Black-ish creator Kenya Barris may say his show isn't an issues-driven sitcom, but he's wrong. Black-ish is at its best when its characters are sitting in a room arguing about a topic, like they did about police brutality and Black Lives Matter in last February's "Hope," still the high-water mark for the ABC sitcom. Barris and his terrific cast delivered a potent, timely statement once again with Wednesday night's episode "LEMONS," a startlingly relevant take on the impending Trump presidency that may go down as the definitive pop cultural artifact from the surreal, uncertain time between Nov. 8, 2016 and Jan. 20, 2017, and the first one to come to terms with the fact that Barack Obama is about to not be the president anymore.
The episode takes place eight weeks after the election -- as in right now -- and is built around three speeches from Dre (Anthony Anderson), Barris' surrogate. In the first, which opens the episode, he muses in a voiceover about how America loves upsets (shout out to Steph Curry and LeBron James) and the role of the winner and loser on either side of that upset. He concludes with the episode's thesis statement: "What happens when the winners and the losers are supposed to be on the same team?" In other words, how is America going to survive a political divide that has split the country in two and seems hopelessly unbridgeable?
The next comes in the middle, after Dre's co-workers have been arguing about who to blame for Donald Trump's election instead of working. All of them except Lucy (Catherine Reitman) voted for Hillary Clinton, and everyone is mad at some other group -- black people, white women -- for allowing this to happen. Dre is silent until Leslie (Peter Mackenzie), his #NeverTrump Republican boss, asks him "why do you not care about what's happening to our country?"
Dre launches into a monologue about how he loves this country, even though as a black man this country doesn't love him back.
"You think I'm not sad that Hillary didn't win?" he says. "That I'm not terrified about what Trump's about to do? I'm used to things not going my way. I'm sorry that you're not and it's blowing your mind, so excuse me if I get a little offended because I didn't see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains. I love this country. As much if not more than you do. And don't you ever forget that."
It's an emotionally complicated monologue, and Anderson delivers it with stunning conviction. The room is silent. If you watched it, I'll bet you were silent, too. The monologue is rousing and demoralizing at the same time. It makes being black sound Sisyphean. It contextualizes our current predicament as one that's been going on since America began and may not ever be solved.
After this blowout, there are two scenes that reintroduce hope. One where Zoey (Yara Shahidi) tells a despairing Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) that "our values don't disappear just because our side lost one election. And in the next one, me and my friends will be voting. We're gonna pick up right where you left off." In the other, Dre is back at work apologizing for blowing up and saying that the only way to move forward now is to have empathetic conversations with people you don't agree with, because otherwise the divide will keep getting worse.
The final speech comes at the end, in voiceover, as Dre reflects on his family, who have all been dealing in their own way.
"I've been lucky enough to raise four beautiful children in a world that showed them Jay Z and Beyoncé as king and queen, a black family in the White House, and a woman run and almost win the presidency of the United States," he says. "So if you ask me if I love America, the answer is yes. Warts and all. Can it be better? I hope so. And I hope that we as a people have it in us to come together and make lemonade out of our lemons."
This "can't we all get along?" take would feel trite, even insulting in lesser hands. Because we can't get along. Donald Trump has made it clear that he will show no mercy to the so-called losers who voted for Hillary Clinton. Dave Chappelle's plea to "give Trump a chance" on SNL the week of the election was wrong. Black-ish knows this. This episode is not really a plea for people on either side of the aisle to come together; conservatives won't hear it because they aren't watching Black-ish. Trump once called the show "the height of racism." It's actually a call for people to the left of center to put aside their differences and unite to resist Trump, because things are only going to get worse once he's president and this is no time for infighting and finger-pointing.
The optimistic, big-hearted but clear-eyed way that it comes to this is what makes this episode special. Black-ish believes that love can trump hate. It's happy to meet its opponents halfway, if they'll give it the same respect. It continues to have hope in all of us, admitting we're down, but not out.
The episode echoes the themes of the farewell speech that Barack Obama gave the night before it aired, where he said, "I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change - but in yours." In fact, it's sort of eerie how perfectly in sync they are, since the episode was finished before Obama said goodbye. That speech and this episode are totems to carry into the struggle to come.
Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30/8:30c on ABC.