case with echoes of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, etc. (The context was softened ever so much for network TV's sake – the victim in this case was repeatedly tased rather than shot and killed, but even Dre noted that the guy wasn't in particularly good shape – but the episode still talked at length about the very real and very fatal incidents that inspired it.) 

And there were times when the transition back and forth between family hijinks – say, Zoey trying to remove the P.F. Chang's menu from the dinner discussion, or Junior (rightly) complaining about the Marv Albert scene from Trainwreck – and this very weighty topic wasn't particularly graceful. But for the most part, black-ish creator Kenya Barris was able to find the balance between laughs and gravitas with the “Hope” script, so that the episode could get away with a series of cutaway gags where Ruby explains Jeffrey Dahmer, Lorena Bobbitt, and Peabo Bryson to young Dre, because it's in the context of the debate among the adult characters about how much Diane and Jack should be hearing about this very depressing subject. Similarly, it was able to take the running gag about Ruby's experience at enduring riots and turn it poignant by the end, with the image of her sitting in front of the garage door, the words “BLACK OWNED” spray painted across it to dissuade potential looters.

And the actors were more than up to the challenge of carrying both the light and heavy halves of the episode. Anthony Anderson's mainly known as a comic actor, and if you want him to look ridiculous rapping in the shower to his bar of soap, he can do that splendidly. But the guy has plenty of dramatic work on his resume too (including a stint on Law & Order, a show that was the subject of one of this episode's jokes), and when asked to do something completely serious, heartfelt, and vulnerable like Dre's speech to Bow about the mix of hope and fear he felt after President Obama's election, he can be absolutely devastating.

Frankly, given how prevalent these stories have been in the news for most of black-ish's run, and how much the series is about contemporary black America, it would have felt wrong if Barris and company didn't tackle this issue at some point. And devoting a full episode to it, with all the attendant seriousness that brings, makes more sense than trying to squeeze in Ta-Nehisi Coates reference in the middle of an episode about Dre learning to swim to try to prove a point to one of his white neighbors.

“Hope” was sincere. It was thoughtful. It had a point of view, but through its multitude of voices within the family, acknowledged the complexity of the issue (and, by implication, the inability of even an excellent TV sitcom to offer a definitive explanation of or solution to it), and managed to still feel like black-ish, rather than like a half hour straining to be something the show is not and should never try to be.

This wasn't A Very Special Episode of black-ish – just a very excellent example of what it can do at its best.

What did everybody else think?

(And before we go to the comments, please re-acquaint yourself with the No Politics section of the blog commenting rules: specifically, the part where it says, “If you can't relate your point to the show and only to the show, don't do it.”)