It’s a small prop, dwarfed by other items on the dark wooden table.
Among the books, decorative objects and remotes on the coffee table in the large family room, which is at the heart of the action in most “Black-ish” episodes, lies a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.”
In the Feb. 24 episode of “Black-ish,” Coates’ National Book Award-winning work is not only mentioned, there’s a joke about the fact that Andre Johnson (executive producer and star Anthony Anderson) has trouble pronouncing the author’s name.
It might seem strange for a broadcast network comedy to wring a punchline from a searing meditation on police brutality and the persistence of racism in America. But it’s more than just a well-crafted comedy: Over the course of its first two seasons, “Black-ish” has emerged as the ideal family sitcom for the age of Black Lives Matter.
For years, broadcast network shows — and comedies in particular — avoided any direct conversations about ethnicity, race and racism, let alone persistent problems between African-Americans and law enforcement. Even in the more ambitious realms of cable and streaming, these subjects never came up much, with rare exceptions like “The Wire.”
But the pendulum that swung far away from the ’70s heyday of Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” and “Good Times” has begun to swing back. Case in point: The Feb. 24 episode of “Black-ish” revolves around a series of difficult conversations about police brutality in America. “The Carmichael Show” aired an episode with a similar theme last fall, and these shows are not alone. There’s a new wave of mainstream programs that are unafraid to derive jokes and create dramatic conflict from potentially volatile topics like gender, class, sexuality and especially race.
“It’s part of this new cycle where suddenly black is the new black,” said “Black-ish” star and executive producer Laurence Fishburne, who also recently finished filming A&E’s new “Roots.”
This season has already seen the ABC comedy take on guns in the home, the N-word and the assumption that black people can’t swim. But the Feb. 24 episode is different. As Dre might say, it gets real. Really real.
“It was such a scary episode for us,” said “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris.
His fear is understandable: No network comedy wants to take on a serious subject and fail to hit its targets. The episode is more serious than most in the show’s short history; more than one character ends up near tears. But “Black-ish” acquits itself well, in part because the show was constructed to bear just this kind of thematic weight.
No matter the issue, “Black-ish” offers a mosaic of opinions with a wide array of entry points for all kinds of viewers, whatever their backgrounds or races. The show gets its palpable and engaging energy from debates, not necessarily from resolution, and prefers to come at any topic “from different angles so that most people can relate and feel engaged, and not be turned off,” noted Jenifer Lewis, who plays Dre’s mother, Ruby.
There are parallels between the show and Coates’ book: “Between the World and Me” is written as a letter to the author’s teenage son, and by being so specific about his experiences with police and by describing the death of his friend Prince Jones with such sensitivity and anger, Coates struck a deep chord with readers.
“Black-ish” is similarly grounded in the experiences of creator Kenya Barris (who wrote the Feb. 24 episode), as well as the show’s writers, producers and cast.
“All of us [know] these colorful characters, people that make up the rainbow of what our family is,” Barris said. “And those make for the best Thanksgivings, the best Christmases, the best family reunions, because it’s not one point of view. When we constructed the show, we wanted to say that the generations [don’t necessarily agree] but are really connected through the spine of being a family.”
As difficult as things sometimes get between the characters, they are usually even more challenging among the show’s writers. (More than half the writers are non-white and half are women, and it’s worth pointing out that there are many African-Americans on the office staff and among the crew of “Black-ish,” all of which makes it unlike many other TV shows, as this recent USC study points out).
As they hash out various approaches to whatever hot-button topic has come up, the writers’ emotions can run high. The discussion of guns in the home “was one of the most spirited conversations in the room,” Barris said. “It got teary.”
The point is, “Black-ish,” which was one of the success stories of previous ABC entertainment president Paul Lee, is not about a family, and it’s certainly not the story of a generic African-American family. It’s about the Johnsons, each of whom has unique traits, tics and habits. The more viewers learn about them and their likes and dislikes, the more subjects and ideas the show can take on.
“Kenya delivered characters in the pilot that were well defined,” said executive producer Jonathan Groff, and since the show’s fall 2014 debut, “we’ve added Jenifer Lewis and sharpened the kids and learned who they are. I think the best episodes are when we have that talking point, and then you run through everybody’s [reactions].”
Given the vagaries of the TV business, Barris was not about to use this opportunity to make yet another bland sitcom. “You never know if it’s going to be the only [season],” he said. “So I was like, ‘Let’s just tell the most honest version of what this family’s story is… People relate to when you can give them an authentic view of something that they can find themselves within,” especially when they don’t feel as though “you’re pandering to them.”
