In the US: Wednesdays, 8.30pm, ABC
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, or so they so. But I guess that the road to Heaven must be paved with a relatively similar material, too, otherwise someone’s clearly got the signs mixed up. The question is which route is ABC on this fall.
Because this year’s it’s going big on diversity. This is clearly a good intention. As I pointed out a while back, it’s somewhat strange that in this day and age, there is only one network TV drama with a female black protagonist and while I’m sure there’s one with a black male protagonist, I’m going to have to putting my thinking cap on to work out what it is. That’s not a good sign.
Now, to its credit, ABC is probably the network doing the most on diversity. Indeed, Scandal - that show with the female black protagonist - airs on ABC and the network has tried in the past to add other shows with black leads to its roster. Normally, what it’s done has been to go to Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Shonda Rhimes and asked her nicely for a new show, which they have indeed done again this year - my review of How To Get Away With Murder coming up later today. But this year, they’re launching a big swathe of comedies with diverse leads, including Selfie, which unusually enough features an asian actor (John Cho) as the male romantic lead, and Fresh Off The Boat, which is entirely focused on Asian immigrants.
First up, though, they’re giving us black-ish, which is a primetime black family sitcom. Horrifyingly, it’s been 30 years since The Cosby Show was on network TV and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air didn’t come that long afterwards. And while there have been sitcoms featuring black protagonists on network TV as well as cable (e.g. The First Family) since then, the black family sitcom on network TV has basically ceased to exist.
Of course, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air lived in different times and they both picked different paths in depicting upper middle class black Americans. The Cosby Show existed in a beautiful parallel universe where race was not issue. There was no racism, no discrimination - it just didn’t exist. You could be whatever you wanted to be and provided you followed the American Dream, you’d get it.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, by contrast, gave us a similar reality that’s somewhat punctuated by the arrival of working class black teenager, Will Smith (try not to kill yourself when you realise that he celebrated his 46th birthday yesterday). Here there was a tension between the affluence of the rich black Bel Air family in which Smith found himself and Smith’s more street ways. In particular, the family’s son, Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) was the constant source of mockery for his non-street (a coded way of saying ‘non-black’) ways. It was clear from the show that the show’s producers were clear that Carlton needed to be ‘blacker’.
Fast forward 20 years and we have black-ish, a show that grabs the legacy of both those shows as well as the thorny dilemma of just what is it to be black in the US and, in a time when we have a black president, gives us something a bit more nuanced. Anthony Anderson (Law and Order, K-Ville, Guys With Kids, All About The Andersons, Treme) plays Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson - an appropriately conflicted name - a black man who grew up in the hood but who followed the advice of his father (Laurence Fishburne) and got himself a college education. He’s now a rich LA advertising executive, living in an exclusive neighbourhood, and about to get a promotion to senior vice president - the first black SVP in the history of his company.
His family? Basically, Bill Cosby’s. As well as three kids, he’s got a lovely, biracial doctor wife, Rainbow, played by Diana Ross’s daughter Tracee Ellis Ross from UPN/The CW’s long-running Girlfriends but who also played a doctor in BET's Reed Between The Lines who was married to… The Cosby Show’s Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
The trouble is that Fishburne thinks that his son has lost touch with his black roots. Hell, they don’t even eat fried chicken - they bake it - and the eldest son plays field hockey. I mean field hockey. And Anderson begins to agree, once he realises his son, also called Andre, prefers to be called Andy rather than Dre, and his youngest son doesn't know that Barrack Obama is the first black president. So he attempts to make his family ‘blacker’.
Despite a few gender politics issues, the show is actually very acute and surprisingly brave - as perhaps you might expect from a show exec produced by The Daily Show’s ’senior black correspondent’ Larry Wilmore. The script is by Kenya Barris - whose writing chops were largely developed on shows like The Keeen Ivory Wayans Show, Are We There Yet? and The Game, but oddly enough is best known as the developer of America’s Next Top Model - and touches on all kinds of issues, ranging from the glass ceiling, whether someone who’s biracial is truly black, the appropriation of black culture by white corporate culture, coded terms such as ‘urban’, whether it’s better to work in a ‘black company’ that pays less, and is being a black SVP in charge of ‘black things’ a bad thing or not?
The show also isn’t afraid to say that the answers to these issues aren’t obvious or easy. Rainbow points out that while Dre doesn’t want to be in charge of the ‘urban division’, he’d hate it more if a white guy was in charge and at least he’s an SVP. Andy is in the field hockey team because although he wants to play basketball, he’s just no good at it - a black guy who’s no good at basketball! And when Dre tries to give his son an African ‘adult rites of passage’ ceremony to help him get him in touch with his supposed heritage, he has to look it up in a book and Fishburne points out that anyway, “We’re black, not African. Africans don’t even like us.”
The show’s message - the nature of what it is to be black is evolving and black culture (whatever that might be) is combining with mainstream US culture… but we’re not there yet.
But there are a couple of big issues with the show. The first is that like the equally but differently well intentioned Undateable on NBC, it’s simply not as funny as it should be. Despite all the clever observations and equally clever directorial flourishes on the parts of the programme-makers, the jokes are more wry than laugh out loud funny. Obviously being neither American nor black, it might just be because my life experiences don’t overlap enough for the jokes to resonate, but I was more smiling and nodding than guffawing throughout the episode.
Now in part, that might be because of the show’s other big issue: Anthony Anderson. It turns out that Anderson is one of the worst actors since the dawn of human history. This surprised me at first when I started reading through his credits list. I don’t remember him much at all from K-Ville, and although the acting in that was universally pretty poor, the kind of epic awfulness of Anderson’s performance still would have stuck out like a nuclear detonation in a New Jersey White Castle. You also don’t get to be on Treme or Law and Order if you’re a truly dreadful actor.
Indeed, there are times when Anderson’s actually quite good in the episode, admittedly usually when he has no lines to deliver, but after his final presentation at the end, he’s oozing intelligence, professionalism and everything else you’d expect from a senior vice president - but which you hadn’t seen at all until this point.
Then I saw the Guys With Kids credit and realised the problem. He’s just a terrible comic actor. He has no idea how to do comedy with subtlety. He hams up everything remotely funny for all it’s worth, clearly worried that we won’t understand it’s funny unless he choreographs it with smoke signals, gurning, stupid voices, shouting and bizarre deliveries. It’s the kind of performance that might work in a stage comedy or pantomime - although not in Guys With Kids - but in a single-camera comedy, it’s the equivalent of having your face rubbed down with a cheese grater.
So while it’s a cautious recommendation from me in terms of the show’s accuracy of observation and tackling of issues, be warned that you’re going to need to sit in front of your TV wearing a full hazmat suit and perhaps some form of noise-cancellation headphones calibrated to Anthony Anderson, if you do decide to tune in.
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