‘Black-ish’ avoids comedic slump of veteran sitcoms

Johnson family still feels fresh in fifth season premiere

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“Black-ish” stays consistent with its delivery of family humor nuanced with racial awareness. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

ABC’s Golden Globe-nominated sitcom “Black-ish” got off to a slow start this week in its season premiere, making audiences wonder whether the socially-aware series is beginning to hit the slump experienced by veteran comedies like “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Yet, hallmarks of the show — including the skillful intertwining of modern family humor with honest conversations about race — remind viewers that “Black-ish” remains ABC’s freshest comedy to date.

When audiences last tuned in to Johnson family affairs at the end of season four, Andre (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) were tentatively returning to their relationship after a period of separation due to marital tension. The season five premiere “Gap Year” picks up with the entire family flying to Washington, D.C., where Junior (Marcus Scribner) embarks on a four-year journey at Howard University. Or, so his family thinks. 

The Johnsons return home expecting to adjust to their growing empty nest, only to find Junior eating cereal in their newly remodeled kitchen, proclaiming he will instead be taking a gap year. Pops (Laurence Fishburne) is quick to label this move “some white s—t,” while Bow panics, “Everyone that I know that has taken a gap year is some rich kid who turns out to be a ski bum.” Meanwhile, Zoey (Yara Shahidi) “predicted this on Twitter three days ago.” Dre and Bow try different approaches to convince their son to return to college, but ultimately, the decision is in Junior’s hands.

In a subplot, Diane (Marsai Martin) and Jack (Miles Brown) question whether they should continue to share a room. Despite affirming that outsiders don’t understand the unique bond between twins, the siblings start to feel the awkwardness described by friends and family who advocate the change.

The greatest flaw in “Gap Year” is its disregard of lingering strain between Dre and Bow from the end of season four. Although the couple seemed to resolve most of their conflict in the finale “Dream Home,” the adjustment period after such an estrangement is certainly longer than one episode can show. The season premiere presumably takes place a couple months after season four ended, explaining how well-adjusted the Johnsons seem in their married life once more. Yet, the inclusion of the couple’s separation was a bold move only a sitcom like “Black-ish” was willing to tackle. In keeping with the freshness of the show, the repercussions of this significant event in the Johnson family ought to be featured in season five.

The episode also felt devoid of the niche humor seen in past seasons of “Black-ish.” The promos for “Gap Year” seemed to tell all, with predictable jokes that fell slightly flat. There were some laugh-out-loud moments — Dre barking at Junior that he’s “not Malia Obama,” for instance — sprinkled throughout the episode that evoked the comic tone of past seasons. Perhaps the issues with this episode can be attributed to season premiere jitters.

As always, “Black-ish” delivered on what it is best known for — contrasting the past and present experiences of African American families in the United States. While Dre reminisces how attending college allowed him to achieve more than he thought possible, Pops reminds his son that Junior’s upbringing similarly allows him to approach the same experience from a distinctive angle. “Gap Year” also acknowledged the continuing impact of slavery on the experiences of education for black people in modern America. This kind of blatant social commentary distinguishes the sitcom from other ABC series — not even “Fresh Off the Boat” is able to achieve the candor “Black-ish” is known for.

Even though it established a new family drama in season five without fully resolving that of season four, “Black-ish” stays consistent with its delivery of family humor nuanced with racial awareness. The remainder of season five is promising, with producers planning to broach the topic of police interaction.

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