“Black-ish” is a good idea — or at least a provocative one — rather disappointingly executed. Anthony Anderson stars (and provides a running voiceover) as the patriarch of a successful, well-to-do African-American family, who begins to fret that his brood is losing contact with its culture. “When brothers start getting a little money,” he says, “stuff starts getting a little weird.” But weird, alas, is only sporadically funny, and while there’s ample potential in the concept, even with diminished expectations for the post-“Modern Family” timeslot, it would behoove the series to get a bit better, fast-ish.
It’s been quite awhile, obviously, since the Cosbys enjoyed family sitcom bliss and the Jeffersons moved on up, but the Johnson clan remains a decided minority in the upper-middle-class enclave in which they live. Still, working at a major ad agency and having a wife (Tracee Ellis Ross) who’s a doctor haven’t calmed dad Andre “Dre” Johnson’s apprehensions about his kids’ apparent indifference to black history (the O.J. trial, Obama’s election) or the fact his son wants to have a Bar Mitzvah and has become interested in playing field hockey, not basketball. Oy vey, indeed.
Providing slightly bemused commentary to all this is Andre’s father (Laurence Fishburne, billed as a “special guest star,” and like Anderson an exec producer), who wryly feeds his son’s insecurities.
Created by Kenya Barris and infused with semi-autobiographical elements, “Black-ish” broadly speaks to a fertile topic regarding minority communities — the fear that greater assimilation to embrace a non-ethnic mainstream comes at a price. Yet in the pilot, the writing hews toward the obvious and predictable, perhaps in part because it’s racing along to establish the premise.
Nor is Anderson particularly well served by an introduction that calls for him to stay in a near-constant state of exasperation, thus rendering him one of the show’s weaker links. Strengthening the workplace environment would be an obvious area to seek improvement, but toning down the lead character would help as well.
ABC has done a commendable job this season of developing a diverse slate of comedies, and the timeslot for “Black-ish” — behind the network’s comedy anchor — is a vote of confidence not only in the show but also for the idea that a wider audience will be able to relate to the universal nature of its themes. After all, both this newcomer and “Modern Family” are at their core about the quirks associated with families.
At least initially, the problem with the comparison is that one of the shows is demonstrably funny, and the other, despite some charm, proves at best fitfully so.