Black-ish is at its best when it's most personal, and it's hard to get more personal than an episode like "Sprinkles," its Season 3 finale.
The episode's story, which deals with a family crisis when Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) is diagnosed with preeclampsia and has to undergo an emergency c-section to deliver their sixth child eight weeks prematurely, is taken directly from creator Kenya Barris' own life. Last year, his wife Bow gave birth to their sixth child prematurely after being diagnosed with preeclampsia, a condition which causes potentially life-threateningly high blood pressure.
But you don't have to know the backstory to feel the episode's poignancy. It had as many tearjerking moments as an episode of This Is Us, plus twice as many laughs. Black-ish is exceptionally good at delivering drama and then undercutting it with humor.
It takes place on the day of Bow's baby shower. She has a headache that won't go away, so Dre (Anthony Anderson) takes her to see her OB/GYN at the hospital. While there, the doctor diagnoses her with preeclampsia, and we watch through the eyes of Dre, Barris' avatar, as a whole lot of scary things happen very quickly. Bow's blood pressure is too high to induce labor, so they're going to have to do an emergency c-section, and Dre has to quickly process that Bow and/or the baby might not make it. It's intense.
"I could lose her, Mama," he cries to Ruby (Jenifer Lewis). "Bow could die. I can't do all this by myself."
Right before the surgery, it's Bow's turn to break down, crying to Dre about how scared she is, which sets up one of the episode's serious/hilarious two-steps.
"You are a warrior," he tells her, and assures her that everything will be alright. They tell each other they love each other, and it's very stressful and moving, and then Bow turns to the nurse and starts telling her she loves her and that she's her best friend. Dre is like "what's going on?" and the nurse answers "she's on some celebrity-level narcotics right now," the kind Jennifer Lawrence would get if she were giving birth.
The baby comes out, and he's whisked away for testing before Dre or Bow have a chance to hold him. He's so premature that his lungs aren't fully developed yet. Bow dispatches Dre to the nursery to be with him, but Dre can't go inside, he tells Pops (Laurence Fishburne).
"He's so little, Pops. What if he doesn't make it?" he says. "What if I fall in love with that baby and he breaks my heart?"
"I can't guarantee everything is going to be alright. No one can," says Pops, who has spent the episode gruffly keeping his grandchildren abreast of how things are not fine. "But I can promise this: If you don't get in there and spend every moment you can with him right now, you will regret it. That's your son in there. He needs you. You need to go on, get in there and be his daddy." And immediately after Dre goes in, he starts hitting on a nurse.
In the recovery room, the kids are with Bow, and Diane (Marsai Martin) reads her a letter she wrote to the baby:
"Dear Baby DeVante,
Welcome to the family. You're definitely a Johnson, because you really know how to make an entrance. You scared us for a minute there, but we know you're a fighter. You're probably the strongest out of all of us. Especially Dad. He's weak. He cries all the time. We can't wait to get you home and play with you and hug you and kiss you. You coming early just means we have more time to spend together. Love, Diane and Jack."
This speech is intercut with Dre in the nursery touching DeVante's tiny hand, and it's the last of about seven throat-lump-causing moments.
The episode ends with a baby shower in the recovery room hosted by Biz Markie, who changes the lyrics of "Just a Friend" to be about the characters, and Dre and Bow doing their best to reassure each other that things are alright.
The limitation of Black-ish is that it's always (with one exception) from Dre's point of view, and in this episode there was a character facing even higher stakes than the ones Dre was facing. It kind of felt at times like it was Bow's story that Dre was making about himself. But Black-ish has its structure, and mostly it works. And it's an honest version of Kenya Barris' personal experience (he told TVGuide.com that he cried at the script's table read).
The good news is that the real Bow and the baby are healthy now, so things are gonna be okay for the Johnsons, too. But this episode shows what a special sitcom Black-ish is, because it really felt like they might not. The stakes were higher than a sitcom usually allows itself to have. Black-ish is about real life, and it earns its tearjerking moments as much as its laughs.