Blackish, unfortunately, has ended after its 8th season.
Admittedly, when it first dropped in September of 2014, I wasn’t too sure about the show. The only promise it had was my love for both Tracee Ellis Ross, who I loved from watching Girlfriends, and Anthony Anderson, whose favorite role of mine undoubtedly comes from Two Can Play That Game. So I didn’t know how to respond to both of them, who I loved for famously playing single people in the aforementioned roles, playing these grown-ups who had to watch over children and hold down steady jobs to provide for their family.
But there was something about Dre (Anderson’s character) and his disdain for political correctness, along with Rainbow (Ross) and her wittingly cutthroat comments that got me excited about their dynamic and let me know that this was not going to be your typical Leave it to Beaver parenting style that we were going to witness. In fact, it was the episode about “the nod”, in which Dre’s son did not know about the recurring head nod Black men, of no relation or affiliation, exchange with one another in passing, that officially had me hooked.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is as hooked as me. And by everyone, I mean Black people.
Obviously, Black people are not a monolith, so we don’t see eye to eye on everything. However, if there is something that most Black people of a certain age agree on, it is that The Cosby Show was excellent, and thus, anything in its approximation should be glorified…right?
Now, not forgetting Bill Cosby and his crimes, if I tell you that Blackish is the modern-day Cosby Show, with great writing, terrific acting, and a lot more daring in the topics it broaches, you would think I would find consensus on Blackish as a classic Black TV show.
But I can’t find that consensus.
The community won’t give the show its due. There are just too many polarizing things about this show to bring everyone to my side. Between colorism, competition, and who people think the show is actually for, many people in the Black community find the show problematic for one reason or another.
So dare I ask: is it time to give Blackish its flowers?
One of the big problems with being any show in this day and age is the sheer amount of competition you’re up against when there are another +500 scripted shows being produced every year. We went from essentially watching 5 or 6 channels when I was a kid, to having hundreds of channels in the 90s when cable, and then satellite, were growing and reaching their peaks. Somehow, cable then reinvented itself in the 2000s, spurring not only more channels and more original programming, but also giving rise to DVR. And most recently, we’ve spent the last decade fighting with the infinite viewing choices we now have at our disposal on our phones, tablets, smart TVs, and laptops. And so somehow, in all of that, one of the greatest Black shows of all time (yeah, I said it) has been starved of the recognition it deserves.
Some of the show’s inability to stand out in a crowd is because the show is about a Black family, and well, we know how Hollywood works. As we saw with the Oscars starting in 2015, if you don’t have representation in the award picking process, you don’t get the love, and for a long-time, the award for the best sitcom was being traded back and forth between Veep and Modern Family, so it was hard for Blackish to nail down an Emmy. Plus, the show has gone right after ideas that don’t necessarily make mass media comfortable, like their infamous “Juneteenth” episode and the one about Dre’s son dating a white girl. And that’s not even to bring up the notorious Colin Kaepernick-based episode that was left on the shelf for years, pretty much causing creator Kenya Barris to take his talents to Netflix. It’s hard to bank awards and get that stand-out recognition when the people who give out the awards are afraid of the topic matters you write about.
While standing out amongst the crowd is hard in today’s TV show environment, it’s even harder when the constituency your show is about doesn’t feel your show actually represents them. Over the show’s first 5 seasons, people accused Blackish of having a colorism problem. This accusation happened despite the fact that the family is fairly diverse in its casting, and that there is even an episode in which Dre is accused of preferring light-skinned people and gets called out for that. But it’s undeniable that there is only one character that would be widely considered dark-skinned on the show, and that character, Diane, also happens to be set as the “meanest” character on the show. Admittedly, that’s not a good look for the show’s argument that it’s not engaging in colorism.
