“Black-ish” ended its eight season run on Tuesday night by going back to the beginning. Literally. The opening to the ABC comedy’s series finale began much in the same way the pilot did in 2014, with Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) waking up to his iPhone alarm clock, next to his wife, Dr. Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross), and narrating a bit about his state of mind.
Even the opening strains of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” opened the finale, just as it did the series premiere all those years ago. “OK, so I’m just your standard, regular, incredibly handsome, unbelievably charismatic Black dude who’s found a way to actually go from broke to the Oaks without a jump shot, number one hit or being Tyler Perry,” Anderson, as Dre, opened the episode. “Against the odds, I made a home for myself with my beautiful and intelligent wife, where we raised five great kids and looked after my parents. I may have grown up just a kid from Compton, but now I’m living the American dream.”
(Compare that to the pilot’s opening narration: “Okay, so I’m just your standard, regular, old incredibly handsome, unbelievably charismatic Black dude. This drooling pigment-challenge mixed-race woman is my wife, Rainbow. And despite what she looks like right now, she’s a doctor. We’re lucky, we’ve got a great house, four great kids, and my pops. It’s a far cry from where it all began. That’s why I promised my parents I’d get an education, graduate, and get myself out of there. I guess for a kid from the hood, I’m living the American dream. The only problem is, whatever American had this dream probably wasn’t where I’m from. And if he was, he should have mentioned the part about how when brothers start getting a little money, stuff starts getting a little weird.”)
But with Dre’s reunited parents (Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis) moving out, the boxes in their driveway has the neighborhood wondering if the entire Johnson family is departing. When nosy Janine (Nicole Sullivan) stops by and asks if their house is for sale, Dre and Bow start to wonder if it really is time to move on.
“Maybe I was living the Black American dream because stuff like that happens every day,” Dre clarifies later. “17 years on the same street and the whole neighborhood was still whispering about us behind our backs. Ever since we moved in, there has always been a sense that we were oddities.” (Cut to the infamous clip from the original episode of a tour bus passing by the Johnson home, noting “The Mythical and Majestic Black Family.”)
Later, while working on a campaign at Stevens and Lido, Dre encounters legendary gymnast Simone Biles, who gives him more food for thought: “What is it that you want? If I’ve learned anything, you have to do what you want to do and not what anyone else wants you to do.”
When Dre broaches the topic with Bow, she too admits, “Between the election and the pandemic, it’s making me reconsider what’s important.”
Says Dre: “Life is too short to not go after what you really want. I think we should listen to 4-time Olympic Gold medalist Simone Biles. She told me to blow up my life.”
Bow is in agreement: “I think we should blow this bitch up.”
The couple decides to sell their Sherman Oaks home and move to a Black neighborhood. “I was told my entire life that I needed to move out of my neighborhood if I wanted to succeed. But that was not true,” Dre says.
The Johnson kids are skeptical at first: “I would like to start the emancipation process,” quips Diane (Marsai Martin). But then they visit their new home, which appears to be in Baldwin Hills, overlooking the city. Jack (Miles Brown) is sold: ” Finally a house to match my lifestyle!”
But that’s not all. In making a change, Dre also decides to leave Stevens and Lido, and spend more time at home. “Freelancing, but take a step back, which means you’d be carrying the load,” he tells Bow. She responds: “The fact that you don’t think I’m doing that right now is very cute. But I’ve got you.”
At the advertising firm, Stevens (Peter Mackenzie) is relieved that “it’s not because of something I’ve said,” while Charlie (Deon Cole) reveals that “when I first came here my plan was to steal your identity. But the only thing that was stolen was my heart… And a long sleeved sweatshirt that was int he backseat of your car that I assumed you weren’t wearing because it had shoulder pads in it.”
Junior (Marcus Scribner) is still a bit sad about the move: “I realized, It’s not just over for me this time, it’s over for all of us.” And later, as Bow and Dre walk through the empty rooms of their old house, they too feel a bit of unfinished business.
