Comedies with an actual point of view are as rare as they are welcome — especially in a fall awash in mediocre new cookie-cutter romantic comedies. Even in a better season, ABC's provocative and very funny Black-ish (9:30/8:30c) would stand out for its broad and biting satire of an uneasily post racial society seen through a very modern-family prism. (It's also about time ABC scheduled a smart family comedy after its multiple-Emmy-winning champ Modern Family.)
Anthony Anderson (a co-executive producer) stars as successful ad exec and family man Andre "Dre" Johnson, who's living the American dream — as he tells us in an incessant voice-over that the show needs to tone down in future episodes — but as often happens in these scenarios, the dream isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Not when it comes at the expense of one's own cultural and racial identity. His spoiled kids are so oblivious to their roots and to race in general that they've become basically color-blind, which in Dre's mind translates to not being black enough. Case in point: His namesake son (a very good Marcus Scribner) is trying out for field hockey — hardly dad's sport of choice — and asks for a bar mitzvah on his 13th birthday. It's bad enough his friends call him "Andy" instead of "Dre," but when Junior suggests adopting a Hebrew name, it's time for an emergency family meeting.
And what a family. In addition to the gregarious Anderson, the terrific cast includes Tracee Ellis Ross as his mixed-race wife, Rainbow, an accomplished doctor who's never afraid to tell Dre when he's pushing too hard; and Laurence Fishburne a delight as Dre's curmudgeonly "Pops," who's suffering his full-of-himself son and fractious offspring with wry and detached amusement. But even Pops makes a fuss when baked fried chicken is served for dinner.
Dre's anxiety over "keeping it real" extends to his mostly white workplace, where his pride over "breaking down barriers" is tainted with tokenism when a long-awaited promotion turns out to be ghettoized to a new "urban division." Or, as Dre sees it: "Did they just put me in charge of black stuff?" Black-ish has the tart, timely tang of Norman Lear's classic '70s comedies (All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, etc.), which felt rooted in a specific time with something significant to say. And there's plenty that's universal in Dre's desire to provide a better life for his family without allowing them to lose sight of what their accomplishments mean.
If Black-ish is the hit it deserves to be, it would also be an important achievement for network TV in general, which is embracing diversity in very positive ways this season (with Latino families the focus of the upcoming Jane the Virgin and Cristela, to name a few examples).
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An even bolder strain of racially barbed social satire is the hallmark of Comedy Central's Key & Peele, which returns for a fourth season (10:30/9:30c) with its finely tuned sketch-comedy sensibilities in top form. One elaborately produced bit finds Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as alien hunters with a special way of deducing who's human and who's just wearing the skin as a disguise. (This show has a way of getting under one's skin, in all the best ways.) But the standout sketch casts Key as a gay man growing increasingly exasperated as he tries to give advice to a family that's about to go to its first same-sex wedding. "So there's no gay hymns in the ceremony?" an old man grumbles, when told Over the Rainbow and It's Raining Men aren't on the church's playlist. Try topping that this weekend, Saturday Night Live.
THE YEAR OF WOO!: This season, ABC has assembled a very strong lineup of family comedies in a two-hour Wednesday block, and as usual, it gets off to a great start with the eternally underappreciated The Middle (8/7c), where the transition from summer to fall is unusually hectic — or should I say Heck-tic? — when Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton) realizes to her horror that the first week of school just happened without them. This is especially bad news for Poor Sue Heck (the sublime Eden Sher), who had dubbed her senior year in high school "The Year of Sue," and the latest setback has even this preternaturally upbeat teen in the dumps. "The year of Sue is ruined!" she mopes — although things start looking up when she pays her quarterly visit to the orthodontist (Richard Kind), and with mom's help, insists the braces come off after an eight-year ordeal. "Sue Heck needs a win!" she cries. And we agree, although nothing comes easy for this family. Gotta love a show where the harried mom turns to her weird little son to remind him: "How long have you been my kid, Brick? You should know when I say 'fine,' I'm not paying attention." Attention must be paid to this gem of a family sitcom.
THE WEDNESDAY GUIDE: Also of note on this busy hump night of Premiere Week: For reality fans, CBS starts the 29th edition of the pioneering Survivor with a 90-minute opener (8/7c), introducing contestants to a revival of the "Blood vs. Water" gimmick, followed by the live 90-minute conclusion to Big Brother (9:30/8:30c). ... Also going live, with special performances performed first for East Coast then for West Coast viewers, is ABC's addictive musical soap Nashville (10/9c). Series regulars Chris Carmack and Charles Esten will perform live solos, and Florida Georgia Line will also sing live, in between all of the regular drama (during which we expect to learn whose marriage proposal Rayna accepted: Will's or Deacon's). ... The Coma Boy is more talkative than ever — platitude of the week: "Sometimes the longest mile is the one you walk alone" — in a disappointing second episode of Fox's Red Band Society (9/8c), which introduces an even worse notion than the voice-over narration: cheerleader bitch Kara's name-dropping "power lesbian moms," as obnoxious a stereotype as that sounds. The primary storyline of Jordi's surgery is appropriately dramatic, although his buddy Leo's boozy detour to the Frat House Next Door (?) is unworthy of an Afterschool Special. ... What's in a name? Comedy Central's South Park is back for an 18th season (10/9c), taking on one of the most notorious trademarks in pro sports, as the irrepressible (and possibly irredeemable) Cartman names his new company The Washington Redskins. Nothing good can come from this. But something funny? Very likely.