Black-ish Maintains Success, Bringing Diverse Casts and Content to ABC
ABC’s popular sitcom Black-ish premiered for its fifth season on October 16. The show stars Anthony Anderson as Andre “Dre” Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross as his wife, Dr. Rainbow Johnson– two African-American professionals raising an upper-middle class family. The plot revolves around Dre constantly trying to pass on urban culture to his uninterested kids, as he worries they’re becoming homogenized. Since its appearance on air in September 2014, Black-ish has tackled issues once thought too bold for network television. Recurring themes have included racism, the n-word, LGBTQ issues, police brutality, and even postpartum depression. The show received high praise for its sixtieth episode, “Lemons,” which addressed the election of President Donald Trump.
To open its fifth season, the Johnsons start in Washington, D.C., dropping off their eldest son Andre Jr., or “Junior,” at Howard University. With that said, when Dre and Rainbow arrive home, they are surprised to see him at the kitchen table eating cereal. Dre is furious when he finds out that Junior wants to take a gap year, calling the idea “some white s**t,” and he later shares the problem with his buddies at work, including his conservative white boss who offers to “drop some knowledge.” He recounts a study proclaiming that rich young white males are more likely to stay “well-to-do,” while rich young black males are more likely to become poor than they are to stay rich. He details the study, basing it on imbalanced incarceration rates, employment bias, and discriminatory housing policies. This was just the first lesson in social justice and race relations viewers can expect this season.
Before Black-ish, showrunner Kenya Barris co-created and produced America’s Next Top Model with Tyra Banks. His move to sitcom was motivated by the fact that Black Americans are amongst the heaviest media consumers in the country. “I didn’t want to tell a story about a family that happened to be black, but about a family that was actually black. I felt like race was being talked about less than ever, when I feel it should be talked about more,” Barris says. Moreover, Barris sees huge value in bringing these topics to the screen. “We’re trying to be a comedy that is funny,” he says, “but if while doing that, we can actually make people think about some things, that’s not something bad.” Unfortunately, as innovative as Black-ish is, not all of their shows make it on-screen. Last spring, an episode called “Please Baby, Please,” in which Dre tells his infant son Devante about all the events of his first year on Earth, was shelved by ABC. It featured footage of Trump, the Charlottesville attack, NFL kneeling protests, and voiceovers by Spike Lee.
Regardless, ABC has jumped on diversity too. Its comedy line-up includes families of all races and composition on Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, Speechless, Single Parents and Splitting Up Together. Still, more traditional family units are visible in The Goldbergs and American Housewife. Paul Lee, as ABC’s head of programming, reports that the network sought out “voices that reflected America” and that the key is telling specific stories that keep up with demographic changes and to “tell those stories in a way that’s relatable to all of America.”
Black-ish has gained such popular success because “it’s not just diverse, it’s extremely authentic,” Lee explains. Barris knows this too: “As a country, we are a lot of different parts but it’s the sum that makes us strong. That’s why diversity is such a perfect thing.”