Last time on TV Tuesday, I ran out of time to write about a collection of sitcoms I’ve been watching that are all produced by, sometimes written or directed by, and in one case even starring: Kenya Barris.
His first creation, the family sitcom Black-ish, is probably the most well-known. That show has a spin-off, Grown-ish, as well as a prequel, Mixed-ish. He also has a family sitcom on Netflix, #blackAF, in which he stars as a fictional version of himself.
I really like these shows, in part because they’re pretty good — fun and funny with good characters — but also because I think it’s so important for us white folks to sometimes just STFU and listen to Black voices. Most of these shows make deliberate attempts to reach out and share something important.
As with most family shows, the families in question are a bit dysfunctional. The fictional Barris family in #blackAF is particularly dysfunctional. I imagine Barris has a great deal of fun playing a hyper-grumpy, hyper-cynical, hyper-high-maintenance, curmudgeon.
I never watched Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the role Barris plays somehow invokes the impression I have of that show’s main character, Larry David, who is also playing a fictional and unpleasant version of himself. (Based on clips I saw, it was too unpleasant for me, which is why I never watched the show.)
ABC renewed it for an eighth (and final) season that I assume airs starting this fall.
Note that, as a network show, each season is nominally 24 episodes. I say “nominally” because seasons five and six have 23 episodes and season seven has only 21.
(I suppose I could have said, ‘each season has, on average, 23.2857 episodes…’)
Regardless, the point is that we’re talking plenty of episodes: 163 and counting. (Most think a baseball season is long with 162 regular season games. After eight television seasons, these guys will have played a whole baseball season and then some. In fact the cast is large enough to be a baseball team!)
The show centers on the Johnson family. The father/husband is Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson — he’s been in a lot of movies and TV shows; you’ve almost certainly seen him in one). The mother/wife is Dr. — I save lives!! — Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross — her background isn’t quite as extensive, but both are award winning actors). As a special taste treat, Laurence Fishburne has a recurring role as Dre’s divorced dad, Earl, but Jenifer Lewis often steals the show as his mom, Ruby (who lives with them).
The Johnsons have four kids, Zoey (Yara Shahidi), “Junior” (Marcus Scribner), and the twins, Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin). And, yes, the twins are named after that Jack & Diane. The hysterical Deon Cole appears regularly as Dre’s beyond eccentric co-worker, Charlie Telphy. (See? Nine people. A baseball team. Telphy on the mound.)
There’s a cute joke that Rainbow already had the name Johnson before she was married and didn’t change it. (When Dre finds this out, he’s devastated.) I’m not sure, but I think there’s a subtle in-joke about how common the name Johnson is among Black folk, the reason for which tracing back to slavery.
It may surprise many how many things about Black life in America do trace back to slavery, which the Portuguese first began way back in the early 1500s. It didn’t really start in the Americas until the early 1600s, but by the 1700s it was in high gear.
The Emancipation Proclamation , January 1st, 1863, wasn’t until after more than 200 years, and Juneteenth (June 19) wasn’t until 1865. It took another 100 years for Civil Rights to come along in the 1960s. The point is, from a Black perspective, 50 years of half-assed supposed equality ain’t a patch on 500 years of slavery, and it ain’t like it’s really over yet.
So, yeah. It’s about slavery. More on that later.
The show is generally a standard network comedy (albeit an ABC comedy; more on that later, too). What sets it a little apart are the educational moments that speak about Black experience in American. Those are the moments I cherish most and are the main reason I watch the show.
The comedy is actually slightly on the broad side for my taste (true of most sitcoms), but not enough to really put me off (just some head-shaking sometimes). The episode I referenced above, where Dre loses it because his wife kept her last name rather than taking his, is a common mode. Dre gets hysterical over lots of things that aren’t really even things (let alone how he gets over big stuff); he’s kind of a man-baby.
At the same time, like any well-written comedy, it can pull your heart strings despite all the silliness.
I’m just starting season five on this one. (I’ve seen all of the episodes of the other shows mentioned in this post. All three of the *-ish shows are available on Hulu.)
For the most part the show is a fairly standard teen college sitcom. It centers on the struggle to get through college while exploring life, love, work, success, and failure, away from home for the first time.
What’s kind of cute about this show is that Zoey, who was the very hip, very fashion fine, eldest child on Black-ish, expected college to be her oyster. It turns out that being one of the biggest fish in pond of your high school may not mean much in the larger more aggressive lake of college (never mind the sharks in the ocean of the real world). Simply put, college does not go as she expected.
I can totally relate. I went for five years, but was so busy learning stuff and living real life that I never actually got the degree.
A little extra cake icing here is Deon Cole, whose downright bizarre Charlie Telphy first appears as the teacher of a night class about marketing and, from season two on, replaces Chris Parnell as the college dean.
Which, considering his character, is a great standing joke. He’s one of my favorite sitcom characters lately. For a while he disappeared from Black-ish, written off the show. I was happy when they brought him back. (I’m guessing the actor had a movie commitment or something.)
In this show, the educational aspect seems most in the back seat compared to the lives and loves of the characters. It’s not absent by any stretch, but it’s not driving.
It’s also the one that appears on a different network, so perhaps they’re reaching for a different demographic. It’s also the most musical of the three.
