The surprising success of “Empire” and “black-ish,” combined with the ongoing popularity of “Scandal,” might suggest that television has once again discovered the African-American.
There are, of course, plenty of black characters on TV, but few shows that focus on the black experience. This absence of African-American-themed shows is a surprising trend given that there were plenty of shows about black characters in the (presumably less-enlightened) past, including such hits as “The Cosby Show,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Jeffersons,” and “In Living Color.”
The introduction of two African-American shows in one year may seem like a trend, but they have almost nothing in common other than skin pigment. “Empire” is an updated version of those ‘80s prime-time soap operas “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” And the antecedents for “black-ish” are not “The Cosby Show,” to which it is often compared, but its lead-in on ABC, “Modern Family.”
“Modern Family” and “black-ish” are both sharp single-camera comedies about affluent, upper-class families in L.A. whose characters aggressively use wit to comment on and expose the foibles of their kids, parents or siblings. In both shows there’s a lot of family conflict, but unlike edgier comedies such as “Girls” or “Louie,” no real pain, no unforgivable wisecracks, and no estrangement. In other words, these are families that you’d love to be part of, where everyone – no matter how different in temperament or values – loves and appreciates each other.
“Modern Family” and black-ish” also have this in common: They acknowledge, play with, and ultimately subvert stereotypes. In “Modern Family,” these stereotypes include the hot Latin trophy wife Gloria and the very gay couple Mitchell and Cam. These characters embody all the clichés of their archetypes: Gloria’s accent is heavier than Ricky Ricardo’s and Cam’s addiction to fashion, design, and catty remarks could have come right out of “La Cage aux Folles.”
“black-ish” is very upfront about the stereotypes it wants to confront. The paterfamilias Andre Johnson, or “Dre,” is a classic sitcom dad except he’s concerned about the cultural assimilation of his family. In his mind they aren’t black enough – they’re “black-ish” – and a major theme of the show is his attempt to get them to remain true their black identity.
Just as “Modern Family” was so non-transgressive that it could be the favorite show of Mitt Romney, so too is “black-ish” so race-neutral that it could plausibly be the favorite show of Rush Limbaugh. Even more so than the Huxtables, the Johnsons are living the good life in a nearly race-blind America. It’s an America that the Ferguson protestors would not recognize.
Dre is a moderately successful advertising executive in a predominately white firm. His white colleagues are doofuses who make politically incorrect comments that in some firms would earn them a visit to the HR department. But it’s clear that these remarks are based on obtuseness, not animus or racial hatred. And besides, Dre’s no angel himself, siding with the other guys in making politically incorrect remarks about the women in the office. Everyone is a mild equal opportunity offender.
Dre’s wife is a biracial anesthesiologist (which leads to a jaw-dropping joke I never thought I’d see on national TV: On MLK Day, she sniffed at the “Doctor” in Dr. King, noting, “If you were to have a heart attack, he would give a great speech and I would keep you alive. I just don’t understand why we’re called the same thing.”) The fact that she has a white father is the cause of conflict with Dre’s more militant parents.
Although race is one preoccupation on “black-ish,” it’s not the only one. It’s primarily a family sitcom in which the dad does crazy things, the kids crack wise, and mom eventually blows her stack. The ethos of the show is that race matters, just as sexual orientation matters on “Modern Family,” but not all that much. You can see the progress in attitudes through the generations. Dre’s parents are extremely race-conscious and suspicious of whites. Dre himself experiences his race as one of several personal identifiers; and his kids barely acknowledge themselves as racial at all. In fact, a whole episode is built around his son’s inexperience with racial prejudice and Dre’s attempt to toughen him up.
Despite the best efforts of “black-ish” though, race does still matter, at least with the TV audience. Despite being so similar, “Modern Family” and “black-ish” have vastly different audiences. According to Nielsen, African-Americans watch “black-ish” at almost twice the rates as whites (with a persons rating of 5.8 for blacks vs. 3.4 for whites), while whites watch “Modern Family” at almost twice the rate as blacks (with a persons rating of 6.1 for whites vs. 3.0 for blacks). This is remarkable, considering that “Modern Family” is the lead-in for “black-ish.” That’s a lot of switching channels between shows.
It’s too bad that more whites don’t watch “black-ish.” There aren’t enough really good sitcoms on TV and each one needs a bigger audience. But more important, it’s a sad commentary that the TV audience is actually more racially polarized than it was when “The Jeffersons” and “The Cosby Show” ruled the airwaves. Where’s the progress?