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TV’s ‘black-ish’ ends eight-season run with legacy, fans secure

Lynn Elber

LOS ANGELES (AP) – A surprise awaited black-ish creator Kenya Barris and his family on a 2016 visit to the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington: An exhibit on the TV series was on display.

“I was very, very emotional” at seeing the honour, Barris said. He returned to the Smithsonian museum earlier this month for a splashy salute to black-ish as the end of its eight-season run approached.

“It was just surreal. The Smithsonian, as a brand, is tied to things that are lasting, that are part of what the core DNA of this world is. To put our show in that, it meant a lot to me,” he said.

Sitcoms, especially family-centric ones, are more likely to be enshrined in viewers’ memories than museums. Shows such as The Brady Bunch,Good Times and Full House were part of their viewers’ coming of age, with the shows and their characters beloved well beyond their original runs. Talk to admirers of black-ish and the same seems probable for the series, followed by ABC News’ black-ish: A Celebration on ABC. The series was a network TV rarity: A depiction of a prosperous, tight-knit family of colour, the Johnsons, with Black creators shaping their stories.

“I remember when it first came out, I was concerned that it was going to be either serious and off-putting, or really sad and comical,” drawing on stereotypical characters that may or may not exist in life, said viewer Onaje Harper. The pandemic turned him into a binge-viewing convert, one who swats away online carping that the show isn’t “real.”

Cast of ‘black-ish’. PHOTO: AP

“It’s not real to them, but this is my everyday,” said Harper, an educator-turned-businessman in Dallas who is the grandson and son of Black professionals. He remembers feeling the same way about criticism of The Cosby Show, a 20th-Century TV depiction of a well-off African American family.

But black-ish has a distinctly more layered view of race, starting with the title that reflects dad Andre “Dre” Johnson’s fear that affluence is separating his children from their ethnic identity. It also has a sharper take on race relations, Harper said.

He cited an episode in which Dr Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, is being a supportive parent and volunteers for a private school fundraiser. One of the white parents offers her help, which the show reimagines as code for, “I think you’re going to fail and you’re over your head,” as Harper recalled the scene.

“I died laughing, because the parents at my daughter’s school are amazing, but we often leave that place thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, I hope our daughter’s loving it, at least,” Harper said.

Jerry McCormick grew up watching Bob Newhart’s sitcoms and Good Times in the 1970s and ‘80s, among others. He compared black-ish to another comedy of the time.

“We never saw affluent Black people on TV, except for The Jeffersons,” said McCormick of San Diego, who works in communications and as a journalism instructor. “I grew up in South Carolina and it helped having it on because it was aspirational.” He sees black-ish as akin to “the grandchild of The Jeffersons’ and the child of ‘the Cosby Show.’ You have Dre and Bow, a couple who truly care about each other. They parent their children. They run the house. The children are not overtaking them.”

Ladinia Brown, a New York City fraud investigator, said she loves “the reality of it. The stuff is funny because a lot of is is just so true.” She cited a favourite episode that tackled colourism – discrimination within an ethnic community against those with darker skin.

“That resonated with me because my kids are like different colours of the rainbow, all different complexions, and the same thing with my family,” she said. “I really understood when they were addressing how people are treated differently within the African American race.”

Her daughter, 19-year-old Emily Johnson, welcomed the show’s handling of issues, major and mundane, that are part of Black life but largely ignored on screen.