Friday, October 03, 2014

Black-ish

So far, my favorite new show this season is Black-ish, the ABC sitcom starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as well-off suburban parents. I didn't love the pilot the way a lot of critics did--I felt it was solid and likable, but like a lot of modern ABC sitcoms I thought the pacing was too frantic when I wanted it to slow down a little more. But it can be hard to judge a show by its pilot (it naturally has to be a pitch reel), and I was glad to see the second episode slow things down a little and do what Modern Family does, which is translate classic sitcom plots and gags into modern TV language.

It wasn't the retread a lot of critics are complaining it was--yes, we've all seen the episode of the sitcom where the uncomfortable dad tries to have The Talk with his curious son, and we've all seen the episode of the sitcom where mom is so desperate to be part of her daughter's inner circle that she tries too hard and forgets to listen. But I think it's perfectly legitimate to take old tropes and reframe them for a modern audience, because there are some parts of family life that are never going to change and which are easy to relate to. And actually, I think it's important that Black-ish went there.

See, I have a real problem with this modern trend where a lot of media outlets review every episode of a TV show, every week, as it's airing. I think it breeds a sort of impatience for answers. Even when you have a series as short as True Detective, there's some critic frustrated by the lack of constant answers. Dude, it's a mystery. Why would you complain that a mystery didn't show you its hand until the final episode? Also, some things that seem like needless departures on one episode of television only become clear in the context of later episodes. The AV Club, in particular, tends to attract a certain sort of critic who acts insulted if a show isn't constantly reinventing the wheel with each successive episode, constantly topping itself over and over. It's why I try not to read any of their TV criticism anymore (aside from Alisdair Wilkins' retrospective reviews of Farscape, which I really, really hope continue through the show's fourth season).

I especially get annoyed at the AV Club's criticism of black shows and movies, and I wanted to talk a bit about that. I've spoken before about their weird lack of empathy when it came to Fruitvale Station; in the review of the film about a young black man getting killed by police, their critic was very cynical and asked something along the lines of "In this day and age, do we really need a movie to tell us that it's sad when a young black man gets killed?" Again, this is a movie that was released at the same time a Florida court was literally trying to decide whether or not George Zimmerman murdering Trayvon Martin was, in fact, a crime. (This kind of attitude also bleeds over into their coverage of Saturday Night Live. When a black person hosts, it's like their critics are just confused by jokes and gags not aimed at white dudes in their 30s. It's the same reason so many men say women comics aren't funny; what they really mean is that they can't relate to the material and they're angry about feeling left out because white guy humor is "mainstream" and "universal.")

Anyway, this morning I happened to catch the first paragraph of their review of the second episode of Black-ish, and I think the reviewer missed the point. Here's the entire paragraph:

The biggest concern after Black-ish’s very good and unique premiere was whether the show would maintain its dedication to intelligently remarking on cultural diversity while putting race at the foreground or would it instead fall into the trap of becoming nothing more than a simplistic family sitcom (albeit one that makes the stray reference to a prominent aspect of black culture). Because it’s only the second episode, it’s still too early to make a strict judgment but it’s fair to say that “The Talk” is a slightly disappointing step in the wrong direction.

I found that comment a bit disappointing, because I think it comes from this sort of thinking that it's revolutionary in 2014 to have African-Americans on network TV. The sad thing is that that might be true. At the very least, it's become disappointingly unusual. Network TV has backslid a long, long way since the days of Good Times or The Cosby Show or even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That show was a generation ago. When was the last time ABC actually had a black sitcom on the air? My Wife and Kids? It's like the networks decided to leave all of the black shows to UPN and the WB, and when those almost networks decided to chase almost exclusively after teenage girls, the networks didn't think it was worth their time to feature shows about black people. And now here we are with Black-ish, which has the potential to be quite a good show but which apparently also has to shoulder the burden of somehow proving that black people can carry a network sitcom? Did the last 50 years of television just never happen?

I saw some reviewers who were breathlessly surprised at how "normal" and "relatable" the show was, as though it was a revelation for some that a black guy knew his own father and didn't speak exclusively through gangsta slang. And it's depressing to realize that those attitudes are what this show is up against.

The AV Club reviewer seems disappointed that every episode isn't going to be The White Person's Guide to Modern African-American Culture. But that dehumanizes the characters and turns them simply into avatars of modern blackness and sets "black" as their defining characteristic. That's not the point. The show can and should deal with race, but not exclusively. There is and should be more going on on this show than the Black Problem of the Week. It's also about a family. About people. About people who have more going on in their lives than contextualizing blackness for a white audience.

It deeply bothers me that we've basically erased all of the cultural gains made by The Cosby Show and a well-off suburban black family is suddenly a big mystery again, and too many white critics can't relate to it if Dre isn't trying to get the family to out-black themselves every week. (By and large, the black critics I've seen are relieved that the show seems to be going in the direction it's going in, rather than shouldering the burden of symbolically translating Unsolved Black Mysteries every week.) I think there's a real social concern in every black form of entertainment being a litmus test on whether white people are "ready" to relate to black people. Apparently we're never ready!

Jeez, it's only the second episode!

Anyway, I'm enjoying the show. I think it's fun and funny, Tracee Ellis Ross is as much of a goddess as she was on Girlfriends, and Laurence Fishburne is easily my favorite part of the show, because of course the grumpy and aloof patriarch is my favorite character. (He had the funniest lines on the second episode; first about how adults don't need to value talking to their kids because "Show me one place in the Bible where a kid talks," and then a line where he explicitly states that his generation could have made talking with their kids a priority but chose not to.)

This new season so far just isn't that hot. I don't even care about catching 95% of the new series, and I've already given up on some of the returning shows I've been watching for a couple of years (The Big Bang Theory finally went, and I just didn't care about returning to Nashville). But this one has got me.

If Black-ish gets canceled before Selfie, I'm going to be pissed.

4 comments:

Yasmin said...

I like black-ish, too and it reminded me of how much I loved Girlfriends. And I know the whole white privilege things is getting a bit overused(wich is sad, because that in itself kinda proves how relevant and necessary that whole discussion is) but it really baffles me just how privileged some people are. I haven't read many reviews on the AV Club and I think the ones I read were only the FNL and Teen Wolf ones (maybe PLL?), so I'm just going on what you wrote about. But how some people can not only not relate to people outside of their (male, socially stable, white, 25-40) demographic but also seem to expect everything to be created and wanting to be understood and liked by them and their peers is something I will never understand. Black-ish isn't a show about black people for white people. It's a family sitcom.

SamuraiFrog said...

I'm going to steal your description now whenever I talk about this show. Those last two sentences sort of perfectly encapsulate what I was trying to say.

Roger Owen Green said...

I thought the pilot was too rushed, but the second episode was way better.

SamuraiFrog said...

I notice the rushed pacing on a lot of ABC sitcoms now. Ever since Modern Family took off, ABC seems to prefer shows that are fast-paced and have maybe an over-abundance of characters. Lots of voiceovers, too... I was glad the second episode slowed down some.