A season-two episode about Dre and Bow’s trips to a black church and a white church perfectly encapsulates the show’s approach, which unites a generosity of spirit with specific character beats and pointed observations. The episode nailed the two churches’ cultural differences while quietly servicing a different theme, which could be summed up as, “Isn’t it awesome to be lazy on the weekends and not go anywhere?”
Simply pointing out the differences between white and black churches would have been an example of “my least favorite form of comedy,” Barris said.
The Feb. 24 episode is, in a way, a letter to Barris’ own children — at least it was partly inspired by conversations in the writer’s home. The title of the episode is “Hope,” because Dre and his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) argue about how much optimism to instill in their four kids in a world in which they can see — on the news, online, on their phones — black men, women and children die at the hands of law enforcement.
As Dre explains in an opening voiceover, it’s impossible to protect kids from disturbing or confusing images in this day and age, and conversations about what they see are inevitable. Talking about police brutality in an era in which it’s at the forefront of the media is “what this family would naturally be going through,” Barris said.
“Black-ish” has always folded race into its storylines as a matter of course; a key development of the pilot was ad-man Dre getting a promotion that he wasn’t sure was actually a promotion. After he was put in charge of his company’s “urban division,” he wondered if that meant he was merely the vice president of “black stuff.”
But a viewer flipping the channels, especially in the show’s first season, would have found an energetic comedy that fit comfortably into many familiar TV molds and meshed especially well with ABC’s optimistic, aspirational brand.
Dre and Bow, a doctor, are both well-paid professionals, who live in a large, lovely suburban home. Plots can revolve around things like Bow’s painful cooking skills or Dre’s affinity for expensive sneakers. The four kids — Zoey (Yara Shahidi), Junior (Marcus Scribner), Diane (Marsai Martin) and Jack (Miles Brown) — roll their eyes at Dre’s dad jokes, and Bow and her mother-in-law Ruby rarely agree on anything. Dre’s dad, Pops (Fishburne), can be counted on to shake his head at whatever foolishness the younger generation is engaged in.
Tucked into this accessible family sitcom is a bonus show of sorts. In almost every episode, “Black-ish” spends time at the ad agency that employs Dre (and used to employ Charlie, “the backup black guy”). The show’s writers call this rotating group of informal advisers “the council of idiots,” and their rapid-fire advice tends to be loopy and ridiculous, when it’s not cheerfully deranged.
“They actually give Dre good advice occasionally, but usually they spin him out,” said Groff, who notes that the office scenes allow Anderson, often a key comedic engine in family story lines, to play the straight man at work.
Between Dre’s workplace and home, there are a lot of characters and stories to juggle, but building in those varied elements allows “Black-ish” to explore a huge range of opinions about almost any issue or idea.
“We have three generations living under one roof and also the perspective of a biracial character — Bow,” said Anderson. “So we kind of run the gamut of generations and perspectives within a culture or subculture. We didn’t want to play to any one audience. We wanted our show to be received across the board and have it resonate with everyone.”
“And I believe we’ve succeeded in that.”
To capture all the nuances of one long “Hope” scene from every angle, the cast had to film it over and over again on one January day. As the scene begins, Junior, Dre, Pops and Ruby are watching a news broadcast to see if police officers will be indicted over an incident of alleged police brutality.
The family’s younger children, who are in the kitchen, notice that everyone’s agitated and hear Dre talk about kids “dying in the streets.” They become alarmed, and Bow and Zoey usher them out, but it prompts a debate between Bow and Dre about what the younger kids should be exposed to and what the nature of those conversations should be. As the episode progresses, Coates is glimpsed on the CNN feed and there’s an amusing flashback to Dre’s Malcolm X period (he looks good in horn-rimmed glasses and a high-top fade). At one point, Junior — the family’s Coates fan — asks who James Baldwin is.
“This is what not giving out surprise ass whuppings gets you,” Pops sighs.
“I’m feeling like it’s heavy,” Barris said at one point, who conferred with director Beth McCarthy-Miller and the actors every so often, tinkering a few lines and performances. The focus required of the cast and creative team was formidable and apparent, but the ideas percolating through the scene did not appear to take a toll on the kids. When not shooting, Miles Brown could frequently be found dancing across the set and around the chairs set up near the director.
Later that day, Anderson relaxed on one of the couches in the show’s living room. “This one scene that we’ve been working on today was almost six pages,” he said. “And we were at it for maybe seven hours. It gets draining after a while, but it’s an important story to tell.”
As Anderson noted, all of the action takes place in the Johnsons’ combination family room/kitchen, and it required strategizing to imbue that one location with the energy and momentum of a typical “Black-ish” episode. “Those things are always difficult in terms of shooting because we’re stagnant,” Anderson said. “We may just be sitting or standing in one place, so it’s about finding the nuances that make it go well.”
