TV comedy Black-ish proves it’s not all black and white

In television’s new ‘post-racial’ Obama society, Fox’s hit comedy Black-ish pokes fun at a black family’s issues of wealth and class and boldly asks how much assimilation is too much?

From left, Marsai Martin, Marcus Scribner, Yara Shahidi, Anthony Anderson, Miles Brown and Tracee Ellis Ross make up the Johnson family in Black-ish. Courtesy ABC
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Ish? What on earth is an “ish”?

One might rightly think that a suffix that heaps imprecision onto a word’s meaning would be a pox on the language.

Yet many English speakers feel the need to blur punctuality (noon-ish) and fudge opinions and commitments with “-ish” – which indicates an inexact, approximate quantity, as well as other nuances of obfuscation.

But when you tack it onto "black", you get Black-ish – one of the top-rated new comedies in the United States. It has become a bona fide hit for ABC, as networks attempt to tap into a new formula for success – broadcasting television shows created by and starring minorities during prime time.

Rival network Fox's mega-hit in this new vein, the soapy hip-hop drama Empire, has also defied ratings gravity as the only prime-time scripted series since at least 1991 to grow in total viewership over each of its first five episodes.

Black-ish stars Anthony Anderson, also the show's executive producer, as Andre "Dre" Johnson Sr, an African-American advertising executive with a gorgeous mixed-race, liberal-minded doctor wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), four colour-blind assimilated children and a colonial home in the 'burbs.

But he’s hardly the type of self-made man who wants to live an “ish” sort of life, an off-balance existence with neither anchor nor compass.

So Dre worries and wonders: has my success brought too much assimilation for my black family? With a little help from his old-school dad, Pops (Laurence Fishburne), Dre sets out to create a sense of cultural connection and ethnic identity for his family that honours their past as they embrace their future.

“At heart it’s a family show,” says creator and producer Kenya Barris, “about a father who feels he has maybe given his kids too much and, in the process, that they’ve lost some of their heritage. The show is about a black family – not about a family that happens to be black – and has much less to do with race than culture.”

In the first episode, on OSN this Thursday, an “ishy” dilemma erupts from the get-go as Dre hopes for a promotion that would make him the first African-American senior vice president at his firm – but worries there’s a price to pay for his success when his nerdy son Andre Jr (Marcus Scribner) announces that for his 13th birthday he’d like to convert to Judaism so he can throw a bar mitzvah party like all of his friends.

The show's deft touch in poking fun at cultural, racial and generational nuances was celebrated on Friday at the NAACP Image Awards when Black-ish was named Outstanding Comedy Series. The best actor and actress awards went to Anderson and Ross, while best supporting actor and actress awards went to Fishburne and Yara Shahidi (who plays Zoe, Dre's 15-year-old daughter).

Fishburne, who also produces Black-ish and plies the grimmer side of his acting craft on the crime drama Hannibal, recently told Deadline Hollywood: "Here's the thing about our title. Our title is a little bit of a wink. It's a bit of a joke because, ultimately, if you live in America and you've been in America, let's say, for the last 10, 15, 20 years, you're probably a little black-ish anyway."

Anderson says in Variety's Broken Hollywood feature: "It feels empowering to be successful." In the story which was published on January 28, he says: "There's a sense of responsibility to do the best that I can with our show, to help usher in the next crop of minority writers and producers, to bring them along on this ride, to show them how this train works.

“I never wanted to be just an actor. I’ve been preaching about ownership and intellectual property because that’s where the real power is – the power to dictate what you want to do, and how you want to do it.”

Black-ish is broadcast at 8pm on Thursday on OSN First Comedy HD