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In Praise of Deon Cole’s Charlie, the Lovable Wild Card of ‘Black-ish’

Deon Cole's Charlie: In Praise of
Courtesy ABC

It wasn’t necessarily a big piece of TV news, but when I heard Deon Cole’s Charlie Telphy would be in the final four episodes of the current season of “Black-ish,” it was time for a small celebration. Starting April 27 — Cole’s first episode back — I demand homemade lavender-honey ice cream for everyone!

“Black-ish” is blessed with a wonderful cast, of course, one that has only gotten stronger and more impressive during the show’s two seasons. It’s a sign that things are headed in the right direction when each character of a TV comedy is so sharply defined that laughter or an amused state of mind can come from merely anticipating what a character might do in a given situation.

To wit: The show’s never explained why Charlie and Diane Johnson (Marsai Martin) have such a profoundly frosty relationship (and I’m inclined to think “Black-ish” should leave that a mystery). But I’m chortling just thinking about what will happen the next time these frenemies meet. Charlie will sweat, Diane will sigh and more delightfully charged comments will be skilfully traded.

A slight detour: “Black-ish” and Martin have done a great job of making Diane into a small but hilariously frightening character; it’s easy to imagine her running the country, but it’s also easy to arrive at the realization that doing so would only use up a tiny fraction of her mental energy. The neat trick of Diane is that she’s still a recognizable kid, and her and her twin brother’s antics are amusing as such, and yet she’s a believable and almost unholy combination of Olivia Pope, Steve Jobs and Queen Elizabeth II. Despite her small stature, Diane finds a way to look down her nose at people, and when she does, they quake a little bit. As they should.

Charlie quakes in Diane’s presence, but then again, he’s generally a little nervous all the time, wherever he is. One of my favorite things in TV storytelling is the presence of a character who, even if we don’t see him or her much, indicates a life of great eccentricity and dizzying complexity. Two of “Black-ish’s” office characters fall into that category: Charlie and Mr. Stevens, Dre and Charlie’s boss, who is played with screwball virtuosity by Peter Mackenzie. (Another detour: I’d love to see Mr. Stevens anchor an even longer homage to “Diff’rent Strokes,” given how note-perfect the show’s brief recent reference to the ’80s comedy was).

A big part of Mr. Stevens’ buffoonish appeal is his confidence; he never seems flummoxed, even when he indicates that he has a tangled, if not disturbing family life, not to mention a romantic history that verges on terrifying chaos. But nothing touches Mr. Stevens: He never seems at a loss at work and expects everyone to defer to him, even when his lack of intelligence shows or when he seems deeply oblivious to the topic at hand.

Charlie never seems all that plugged in at work either; half the fun of those zingy office meetings is that nobody wants to be there and thus anger, resentment, indifference and quiet resignation inform all the fast-paced lines that fly around the room. Concentrated as they are with distilled, hilarious frustration and confusion, the office scenes are sometimes the most delicious part of a “Black-ish” episode, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Jeff Meacham as the clueless, insecure Jeff and Catherine Reitman as Lucy, the long-suffering, frequently ignored female employee, who nearly wept with relief at the arrival of Daphne Lido (Wanda Sykes). 

Charlie’s live-wire presence at Dre’s workplace makes him much more than the “back-up black guy” (which is how he introduced himself to Daphne, the new boss, before leaving the firm months ago). Charlie’s an unpredictable wild card; one minute he’s on the phone, telling a client how to best induce “lucid nightmares” and the next he’s indicating that he may have two families in different cities. He’s punched Josh, which seems like a bad thing until you realize that everyone at that company has wanted to punch Josh (including Josh). Charlie’s not 100 percent sure of where the right boundaries are and what he should be doing in a given situation; he’s like Dwight from “The Office” but with a gentle, charmingly confused soul.

We only get brief glimpses of Charlie’s trying personal life, which is ideal: Knowing too much might spoil the mystery of how this man manages to function each day, let alone have the highest customer retention rate at work (honestly, Charlie could be a “Mad Men” character). Small clues about his problems and challenges make Charlie’s distracted nature seem perfectly reasonable: The man has a lot on his plate.

Deon Cole plays Charlie with such a mixture of spontaneity, innocence and deft physical humor that, as good as season two of “Black-ish” has been, he’s really been missed. Cole reminds me of John Belushi, another performer who brought essential sweetness to his unpredictable characters, and who could make you laugh just by looking a certain way at another person on screen. Charlie’s been written and played so well that there are no contradictions to his goofy behavior; somehow it all fits.

Charlie has brought a gun to work, but he also has a deep and abiding love for the films of Nancy Meyers. He recommends planting coke on a co-worker as a way to get out of a jam, but that idea springs from his sense of loyalty, which is absolutely believable and even touching. As out-there and hilarious as Charlie’s predicaments and history are, he’s still a real person, and he’s just as confused as the rest of us about what is going on in the world, at work or anywhere. Like the show he’s part of, Charlie’s got a lot going on, but he has a lot of heart (and much of the show’s grounded, compassionate qualities emanate from creator Kenya Barris, as this excellent profile makes clear). 

Cole has another job: He’s a series regular on the TBS comedy “Angie Tribeca.” So who knows if he’ll be able to return to “Black-ish” after this season. I hope so, but I’ll just be happy to take what I can get. As Charlie might put it, “This is confusing, but let’s see where it goes.”