January marks the eighth and final season of the groundbreaking sitcom Black-ish, which tells the story of Dre (Anthony Anderson), Dr. Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) and their family. Anderson’s character has come a long way: As Dre says on the show, when he started at his ad agency Stevens and Lido in the first episode, “There was no such thing as Facebook; Tom Brady hadn’t won a Super Bowl; and Eddie Griffin was a movie star.” Since then, Dre was promoted to senior vice president “of the urban division,” and he’s still, to quote the theme song of another landmark show, moving on up.
The “Hollywood HBCU”
The show itself has helped plenty of others to move up in Hollywood. Writer Peter Saji has said that the Black-ish writer’s room was his “Hollywood HBCU” — the TV equivalent of historically black colleges and universities, a great incubator of talents who change the world.
Start with the spinoffs alone: Grown-ish, which follows oldest daughter Zoey to college, and Mixed-ish, which focuses on Rainbow Johnson’s growing up biracial. (A Laurence Fishburne spinoff, Old-ish, was announced, but didn’t make it to screen.) The true significance of all the ish shows is how they persistently acknowledge the richly hued areas of Black life American-style.
Telling truly funny – and real – stories
Black-ish showrunner Courtney Lilly spent time in the writers’ room of a different groundbreaking sitcom, Arrested Development, and knows the special sauce. One of the problems of too many sitcoms, he says, was that the writers “were telling stories to be funny instead of telling stories that were funny. You’d sit there and go ‘It’d be funny if…’ instead of saying, ‘This is something I felt,’ and then you tell the story – and it is funny.’” Black-ish is also spot-on, and sometimes heartbreaking. Creator Kenya Barris had a storehouse of personal stories to feed his semi-autobiographical sitcom’s writers — and then there was the roiling world beyond the well-appointed walls of the Johnson’s home.
“I love what Kenya did with the ‘Hope’ episode,” says Lilly. That second season gem finds the whole Johnson family, including Dre’s mom and dad, watching cable news as a verdict in a police shooting is about to be announced. There is a spirited exchange of thoughts about the history of police encounters with Black folks, with diverging points of view. All the while Rainbow is trying to protect the young twins from the crushing weight of that story.
“I think that opened up a lot for us. It allowed us to pivot and change who we were as a show,” Lilly says. “We’d earned it with a season and a half of really well-observed comedy, to do something that was both funny and showed that we are capable of being more serious, especially about a serious topic.” It will be wild to see how Black-ish tackles the serious and the hilarious in its swan song. When it’s all over, we’ll all feel a sentiment voiced by Boyz II Men on the Black-ish soundtrack: “It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.”
Lisa Kennedy, a regular AARP film critic, is a former Village Voice editor (1986-96) and Denver Post film critic (2003-15) who writes on popular culture, race and gender for Variety, The New York Times, Essence, American Theatre, the Denver Post, and others.