Black-ish deserves to be in the canon of all-time great Black sitcoms

The series, now in its final season, was at its best when it was articulating a truth about Black folks, for Black folks.

ABC/Richard Cartwright
Culture

After eight seasons, Black-ish is wrapping up its award-winning tenure. The sitcom from Kenya Barris has enjoyed a strong run, having debuted at the height of the Obama era and helping rejuvenate sitcoms with African-American leads. But where does the show stand, legacy-wise, in the annals of Black American television? Black-ish has a legacy that is unique to its time and voice, but it most definitely sits among the most definitive sitcoms we’ve ever had.

And that’s even while acknowledging that the show has always had its detractors.

When Black-ish debuted in 2014, there was cause for such skepticism. Some people were put off by the name; others dismissed the premise. The show was presented as a series about an upper-class dad (Andre “Dre” Johnson, played by Anthony Anderson) fighting to keep his family “Black” amidst a sea of Sherman Oaks whiteness, and in the age of Trayvon Martin, with Black Lives Matter still a new and revolutionary slogan, a lot of folks scoffed.

But Black-ish felt timely.

“As the pilot had just gotten picked up for a series, the [Donald] Sterling thing came out.” “And then as that was happening you had [Eric Garner] get strangled. ... And it's like, this is still a part of the world that we're in,” Barris told HuffPost just as the show debuted.“… I think in some aspects, Barack has shot us 25, 30 years into the future. But at the same time, he has given people the ability to say, ‘Well now you don't have anything else to complain about ... We're no longer a country that has any type of biases. Because look, we have a black president.’ But that's not the case.”

When the Black-ish pilot aired on September 24, 2014, the biggest Black success on network television was Shonda Rhimes’ hit Scandal. How To Get Away With Murder, her follow-up to that successful series, debuted the same season as Black-ish; both shows, along with the debut of 50 Cent’s Power, drew attention as part of a supposed resurgence in mainstream Black TV. Lee Daniels’s Empire was a smash for FOX in 2015, and Issa Rae’s Insecure debuted in 2016. Black TV was suddenly “back” in terms of heightened visibility.

The show has never been a ratings juggernaut on the level of Family Matters or The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, but Black-ish found its niche with a mix of family-friendly comedy and cultural commentary. Black-ish attempted to be the definitive Black family sitcom for the age of social media: the show navigated everything from depression to divorce, to most obviously, race. The only show on television that could pull off a Roots-themed Juneteenth episode and a musical tribute to the Harlem Renaissance; Black-ish never suffered for lack of ambition. Social media criticism typically framed its tendency towards explanatory monologues as pandering to white audiences — a fair criticism of not just Black-ish, but Kenya Barris’ Netflix project #BlackAF. The black experience isn’t centered on white people understanding us. But the show was at its best when it was articulating a truth about Black folks, for Black folks.

The famous episode that aired just after the inauguration of Donald Trump, titled “Hope,” articulated the optimism of the Obama era, alongside the crash that had come along with it — the very real anxieties of being Black in an America that was as racist as ever. Most of the episode revolved around the Johnsons together in their living room, their eyes glued to the TV as they awaited a verdict in a case where a police officer repeatedly tased a 17-year-old who was selling bootleg DVDs. Dre and his Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) have a tense disagreement on whether to allow their young twins into the conversation, they prohibit their oldest son Junior (Marcus Scribner) from protesting, and Dre leads into an anxious, teary-eyed monologue.

“Remember when [Obama] got elected? And we felt like maybe, just maybe, we got out of that bad place and made it to a good place. That the whole country was really ready to turn the corner,” Dre said. “You remember that amazing feeling we had during the inauguration? I was sitting right next to you. We were so proud. And we saw him get out of that limo, and walk alongside of it, and wave to that crowd. Tell me you weren’t terrified when you saw that. Tell me you weren’t worried that someone was gonna snatch that hope away from us like they always do. That is the real world, ‘Bow. And our children need to know that that’s the world they live in.”

Attempting to articulate so much about Black experience while maintaining the laughs is a thankless job for a network sitcom, and Black-ish attempted to do just that. But the average American in the 2010s didn’t have the same linear entertainment options that were the norm in the 1980s and 90s. Streaming platforms and on-demand television changed the way we consumed TV as a culture; the kind of singular moment edified by NBC’s Thursday night was no longer standard.

The “golden age” of Black television, for many, is the 1980s and 1990s. The abundance of Black shows during those years were sitcoms, and in the 2000s, as the emphasis shifted from primetime sitcoms to prestige dramas, Black television had seemingly been left behind. Black-ish helped reassert Black sitcoms for the contemporary television landscape, and in doing so, became a cultural touchstone.

The show launched the career of Yara Shahidi, who became an unexpected breakout star after her Zoe Johnson character landed her own spinoff, grown-ish. She’s become an unofficial “it” girl of Black culture, landing film and modeling gigs en route to becoming one of the most visible actresses of her generation. And similarly to her TV big sis, Marsai Martin has become a teen star — she’s created a production company called Genius (she produced and starred in 2019’s Little) and launched a designer nail line, all as audiences have watched her Diane Johnson character grow from the precocious-but-mean kid sister to driven high school standout. The show has also been the catalyst for an amazing second act for Tracee Ellis Ross, who is one of television’s most beloved stars and primed for a Julia Louis-Dreyfuss-esque sitcom queen run.

It may be uncomfortable to admit the obvious — that Black-ish stands in the lineage of The Cosby Show — but Barris admitted as much when the show debuted. “At its heart, it's a family comedy. It's not a political show. ... We wanted to make this show the same way for me, growing up, The Cosby Show was like, ‘Oh my God! I want that to be my family.’ We wanted to make this show aspirational, and we wanted to build off of what Dr. Cosby did in a really positive way.”

Beyond the obvious downfall of its titular creator, many of the same things that make The Cosby Show unfashionable for post-woke commentators have made Black-ish rife for criticism: a preoccupation with Black upward-mobility, and a tendency to view Black experience through white judgment of it. Trying so hard to stay “positive” sometimes may have kept Black-ish from ever being edgy enough to be “cool.” But in recognizing the diversity of Black audiences in a post-streaming world, it’s obvious that Black-ish has held a certain place for Black audiences. Its most memorable moments are embedded: Dre and Bow’s near divorce; the Girlfriends reunion of Ross and her former co-stars. There are a litany of big names making appearances during its final season, from Magic Johnson to Simon Biles. There is going to be a lot to miss about this show.

Black-ish strove to reflect its time in a way that its controversial forebears did not, and in doing so, it carved its own legacy as one of the all-time great Black sitcoms.