It is Bill Cosby’s legacy that every television show about Black families will be measured up to his chef d’oeuvre, The Cosby Show. The show’s status as a cultural touchstone for Black viewers is undeniable despite any ethical qualms about its creator. So it doesn’t surprise me that the newest kid on the Black family sitcom block, Black-ish, initially drew comparisons to the granddaddy of modern Black family sitcoms.
But can Black-ish really ever be Cosby-ish, and is that even desirable?
The parallels between The Cosby Show and Black-ish seem easy to make. Black-ish is a conventional family sitcom that centers on an upper-middle class father (Andre Johnson), his wife (Rainbow), a teen daughter (Zoey), an older son (Junior), and precocious boy-girl pair of twins (Jack and Diane). The pilot’s story line set the tone for the rest of the series: Andre is worried that his family is losing their Blackness by virtue of their suburban class status. The feared result is a family that’s not Black, but Black-ish, a parody of authentic Blackness in a White environment.
First off, I feel compelled to say that Black-ish failed to hook me initially; I didn’t find it laugh-out-loud funny. There was also an undercurrent of desperation to my watching Black-ish, one that didn’t exist when Heathcliff Huxtable was Black America’s dad. I felt that if I didn’t support the show, it may have been a long time before “we” got another show featuring a modern Black family.
The expectation was admittedly unfair, so I waited it out. The show seemed to take a minute to find its legs. There are times when I still feel Anthony Anderson tilts the comedy too far toward Blackstick, too loud, too outlandish. (I also think that’s just his brand of comedy, but I digress).
But after watching the better part of the newer show’s two seasons, it’s quite clear that the The Cosby Show has nothing in common with Black-ish. Nearly halfway through season two, I appreciate Black-ish in a way that is both similar and refreshingly different from The Cosby Show. I’ve fallen in love with the Johnson family as I did with the Huxtables. Their antics crack me up. The similarities between the two shows surprisingly stop there for me.
The Johnsons are not The Black Family™ of television; they are a Black family, one of many.
If The Cosby Show was about presenting a Black family through a comedic respectable lens, then Black-ish is about finding a path to a different respectability: racial identity. As opposed to honoring father and family (as on Cosby), Black-ish more concerns itself with identifying Black heritage and how to honor it.
The show doesn’t stray far from its original premise, airing situational episodes about “the n-word,” Black churches vs. White churches, The Nod, celebrating MLK Day, and playing the dozens. The family fumbles through expectations of and performance of Blackness in ways that are most comical. The endings are happy–it is a sitcom, after all–but not always neat. The family itself is also not “clean” in the sense that the Huxtables were.
Consider that Tracee Ellis Ross’ character, Rainbow, comes from “hippie parents,” was raised without religion, and often clashes with her husband’s mother on cooking “traditional” Black foods. We would be hard-pressed to find the oft-venerated Claire Huxtable in this model of modern woman. Rainbow Johnson is not the 80s version of a Black professional wife and mother. She still rings true.
Black-ish also reflects a greater reality among Black families–divorced parents, absentee fatherhood. Andre has a better relationship with his Pops (brilliantly played by Laurence Fishburne), but that wasn’t always the case. He describes the elder man as “a rolling stone.” His mother Ruby (played by Jenifer Lewis) and Pops split years ago but still banter in the familiar, affectionate way of old lovers who could either kiss or kill each other at any moment. The interplay starkly contrasts with the loving, nuclear Huxtable grandparents.
Black-ish offers no apology for not being Cosby-esque.
Black-ish is not the TV show we’ll refer to in 20 years for teaching us how to be good Black families. Each Black-ish episode shows Black life through a lens of normality without serving didacticism. It tosses the “sharp-tongued Black mama who takes no guff” trope. Its father is often silly, less authoritative than he is apologetic for his missteps. It encourages Black children to be “different” and still find pride in their version of Blackness. Its grandparents are present but imperfect.
Black-ish leaves you to enjoy the Johnson family without compelling you to be the Johnson family. It is fun without fussing.
What I appreciate most about life in Black-ish, however, has little to do with the comedy. It’s the writing and scene setting. It’s the two daughters seated in their pajamas before bedtime as the oldest ties the youngest girl’s sleep bonnet. It is Black mundanity presented as such, with a deliberate eye. Although the sitcom is ostensibly preoccupied with the pursuit of Blackness, some of its best scenes just show Black folk living, loving, laughing with each other. In that sense, it succeeds not just at being Black-ish, but at being truly Black.
That aspect endears Black-ish to me just like The Cosby Show…but in its own, perfect way. The Johnsons will never be the Huxtables. And I love every minute of it.
How are you liking Black-ish these days? Do you watch it?