How Black-ish Became the Blackest and Best Comedy on TV

The show is unique in how it finds humor in black angst about what it means to be black.

The cast of Black-ish, clockwise from top left: Laurence Fishburne, Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner, Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Miles Brown and Marsai Martin
The cast of Black-ish, clockwise from top left: Laurence Fishburne, Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner, Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Miles Brown and Marsai Martin Bob D’Amico/ABC

Last week The Root contributor Demetria Lucas D’Oyley wrote a response to Tyler Perry’s recent assertion that the reason his work and his characters get so much criticism is that they’re “fat.” In her piece, Lucas D’Oyley (rightly) stated that the weight of his characters has nothing to do with how Perry’s work is perceived. Instead, while Perry’s work undoubtedly resonates with certain people, it continues to elude critical praise because of the way the characters and the storylines are written and because of the lack of progress his writing has made in the decade since Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

To make an analogy: Tyler Perry is like a new and black-owned restaurant at which you decide to dine for the first time. The service isn’t great, and the food is edible but uninspired, but ultimately, you’re just happy that it’s black-owned and that it creates jobs for other black people. So you continue to frequent, assuming the service and the food will eventually get better.

But although the restaurant gets more popular—even expanding into a franchise—the service and the food remain substandard. Food critics hate it, and you eventually just stop going. Because you can only eat so many salt-saturated pork chops before wanting to scream, “Why do y’all keep putting so much damn salt on the damn pork chops!!!!” (And yes, Why Did I Get Married, Too is that salt-caked pork chop.)

Anyway, the best work—particularly the best writing—is inspired. And this goes for screenwriting, book writing and even blog writing. It’s ambitious. It’s work where the effort is palpable, even if that effort is an effort to make it seem like no real effort was made. It’s distinguishable. It tries. It doesn’t just appreciate its audience, but respects and even occasionally nods to and winks at it. It doesn’t dumb down; it smartens up.

Basically, it does what Black-ish continues to do.  

It’s been roughly a season and a half since Black-ish first aired. Which means it’s been roughly a year and a half since news of the name of this new series spawned criticism from both the type of white person upset that ABC would air a show called Black-ish and the type of black person upset that ABC would air a show called Black-ish.

Admittedly, I was skeptical, too. Not because of the title—which I believed (and still believe) is great—but because of Anthony Anderson. I just wasn’t sure he had the comedic chops and timing necessary to lead a show as ambitious as Black-ish intended to be. And even after the first episode—which I enjoyed—I believed that Tracee Ellis Ross would make for a better creative fulcrum.

But then I watched more episodes. And watched as it, an unmistakably black show, infused black-specific topics and themes in a way I’ve never seen a sitcom do. Dre’s (Anderson’s character) obsession with authenticity. And Jordans. The dichotomy between Dre’s Compton, Calif., background and Rainbow’s (Ellis Ross) more liberal, “hippie” upbringing, and how that affects their child-rearing dynamic.

An entire episode devoted to both the black barbershop and the process of “breaking up” with a longtime barber. (Topics I have a very personal connection to.) Dre’s justified self-consciousness about only being the go-to guy for “urban” accounts at work. The anxiety over whether Dre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) is “black enough” and if Zoey (Yara Shahidi) will date a white boy.

We’ve seen black life mined for humor before. Black struggle (Good Times). Black success after humble beginnings (The Jeffersons, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Bernie Mac Show). Black working-class family life (Martin, Roc, Everyone Hates Chris). Black upper-middle-class family life (The Cosby Show). Black dating, relationships and sex (Living Single, Girlfriends, The Game).