Okay, so let me fess up, right off the top.
That is a horrible, clickbaity title, a ridiculous, derivative and obvious reference, comparing two TV shows that couldn’t be more different if one of them were set on a different planet.
But they have one thing in common, that thing that most successful TV shows manage to pull off with some level of success. They can take a specific cultural situation and make it broad and relatable enough for people outside to appreciate and understand it, and by the same token, take basic and timeless themes and filter them through the lens of a specific perspective and worldview. They make the specific general, and the general specific.
With Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black, that specific situation was being white and learning how to adapt to life in a penal institution, full of people of various walks of life (including many ethnicities). With Black-ish, showrunner Kenya Barris has, like Kohan with Piper Kerman’s memoir, fictionalized a diametrically opposite, but equally true story — in this case, Barris’ adjustment to life as an African-American professional raising kids in upper-middle class Los Angeles. Whereas Orange is fundamentally the story of a white girl trying to adjust to the loss of privilege that living among a multiracial assembly of incarcerated women requires, Black-ish examines a quintessential American dream success story from the eyes of a black family, and examines the acquisition of privilege and the requisite costs of assimilation.
These two shows are also different beasts because of where and how they air. Orange debuted two years ago on Netflix, where binge-watching is assumed, and content restrictions are pretty much nonexistent. There is no ratings info for that show, because there are no ratings. Just like with HBO, customers subsidize its production through their monthly subscription fees. On the other hand, Black-ish is not only a half-hour situation comedy (as opposed to an hour-long drama) but it’s on ABC, a network that has to pay the bills by courting advertisers who tend to be skittish about any content that’s too controversial. And even among broadcast networks, ABC is known for being relatively safe, especially in their comedy blocks. This is the same network that brought Family Matters and Full House to the masses; even in 2014 an ABC sitcom is, by definition, overly broad.
And this is both its greatest weakness as well as its greatest asset.
During the 30 years since The Cosby Show came to NBC and ushered in a brief era of black-family-oriented programming, it’s become de rigeur to compare every new show about a black family to the Huxtable clan. But four episodes in, what I’ve found to be the case is that though race is in the forefront of its identity, Black-ish has the same situational skeleton as any other sitcom. Except for one awkward episode about masturbation (which according to Barris himself was most likely shown out of order to prevent an episode about spanking from airing during the Adrian Peterson child abuse scandal) most of the storylines are straight from the basic sitcom playbook. Mom and dad juggling housework and arguing over domestic roles? Son having problem making friends? Teenager doesn’t wanna talk to mom? Check, check, check.
The fact that this is a single-camera sitcom instead of a “traditional” multi-cam setup helps, but I put scare quotes around “traditional” because the truth is, those kind of shows, filmed live before a studio audience, are starting to become more of the exception and less of the rule. Shows like The Office, Arrested Development, Everybody Hates Chris, and even newer hits like Brooklyn Nine-Nine… they’ve all done such a great job defining a more cinematic, adventurous comedic style that now any attempt at a single camera sitcom format has a separate set of cliches with which to navigate (breaking the fourth wall, silly flashbacks, visual gags, etc.). Black-ish has many of these elements, but none of them are even close to expertly handled.
What’s more, the most successful single-camera sitcoms have always established, and eventually built the show around, a larger-than-life comedic protagonist. Whether it’s someone as doltish as The Office‘s Michael Scott or someone as likeable as Parks and Recreation‘s Leslie Knope, or even one of the original crazy sitcom dads, Dan Castellaneta’s oafish Homer from The Simpsons. As much as I like Anthony Anderson, I have my doubts as to whether or not he has the right combination of comic timing and dramatic range to be the leading character on a hit series.
So why do I like it so much?
Because it takes those generalities, those sitcommy types of things that we’re now used to seeing on the small screen, and weds them to a black, self-aware identity. Some of the things that make me like the show aren’t exactly jokes, they’re just sly nods. A TD Jakes reference here, a sneaker head moment there. Sure, it trafficks in generalities and stereotypes about black people, but it does them with a careful-yet-playful ease that demonstrates an expert command of the source material. In lesser hands, a joke about black people yelling at the movies would be ham-handed and dull. Here, it’s used for effect — not exactly as a joke, but as a surreal emotional expression, similar to the imaginary tour guide gazing at the Johnson family in the pilot. This show doesn’t have the insider cult appeal of a Community or the manic comic energy of a 30 Rock, but it doesn’t need those things to be successful. Most of what it needs to be pretty good, it already has.
Furthermore, and I hate to sound too naive and pollyanna here, but frankly it helps America to see that even though black folks have a specific set of struggles and issues and challenges that are different from other segments of the population, we still want the same basic things that everyone wants. To be loved, accepted, treated fairly, and enjoy the fruit of the American dream.
Here’s what I would like to see moving forward.
I’d like to dig a little bit deeper into the mom’s sense of racial identity and struggle. Tracee Ellis Ross has great comedic energy and brings a delicate combination of world-weariness and expressive physicality to her portrayal of Rainbow, and part of what I love about her character is that she feels very distinct from what we’ve come to expect from a black sitcom mother (starting with the fact that… hello… her name is “Rainbow.”) She unapologetically biracial, and not coincidentally, does not share Andre’s sense of militant indignance about his children’s lack of racial solidarity. I’d like to see that conflict plumbed a little bit more. Where does that sunny liberalism come from, exactly, and what are its limits? At some point, either later in the first season or, assuming it’s picked up, early in season two, it might be good to meet her parents. I could see that dynamic being hilarious, especially with Laurence Fishburne as Dre’s father.
Speaking of which… I like that he’s become the voice of reason, but I’d like to see his apple cart upset a few times as well. I’m not looking for him to be as unhinged as John Witherspoon’s Granddad from The Boondocks, but it would be nice to see more of his internal struggle, perhaps some lingering pain from the divorce, however many years ago? It’s easy to forget that Laurence Fishburne has dramatic range, watching him in this role. Here’s hoping Kenya Barris and his writing team take advantage.
And I guess that, ultimately, is what I’m
hoping praying projecting this show to have in common with OITNB … critical and commercial success. Because nothing breeds more copycats than success, and Lord knows we need more well-rounded, nuanced depictions of black people on television. And if that happens, maybe, we as a society will stop seeing black identity through the polarized tropes of either a plague to be feared or a cachet of cool to be commodified. And maybe then we will have no more need for something to be called “the new black.” Perhaps then a plethora of regular, everyday, non-monolithic black folks will occupy enough gatekeeping seats of privilege that authentic portrayals of blackness will be closer to the rule instead of the exception.
But between then and now, we’ll have, for at least one full season, Anthony Anderson and company in Black-ish, ready to fill the void.