The latest entry in Kenya Barris’ televisual “-ish” universe is “Mixed-ish,” ABC’s new sitcom that follows in the footsteps of “Black-ish” as a heartwarming family comedy with built-in lessons about race and the perception thereof. “Mixed-ish,” unlike the 2018 collegiate spinoff “Grown-ish,” travels back to 1985 to tell a story of family members grappling with their identities at a very specific crossroads in history. On “Black-ish,” Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) has often worked to orient her own experience as a biracial woman with those of her husband, Dre (Anthony Anderson), and their kids, bristling when people don’t consider her “black enough” to understand true struggle. On “Mixed-ish,” she narrates the story of her childhood and the difficulty of growing up in a world in which being biracial was far from the norm. Where Dre’s “Black-ish” voiceover marks the show as snarky and sporadically solemn, Bow’s defines the tone of “Mixed-ish” as heartfelt, hopeful and more than occasionally saccharine.
Over five seasons, we’ve seen Bow work through complicated feelings about being biracial. And yet despite visits from her parents (played on “Black-ish” by Anna Deveare Smith and Beau Bridges) and vague references to her nomadic upbringing, we’ve never quite gotten as clear a picture of her early life on “the commune” as we have Dre’s — until now. Bow waxes poetic about the commune’s open-minded values and determination to treat everyone equally before sighing about the sudden FBI raid that sent her family to the suburbs. Her optimistic father, Paul (here played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar), and more pragmatic mother, Alicia (Tika Sumpter), assured them that not much would change, which the kids quickly discovered was a well-intentioned lie. Bow (Arica Himmel), her excitable little brother, Johan (Ethan William Childress), and annoyed baby sister Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris) are immediately treated differently than anyone else at their school, behavior that throws them for a loop after their having grown up in an environment in which, Bow insists, race didn’t matter. (Himmel, Childress and Harris as younger versions of Ross, Daveed Diggs and Rashida Jones continue ABC’s streak of casting uncannily good child actors.)
Here, “Mixed-ish” pulls a classic “Black-ish” and dives deep into the history of what it means to be biracial in America, including a rapid-fire breakdown of miscegenation laws and a list of today’s most prominent biracial pop culture figures. (“Today’s mixed kids can look up to rappers, ballerinas, athletes, a president, a princess,” Bow says. “The only heroes we had were DeBarge.”) For all the ground it covers, there’s not nearly enough time, but in fairness, just about every pilot has the same problem. The more interesting test for “Mixed-ish” will be how it pushes the conversation about the challenges and privileges of being biracial beyond any single episode that’s been devoted to Bow and her background thus far.
It’ll also be telling to see how “Mixed-ish” deals with how it dovetails with and diverges from the stories “Black-ish” has told about Bow and her family. The casting alone is at turns confusing and intriguing. Gosselaar is playing the epitome of whiteness, but in real life he’s multiracial. On “Black-ish,” Bow’s mother is played by Smith, an actor with a lighter skin tone more similar to Ross’ than to that of Sumpter, who plays the younger version of Bow’s mother on “Mixed-ish.” This discrepancy feels especially relevant after “Black Like Us,” a Season 5 “Black-ish” episode (scripted by “Mixed-ish” co-writer Peter Saji) in which Bow and her mother-in-law, Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), clash over colorism. Bow talks about how her lighter skin has made her feel unwanted by both black and white people; Ruby reveals that her darker skin has made her a pariah even in her own community throughout her life. If Bow had grown up with a mother whose skin was markedly darker than hers, the conflict Ruby describes may not have come as such a huge surprise. So it’s fascinating that “Mixed-ish” cast Sumpter as Alicia — especially given that Ruby cites the actor herself as an example of a dark-skinned woman who rarely gets her due.
How “Mixed-ish” chooses to engage with this revised aspect of Bow’s family remains to be seen, but it could certainly make for some deeper discussions of the nuanced differences between black realities. It would help, too, if “Mixed-ish” gives Sumpter more to work with in future episodes than it does in the pilot, in which she largely serves to balance the goofier energies of Gosselaar and Gary Cole as Bow’s Reagan-worshipping grandfather. Then again, Sumpter’s best moment by a long shot comes when Alicia firmly tells Paul that they can’t pretend their children’s race doesn’t matter. “You don’t have to change. You can be how you are anywhere in the world,” she tells her husband. “It’s different for me, and it’s different for our kids.” This distinction between their experiences doubles as a sharp shot of common sense, defining the thorny, complex issue that may, and should, take “Mixed-ish” some time to untangle.
“Mixed-ish” premieres Tuesday, September 24 at 9 pm on ABC.
30 minutes; pilot episode watched for review.