When Kenya Barris revealed that part of his reasoning for signing a whopper development deal with Netflix was his frustration over ABC shelving a Season 4 episode of black-ish, intrigue around the lost episode that was pulled from the schedule days before it was set to air in Feb. 2018 grew exponentially. The Emmy-nominated sitcom had already tackled the n-word, police brutality, and Juneteenth by the time the episode was set to air; what could possibly be so triggering in the episode that it could be yanked so far into the production process?
On Monday, viewers got to find out for themselves when Disney-owned Hulu (and a new slate of ABC executives) put the episode -- listed as Season 4, Episode 99, "Please, Baby, Please" -- up on the streaming service. The episode centered on Dre (Anthony Anderson) trying to explain the world as it was in that moment to his infant son in an effort to calm the tot back to sleep. Every time he gets close to getting Devante back to sleep, another family member interrupts, prompting another debate about the world at large. Dre's various conversations tackle white nationalism, government corruption, NFL protests, and climate change.
Watching the episode in 2020, amidst a global pandemic as protests to defund the police rage on in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it's hard to see how the points raised in the episode could ruffle the feathers of ABC executives so much that they'd shelve the episode. But if the societal changes during Trump's first year in office caused Dre and his family anxiety, it's hard to imagine how he'd explain impeachment hearings, COVID-19, and the current tense social climate to baby Devante now. The public landscape has shifted so much, it's nearly impossible to get back into a 2018 mindset when kneeling at a football game seemed truly sensational. The most controversial part of the episode in this jaded 2020 light is a slight dig at Ellen DeGeneres getting the Medal of Freedom, which only raises eyebrows due to the talk show host's most recent public debacle.
Would Trump have some choice tweets about "The Shady King" sequence, where he's painted as a narcissistic oligarch in direct comparison to Obama's "Prince Barry"? Yes, but Trump has never been the intended audience for the show. The point of Dre's story is to shed light on the fears of Black and Brown people in America at that uncertain time -- fears that have only been proven valid in 2020. Even so, when Dre is later discussing the Charlottesville protests with Pops (Laurence Fishburne), he defends the right of white people to have pride in their own race even if he's nervous about how brazen white supremacy had become with Trump in the Oval Office. He presents a fair argument that no one should be able to dictate to another group of people whether they get to have pride in themselves. He mentions that Black people are so proud they even have a song about it, referencing James Brown's "Say It Loud -- I"m Black and I'm Proud." Pops counters that James Brown didn't write that anthemic tune because he was feeling cute, but because Black people were exhausted by the fight for civil rights as the Vietnam War raged on. The song was a call to action, a message to the oppressed so they would know they are not alone. The context is everything.
The NFL protests led by Colin Kaepernick get the same even-handed treatment as Junior (Marcus Scribner) agonizes over his school's new policy to suspend any student who kneels at a school football game. Dre points out that Kaepernick is far from the first black athlete to use their platform to advocate for social change. Muhammad Ali, tennis pro Arthur Ashe, and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos all made huge sacrifices to stand up for what they believe in and fight for justice for Black people in America. Junior admitted that even if he isn't sure that kneeling was the way to go about protesting (what if he knew the NFL has since completely reversed its opinion on kneeling during games?), but concedes that students have a right to peacefully protest their beliefs however they want, and as student body president it is his job to represent and support them.
Both the Pops and Junior conversations, and the episode as a whole, exemplifies what black-ish does so well -- provide context and multiple sides of any given argument. The show never fully settles on a right or wrong party when it comes to the serious topics it decides to tackle, leaving the door open for families at home to continue the conversations for themselves. Perhaps, if you're a white viewer, the show provides a perspective you weren't able to access because it's not your American experience, but it's never presented in a condescending way. "Please, Baby, Please," ends with Dre looking fondly at his family, who have all found their way to his king sized bed to sleep, and saying that even if the state of the world has him worried, he's hopeful that the next generation will fight to make it right. As anxiety inducing and stressful as the topics covered within the episode are, the ending message is still one of hope and unity.
Considering that black-ish has always been lauded for its ability to shed light and tell the truth in difficult conversations, it's so difficult to pinpoint what the executives in 2018 felt was so abrasive that the episode couldn't air in light of everything that has happened since. The actually alarming thing about the episode in this three-years-later context is how many warning signs there were back then about where we are now, and perhaps if the episode had been allowed to air, black-ish could have helped spur more people to do something about it before we got here.
"Please, Baby, Please" and the rest of black-ish is now streaming on Hulu.