“I keep telling myself, these are just four walls but it feels so much bigger than that,” Dre says. Adds Bow: “Because it was our home. We made a family here. Laughter, heartbreak, births — a lot of births. Deaths. We did it together. Right here.”
That’s when Dre decides to throw a New Orleans-style funeral and wake for their house. Zoey (Yara Shahidi) is also there, as the family throws roses into a coffin… and then a band shows up, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” As they dance on the street, out comes more of the show’s cast and crew — and the soundtrack turns to Stevie Wonder’s “As.”
In the series finale button, we see a new couple moving into the old Johnson home in Sherman Oaks: A Latino husband and wife, played by Salvador Chacon and Ariella Amar. ‘“We are living the American dream,” they proclaim… and then Janine shows up, just as inappropriate (“Hola!”) as she once was with the Johnsons.
Meanwhile, what you didn’t see was an extra scene showcasing Junior’s decision to head back to college — this time at Cal U, where his sister Zoey is graduating. (Hence Scribner’s move to “Grown-ish,” as Junior joins the show full time next season).
“There was a whole B story in the finale that we had a cutting all of it, where he was talking to Olivia (Katlyn Nichol), his girlfriend that had broken up with him a few episodes earlier,” said executive producer Courtney Lilly. “He was going to try to do a very Seinfeldian idea where he tries to ‘win’ the breakup by showing her how impressive he was, and how everything was going great. Eventually he breaks down because he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and maybe he should have gone to college after all. She says that it’s OK to go to college, you can always change your mind. He ends up at Cal U, and it’s one of the last shots of this montage we were supposed to see. But then the episode was 30 minutes long.”
Lilly said he considered making the finale longer, but ultimately liked the rhythm of ending with a traditional half-hour sendoff. “We wrestled with it, the network gave us the time, we talked about different things, and at the end of the day, they gave us an extra minute for the broadcast. And we used that entire minute to run full credits of our entire crew, because that’s what the show needed. That was that was also important to me, fundamentally about the journey we’ve been on as a show.
“But I also think, there are positive things about being a 21 minute, 30 seconds on air,” he added. “There’s a discipline that I appreciate in the half-hour sitcom. Telling a story efficiently. They’re used to us being a pop song. 30 minutes, it’s fat, it’s bloat. It’s not what we do.”
Lilly said the decision to end with the eighth season allowed the producers to map out a true ending. Lilly talked to creator Kenya Barris and executive producer Laura Gutin Peterson about where they wanted to go.
The decision was made to mirror some of the issues that were raised by the pilot.
“This happens a lot for a lot of people who whether you’re a minority, whether you’re LGBTQ, the idea that you have to represent for your entire culture,” Lilly said. “And that was so fundamental to the DNA of what Anthony was doing, what Kenya wrote in the pilot, and the premise also being that to have this lifestyle, I have to to represent the culture 24/7. And we wanted to go, ‘Well, do you actually have to do that? Do you have to do that all the time? Is there a place there can be more comfort?’
“So we knew consciously we wanted to this family — not all families, it’s not a thing about segregation or that this would be better. It’s just for this family, they wanted to move to a black neighborhood at the end. We mirrored that, all these kinds of ideas. And really getting back to that question of the pilot.”
Lilly said the pandemic also inspired the writers to give Dre a moment of clarity, that he has reached the top, he’s ready to re-examine his priorities. “The focus and the drive to be a high achiever like that comes at a consequence that we felt that we wanted Dre, a self reported family man, to have to actually encounter,” he said.
As Variety wrote earlier on Tuesday, Lilly is now focused on transitioning Scribner to “Grown-ish” as he keeps the “-ish” franchise going. That could mean visits from the Johnson family down the line, or even a reboot, but nothing is set in stone.
“I am certainly not opposed to it and I don’t think it’s the last you will see of the Johnsons,” Ross said. “But there’s nothing on the docket at the moment but I would jump into that playground any day. It was a treat while it was happening. And I’m sure it would be time to pop back in and I’m so excited for Marcus.”
Ross called the finale “bittersweet, but I leave with a lot of joy and pride and I think so many of my tears happened in the final moments of production. It’s a nice goodbye.”