This week's episode of Black-ish reminded me of an idea that's been bouncing around my head for some time: Is Black-ish the best network comedy on television now? There's not really a lot of qualified competition, seeing as network comedy is pretty far down in the dumps at the moment, its glory days having faded away like the ratings for Sean Saves the World.
"Hope", this week's standout episode, showed off what Black-ish does best, and I know we're talking comedy here, but what Black-ish does best isn't actual comedy (though it is a very funny show). No, Black-ish bravely goes places most shows--even dramas--won't: headfirst into sensitive topics affecting society today. This week's episode confronted police brutality and the many cases of unarmed African-Americans who've been shot and killed by police across the country. Let's see the nerds of The Big Bang Theory even get within spitting distance of that one.
And as usual, it was handled confidently and compassionately by Black-ish's incredibly smart creator Kenya Barris, who wrote the episode. Much of its power came directly from Barris's words, as evidenced by the fact that it was almost entirely a bottle episode--an episode shot in one location--save for a few cutaways for gags. Three generations of the Johnson family gathered around the television, like many of us have done over the years, to watch another case involving police officers who allegedly shot a defenseless man being let off the hook with no charges.
Like previous episodes of Black-ish that covered heavier matter, including a fantastic episode about the N-word and another about gun ownership, all sides of the conversation were heard. Dre (Anthony Anderson) was his usual bombastic self, the upset black man harping on the police after an endless string of similar cases, while Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) played the other side, upholding faith in America's justice system and being careful to point out that not every cop was bad. Also chiming in were Dre's parents Pops (Laurence Fishburne) and Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), older folks who had seen it all and earned their right to be stubborn and not know every detail of the current cases, and Dre's kids representing the youth of today, from Andre's (Marcus Scribner) rare awareness of each case's details to Zoey's (Yara Shahidi) seeming indifference.
But Barris wasn't interested in making "Hope" about the outrage that's plastered across 24-hour news channels when an announcement of "no indictments" comes down, or preaching the other side that the victims deserved it, because Barris knows the situation is much more complicated than putting it in black and white terms. Instead, Barris gave each of his many characters different voices in the conversation that relates to police brutality and the flawed justice system in order to encourage viewers to think. And the episode's most emotional moment came when Zoey, who had previously been perceived as uncaring about the situation like a stereotypical TV teenage girl, confessed that she did care but didn't know how to join the discussion because she felt lost and was still working out how she felt. It was Zoey's bravest moment in the series to date, and it was her voice that spoke for most of us who have also felt confused and lost amid such a delicate subject that doesn't have a simple answer.
Instead, Barris made "Hope" about the children, focusing the final act of the episode on the correct way to approach the young twins'--Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin)--curiosity about what they werre witnessing. Barris doesn't want to tell viewers how to think about the rash of police killings--in fact, he wants you to hear and understand all sides, not just the one he thinks--but he does want to offer you advice. Hope can sometimes be all you have, and it can't be taken away from children unless we just want to give up on everything. That decision--to have Dre and Bow be careful with what they said to Jack and Diane--put a lid on a potentially volatile situation but kept the discussion open and also left "Hope" inside the orbit of its family comedy genre. And that's something that Black-ish has done very well since it debuted a season-and-a-half ago.
There are other good comedies on network television, of course. There's The Goldbergs, which airs an hour before Black-ish on ABC's incredibly sturdy Wednesday night comedy block. Putting '80s nostalgia aside in a Trapper Keeper under a pile of Ranger Ricks, The Goldbergs does family comedy very well, keeping in tradition with the classics by not going too deep. The Grinder is the funniest sitcom on the lower dial, through its use of meta humor and a knockout performance from Rob Lowe. And Momis the multi-camera comedy with more depth than we're used to seeing from CBS laughers, confronting topics of addiction with shockingly heavy storylines bookended by laugh tracks. But Black-ish is able to go deep, be funny, and identify as a sweet family comedy.
Is Black-ish the best network comedy? It's looking like it.
What did you think of "Hope"? And what's your favorite network comedy?