However, while some people may disagree with my characterization of the creator’s resume, Barris’ involvement in The Game, Barbershop, Little, Shaft, Grownish, Astronomy Club, Mixed-ish, The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, BET Live, Girlfriends, America’s Next Top Model, Girls Trip, Soul Food, Are We There Yet and Coming 2 America, would all suggest that the man has been a part of many Black productions that showcase a wide variety of hues from across the African diaspora. So if any one show doesn’t have the perfect balance of light-skinned and dark-skinned cast members, I don’t see how we immediately jump to that accusation–especially when the show’s writers actively call it out themselves, speaking directly to/through Diane’s character, in the “Black Like Us” episode in season 5. And again, people will argue that the show didn’t address colorism well enough, or that it continually avoids having the whole conversation. But let me remind you, it is a 22-minute comedy. They will not find the cure for cancer or solve child hunger in that period of time. Blackish pushes on social issues and black issues 15 times a season–you’re not finding that anywhere else on television. Their first job is to make you laugh, because you wouldn’t tune in if they didn’t. So the fact that they do as much education and calling-out as they do, is actually a writing and storytelling feat worthy of celebration–not unfair criticism.
And that brings me to another point many in our community seem not to find consensus on, which is: “Who the hell is this show for?” The show’s venture into educating its audience about so many black issues has given rise to the assumption that the writers for Blackish are writing for a white audience that doesn’t know about all of these black facets of life. And it’s hard to argue with that when most Nielsen studies show that Blackish is watched by a predominantly white audience. I can admit that oftentimes, I roll my eyes a little bit when Dre goes into narration mode and explains slavery, HBCUs, Black church, or basketball to me as if those aren’t topics I’m not already deeply knowledgeable about. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I learned a little something from the “Juneteenth” episode, and others like it.
Even if you are someone who can’t learn anything from the Black history class that Blackish can sometimes be, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the way they explain it, make fun of people who don’t get it, and revel in the family dynamics of the kids often learning about some of these aspects in black life for the first time. I didn’t stop watching The Cosby Show because they kept pushing on me how hard Theo needed to study just because I already knew doing your homework was important. No, like with any sitcom, I’m not often there for the moral or historical lesson–I’m there for the way they choose to explain the lesson–hopefully, comedically! And if you can’t appreciate the ingenuity with which Blackish brings song, dance, sarcasm, wit, failure, emotion, or history in the conversation in order to get through complex issues in blackhood, then you just don’t get the art, and maybe the show isn’t intended for you, but instead for someone who likes to–ya know–have a good time!
Too many choices, colorism, and the intended audience are probably the top 3 things that make this show hard for some Black people to swallow as one of their best ever. However, if I had to pick one reason why this show is as great as I find it to be, I would have to go off the board and go with the fact that it’s a family show.
Yes, I know, The Cosby Show was very much a family show, but that was way back in the 80s. Plus, that show wasn’t about being black–it was about a great family that happened to be black–which was good enough and much needed for those times. But to be a show, of any race, that centers around the family, is extremely hard in 2021. Outside of Modern Family, which had almost no Black people, family shows aren’t winning awards. TV Dads aren’t on the cover of magazines anymore. And TV Moms don’t really get any love either. If you’re not pretending to be some magical being from the past, a cursing wiz kid from Silicon Valley, or a corrupt mayor running for state office, you’re just not going to get that Emmy nod. It won’t happen. Hollywood is spending far too much money on these high-genre super characters to care about a TV family and their constant come-togetherness at the end of every episode. Sure, these family shows get play–afterall, kids like them. But if we’re talking about prestige, social media moments, and getting in whatever the version of the watercooler conversation is these days, then being a show about how you taught your son this lesson from 1868 isn’t going to capture the hearts and minds of enough viewers to get the attention of the masses.
So shout out to Blackish for 8 seasons of greatness and a show that despite its many detractors in and outside of the black community, went strong all the way through its last season. Sure, the ratings aren’t what they once were (nobody’s are!!!), and the mainstream awards were lacking–as they were for all family shows. But at the end of the day, it’s still a show about the Black family, talking about Black issues, in real AND funny ways.