As it did with its first-season finale, ABC’s “Black-ish” is closing out its second season with a high-concept episode. Variety has a set of exclusive pictures from “Good-ish Times,” and spoke to creator Kenya Barris about the genesis and production of the episode, which airs May 18.
In the finale, a stressed-out Dre (Anthony Anderson) falls asleep during a marathon of “Good Times” episodes, and in his dream, the Johnson family turns into the Evans clan from the classic Norman Lear sitcom of the ‘70s.
Taking on the task of paying homage to “Good Times” was not without its challenges, Barris said. Not only is he a huge fan of Lear and highly influenced by that show in particular, “Black-ish” shot this special episode at the end of a production cycle, a time in which a cast and crew’s energy can sometimes flag.
As it happened, the unusual finish ended up being a positive thing for the cast and crew, Barris said. “Because we knew we were going to try to go out big, it added a little bit of energy when we were sort of dragging,” Barris said. “There’s a little bit of fun happening. It’s almost like a wrap party.”
Another challenge presented itself when Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Rainbow Johnson, lost her voice during the rehearsal process.
“We shot the show multi-cam, and the cast had to prep” for multi-cam shooting, Barris explains. “She was such a soldier, because she had to mouth her lines while someone said them offstage so we could block the episode and everyone could rehearse.”
Given that “Black-ish” is shot single-cam, the writers, crew and cast also had to adjust to the particular rhythms and style of the multi-cam format.
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“It was not only multi-cam jokes, it was multi-cam jokes from the ‘70s, so we had to sort of match that, but make sure they played for today,” Barris said. The writing staff and Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry, who penned the finale, “did a really good job trying to play between two worlds. I think the staff and the cast and the crew really came together and melded the two time periods and matched up then and now. I really wanted to do a good job on it, and the cast really came in and stepped into the roles in really fun, funny ways.”
One of the hardest challenges in the episode was paying tribute to Jimmy Walker’s famous portrayal of J.J. Evans, a task that fell to Marcus Scribner, who plays Andre Junior on “Black-ish.”
“Marcus, who did not grow up with Jimmy Walker, did his best to sort of do an homage, but you can’t really do an homage to that character,” Barris said. “That character was iconic. All you can try to do is take a swing and tip your hat to Jimmy Walker.”
Obviously the Johnsons are more wealthy than the Evans, but even Barris laments the fact that so much of scripted TV tends to ignore families that aren’t well-to-do.
“You don’t see the working class” on TV, Barris noted. “Where is the blue collar-family? What happened to ‘Roseanne,’ where is ‘All in the Family’?”
That said, in Barris’ view, even thought the two families aren’t in the same income bracket, there are still threads that connect the Walkers and the Evans.
“[‘Black-ish’] is about family, and ultimately that’s what ‘Good Times’ was about,” Barris said. “No matter what they were going through, they always fell back to depending on the love of their family, and that’s the connection between those two shows.”