TV Review: ‘Black-ish’ Premiere Aims to ‘Keep it Real’ With Mixed Results

Caution: This review contains spoilers on the pilot of “Black-ish.”

“Black-ish,” a new comedy series on ABC, looked appealing through the promos on ABC. For me, the biggest hook was not the fact that it aims to tackle race, perhaps more directly than “The Cosby Show.” (Undeniably, many critics will look to draw comparisons to that classic show.) I laughed the hardest because of Laurence Fishburne’s deadpanned expressions, one-liners, and mimicry.

The recent premiere wasn’t perfect and certainly generated a lot of debate on how it approaches race, even from mogul Donald Trump. It did suffer from too much narration from Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson), who has recently been promoted senior vice president at a marketing firm in Los Angeles.

Dre lives with his father, wife (Tracee Ellis Ross), and four children in the suburbs, where they seem to be the only well-to-do black family in their neighborhood. He receives a promotion to the post of senior vice president, which seems like a hollow victory when he realizes he will head up the Urban Division, which would encompass mainly black culture. Dre is also struggling to accept his oldest son’s preferences for field hockey instead of basketball, the nickname “Andy,” and having a Bar Mitzvah. Initially, Dre goes a bit overboard in tackling these issues; he’s set off by his children’s lack of awareness about their black roots, particularly that Obama is the first black president. It also spills over at work into the racially charged (in a negative way) segment that he pitches at an important meeting.

Dre operates as narrator and protagonist of the sitcom, which already precludes comparisons with ABC’s hit, “Modern Family.” This early into the series, I’m not sure what to make of “Black-ish.” Anthony Anderson brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm into his performance, but does not fully convince me that his character was deserving or capable of attaining such a high level promotion. Perhaps the imaginary “banquet” sequences were a bit much. In addition, it’s not a surprise that some viewers find the show offensive, with sequences like the tour bus moment, OJ Simpson jokes, and the brazen pitch.

Pops (Laurence Fishburne) quietly saved the episode with his one-liners and sarcasm. Upon being served baked fried chicken at dinner, he says, “So fried fried chicken is too black for you.” There’s nothing wrong in utilizing a little verbal economy with jokes. As I’ve alluded to above, too much narration and explaining of the jokes sucks out most of the humor by the time the punchline is reached.

“Black-ish” gave a few laughs but it stands poised to flop this season unless it pushes beyond the clichés and unnecessary exposition. Laurence Fishburne, though wonderfully talented and superb thus far, will not save the series.

“Black-ish” airs Wednesday evenings at 9:30|8:30c on ABC.

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