TV

‘Black-ish’ Returns, Not Quite The Same As It Ever Was

ABC

Heading into its fifth season, there were a couple of questions about how Black-ish would look and if there would be any notable changes. The first question came in July/August, about what the chain of command would be as a result of series creator and co-showrunner Kenya Barris ditching ABC in favor of a nine-figure deal (and probably a promise he could create as many television episodes about kneeling as he wanted). The second question was if the end of season four — Dre and Bow reconciling after going through a very messy separation — would mean that all would be peaceful in the Johnson household once more.

On a basic level, we can answer the first question, as it was also announced back in July that Barris’ co-showrunner Jonathan Groff would still hold that position, alongside newly-promoted co-executive producer Kenny Smith. So the voice of Black-ish would seemingly remain intact, being run by two people who know the show well. As for the second question, Groff told TV Guide in September that the show would be “focusing on the new things life throws at the family.” And that shows in the season premiere, “Gap Year,” because if you didn’t watch any of Black-ish’s fourth season, you would have no idea that Dre and Bow had ever had serious marital problems — to the point where it wouldn’t rub you the wrong way that Dre still disregards Bow’s thoughts and ideas in his voiceover, after they were heading down “irreconcilable differences” territory just three months ago. “For the first time ever, I realized Bow was right.” is kind of just funnier in the version of Black-ish before Dre and Bow constantly had very angry arguments about these things in front of their children, you know?

Instead, the focus is more on the Johnson kids’ approaches to growing up, at least in the case of Junior and the twins. Sure, Zoey is around, but if you want to see her grow, she actually has her own spin-off show about that. Speaking of, it’s nice that Zoey can just openly joke about the Adderall addiction she had in her first year of college, since it’s not like her parents knew anything about it. (By the way, if you didn’t watch Grown-ish: Zoey had an Adderall addiction in her first year of college. Pretty funny right?)

Pops: “Is this some white sh*t? Everything around here is some white sh*t.”

That brings us to the episode’s namesake, the gap year Junior decides to take from Howard University. While it’s easy to be jaded and say it’s mostly because it would make less sense for Junior to be home all the time when he goes to school across the country, the episode makes a solid argument for why Junior would take a gap year and why it would make sense for him to do so. Watching Junior actually have a good reason behind everything he’s doing in this episode — and in a way where it’s not just driven by fear — gives the character a win, especially as we start the season and episode off with Dre doing the usual of trying to treat his eldest son like a punching bag. But the episode also does well in making sure that all three sides in this episode all make sense, even if Dre and Bow’s sides don’t necessarily make sense for Junior right now. Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Marcus Scribner all work well together in this plot, with Anderson playing Dre as surprisingly level-headed (for Dre) during this crisis. Episode writer Doug Hall also wrote last season’s “Black Math” (an episode where Dre tried to convince Junior to go to Howard in the first place), so he’s proven his ability to handle this father-son dynamic before.

Now, the Jack and Diane plot technically makes sense — because these are growing kids who need their own separate spaces — but the episode’s decision to lean-in to a weird potential Flowers in the Attic situation-in-the-making was, well, weird. From the moment she suggests that Jack and Diane will “grow up to be little weirdos the family doesn’t bring to cookouts,” while it makes sense that Black-ish would find that it’s finally time for them to get separate rooms, any Black-ish plot that ultimately sides with Ruby (and her particular approach to sometimes common sense) is bound to be difficult to stick the landing, no matter how terrific Jenifer Lewis’ work is. That’s what happens here, as Jack and Diane go from just being an odd couple of twins to an odd couple of twins who feel weird about one wanting to wrestle them and the other wearing bras.

“Weird” is maybe even the best way to describe this episode as a whole, because even anyone who didn’t know about Kenya Barris’ departure from the show or even what that means could probably sense a change in the feel of the show. It might sound like a bizarre criticism for a show five-seasons in, but the energy of this premiere isn’t as over-the-top as the series has been in recent years. In fact, it’s all rather low-key, and while it makes sense in the Junior plot, to a degree — and there are bigger funny moments, like Junior’s inability to open a beer — the low-key status is also what makes the Jack/Diane plot seem even more off than Ruby thinks Jack/Diane might become.

Typically, Black-ish is able to balance an episode’s tone with Dre’s work scenes as the definitive moments of surreal comedy, but here in “Gap Year,” for the first time, Mr. Stevens gives good advice based on actual knowledge. So when the episode all of a sudden ends with a more over-the-top moment for a tag, with Junior doing a prison riff to new roomie Jack — based on Ruby’s college preparedness line at the beginning of the episode about anything becoming a shiv — it comes out of nowhere and really doesn’t land.

“Gap Year” sets the new normal for Black-ish season five well, but tonally, the show’s not quite back yet. It’ll be interesting to see if this is just the result of a minor reset for the Johnson family — since now Junior is looking for his purpose and desire before heading back to school, and Jack and Diane will seemingly attempt somewhat more to be their own people — or if it really is the result of the series facing Kenya Barris-less growing pains.

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