In 2019 Barris created Mixed-ish, which is an ABC family sitcom prequel about Rainbow Johnson’s family and childhood. The show only lasted two seasons, the first with 23 episodes, the second with only 13.
To be honest, maybe rightfully so. It definitely ranks last on my list of Kenya Barris shows, although it’s possible what puts me off most about the show is a deliberate style choice rather than what seems like terribly lame writing.
It’s possible the show is intended to mimic those 1950s and 1960 family sitcoms with idiot clown characters (whose traits, habits, and hobbies, vary depending on script of the week), painfully stupid plots, and happy, often easy, permanent resolutions after 20 minutes.
It’s a throwback to those lame empty-calorie sitcoms that television evolved out of as viewers became more sophisticated and demanding. Given that it’s a prequel that takes place in the mid-1980s, it’s possible the throwback is intentional.
If so, I think it missed the mark. Alternately, the writing was just lame.
Still, it was not without its charms. Certainly Tika Sumpter (as mother/wife Alicia Johnson) has a radiance that’s quite captivating even if the scripts too often have her acting like a brain-damaged idiot.
As the title suggests, Rainbow “Bow” Johnson and her siblings are “mixed” — biracial. Mom is Black, and father/husband, Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), is white. (Gary Cole recurs as his amusingly racist father).
Rainbow is the oldest of three. Johan is the middle child, and Santamonica is the youngest. (Paul and Alicia lived on a commune, so their daughter is named Santamonica.) The parents and kids, played by much older actors, all have recurring roles in Grown-ish.
All three shows use narration by the main character to drive the story and provide a primary point of view for the show. In this case, that’s Rainbow. (In Grown-ish, it’s Zoey. Black-ish is a bit more diffuse but it’s mostly Dre.)
The three *-ish shows share a universe and the same family, but in 2020 Barris created a fourth show, #blackAF (on Netflix), that while similar to Grown-ish, spins in a whole other direction.
For one thing, the father/husband is a fictional version of Kenya Barris played by the non-fictional Kenya Barris. As I mentioned above, the character is a real piece of work, but that seems to work out because so is every member of his family.
The mother/wife, Joya (Rashida Jones, who I’ve had a minor crush on ever since she played Jim’s other love interest, Karen Filippelli, in The Office), currently a socialite and hopeful author, was a lawyer before she quit to raise kids and write books. Her character has sharp talons, an infinite well of cold sarcasm, and more than enough cynicism to match her husband’s. They’re quite a pair, actually.
(Jones was a recurring character in Parks and Recreation, the show that’s unrelated to The Office, but done by Greg Daniels in the same style. Jones also starred in Angie Tribeca (2016–2018), which was a very funny, very silly, police comedy reminiscent of Police Squad! or Sledge Hammer! To tie this in a loop, the aforementioned Deon Cole was a co-star in Angie Tribeca.)
The family here has six kids, as does Barris himself, and it’s said that the kids in the show have traits and ages in common with his. His fictional wife, Joya, the aforementioned fellow piece of work, is created from the whole cloth, though.
In common with the Johnson kids, the fictional Barris kids are characters who can hold their own. As with most sitcoms, kids deal in concepts far above their age. Another trait not uncommon and very present in the Barris shows: kids are extremely self-aware and given to self-reporting that awareness.
The (in my lily white eyes) almost cruel way all the characters interact created for me an interesting dynamic. I usually need to love the characters to love the show, but Barris makes that almost impossible with this gang. (But I do love the Johnsons.)
What I found interesting was how, despite my distaste for those people, he not only kept me engaged, but brought it all home in the season finale with a nice serving of real heart. That’s some pretty skillful writing, I think, to pull that off.
This one is the most educational of the Barris shows and the most pointed. It’s operating on a somewhat different level than Grown-ish. I might call this one brandy to the other one’s ale — a distilled, more potent, version. (Hennessy!)
I was especially charmed by the episode titles, which very clearly, and with some style, define the show’s educational side:
- “because of slavery”
- “because of slavery too”
- “still… because of slavery”
- “yup, you guessed it. again, this is because of slavery”
- “yo, between you and me… this is because of slavery”
- “hard to believe, but still because of slavery”
- “i know this is going to sound crazy… but this, too, is because of slavery”
- “i know you may not get this, but the reason we deserve a vacation is… because of slavery”
Each episode has a cool embedded lesson that demonstrates how, for this too, you guessed it, it’s because of slavery. It’s kinda awesome, like the Black version of James Burke and Connections. I’m really looking forward to season two.
By the way, this is the first Barris show I watched. It made me want to see his other shows, and I’m glad I did.
This is entirely an impression off the top of my head, so I reserve the right to be completely wrong on this, but the impression is that ABC seems friendlier to comedies created by people of color.
CBS, to my mind, makes pretty awful sitcoms (and I’m losing faith in their dramas now), while NBC still turns out some good ones, though. But I don’t know how many Black creators do shows for those networks.
Lastly, the copyright bit at the end of each Barris show has a shout-out to Inglewood, one of the many Los Angeles suburbs. Barris was born in Inglewood in 1974, and I lived there from 1967 to 1984, so we overlapped by ten years.
I’m sure I never met him. I was in college when he was born. (Which, yes, does make me feel very old. Ah well, so it goes.)
Stay TV-ish, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.