At one point, during the shooting of that key “Hope” scene, there was an explosion of laughter. Every take ended with Ruby riffing on the frisky way that Peabo Bryson’s music made her feel back in the day, and one of her improvisations was even more hilarious than most. Once Miller said “cut,” the cast and crew released their pent-up laughter, and maybe some tension, too. It was inevitable that some challenging emotions would build up as the cast traversed all the levels of the scene, which toggled from Dre’s outrage to Jack and Diane’s incomprehension to Zoey’s cynicism and Junior’s curiosity and concern.
Ross and Anderson both said they made sure to build in a few moments of physical contact between Dre and Bow. Even as the characters disagreed about whether the officers in the case would be indicted and discussed Jack and Diane’s futures as black children in America, Bow would lean on Dre, or briefly touch his hands as they passed.
“As I’m walking out, Tracee as Rainbow just touches me and says ‘Baby, I understand,’” Anderson noted. “That’s what that touch is all about — ‘I get it.’”
“One of the things that drew me to the role originally is, I find it exhausting seeing married couples on television that usually hate each other,” Ross said between takes. “It’s so weird.”
The rock-solid love the couple has for each other is one of the things that accounts for “Black-ish’s” spirit of resilience. A similar emotion — well-concealed, of course — drives each Bow-Ruby encounter; the show depicts their continual differences of opinions without descending into caricature.
“You know she comes at it with a heart of gold. She loves Rainbow,” Lewis said. But Bow is the educated daughter of an ultra-liberal black mother and white father, and ultimately she and Ruby, who is more socially conservative and who prides herself on being honest, just don’t see eye-to-eye.
Ruby and Pops, who are divorced, are also often at odds, but in “Hope,” they agree: The kids should not be shielded from “the real,” as Ruby puts it.
“Ruby is coming from the old school,” Lewis said. “Her generation is tired, tired of seeing this, and didn’t know we would see it like this again.”
But the family can bear the weight of strongly divergent opinions — which, of course, offer a rich vein of comedic possibilities. (Pops has no love for the Man, but in “Hope,” it emerges that he was not a Black Panther, as he claims — he was a Bobcat. “We were Panther-adjacent — and still part of the radical-cat family!”)
“It’s one of the beauties of comedy — because you’re not getting punched in the face with something, you’re busy laughing, and all of a sudden you get to think about something in a different way,” Ross said.
“I mean, Pops doesn’t end every episode with some new point of view,” she added. “He’s still Pops. He still, in my opinion, raised Dre in a ridiculous manner. Ruby still says the most inane things in the world, and yet there’s still complete love in this relationship, which I think is the underlying message. You can disagree and grow.”
It can even be funny — or especially funny — when those disagreements verge on something dark or ugly. In a recent episode in which Dre thought his white neighbor was racist for assuming that he couldn’t swim, it emerged that Dre can’t actually swim. It’s hard to think of a white sitcom writer who would have written in that twist.
But as the executives who commissioned “Master of None,” “Scandal,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” have found, audiences of all kinds have a hunger for stories that don’t dance around race, class and cultural flash points, but go at them head on — from the inside. (For more from the creators of those shows, see this feature on how TV talks about race.)
Many of the most memorably (and entertainingly) confrontational moments in recent TV history — such as “Master of None’s” “Indians on TV” episode — have come from writers of color. One of the running jokes of that episode was that “there can only be one” Asian person on any TV show. But the episode itself featured three very different Asian men.
“We are not a monolithic voice,” Barris said. “There are many different voices for every niche of society. Whenever you try to have one person speak for gay America or one person speak for Jewish America or black America or women, it is unfair to any of those groups.”
Even Dre contains multitudes. He may talk a good game about his dislike of cops, but it emerges that he is on a first-name basis with the police offers who patrol his neighborhood; he calls them whenever he hears a scary noise in his house at night. He has a sneaker collection to protect, after all.
It’s not a spoiler to say that, at the end of the episode, Jack and Diane are still confused. But they know their opinionated family members are going to supply them with a lot of food for thought, even as they try to make them feel safe.
“This show is not about an opinion. We’re not about trying to answer a question. We’re trying to explore issues through the family and make you laugh,” Ross said. “Honestly, that’s really it — the show is entertainment.”
For a podcast conversation with “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, check out the Talking TV site, which also has podcasts featuring the cast of “Black-ish”, as well as conversations with Alan Yang and Michael Schur from “Master of None.” Podcasts are also available via iTunes.