The first thing you notice when watching Black-ish is how cute everything and everyone is. The voiceovers are cute. The kids are cute. Anthony Anderson ("Andre") and Tracee Ellis Ross ("Rainbow") are cute. Laurence Fishburne's cuddly non-cuddlyness is cute. The interactions they all have with the kids are cute. The house is cute. The asides and jokes — clear shout-outs to the type of Black person who says things like "I thought I was the only Black person who likes quiche!" — are cute. Anderson's straight-off-an EBONY Magazine photo shoot blazer and jeans combinations are cute. It's even cute that they've gray-bearded Fishburne to make us forget he's only a decade older than both Anderson and Ellis Ross.
Black-ish's cuteness is not unique. Its lead in, and the show it draws the most aesthetic and creative similarities to, Modern Family, mines the kitsch in progressive upper-middle class cuteness, and Black-ish does the same for the Bougie Black family. It's not unique to recent Black sitcoms either. It's called Black-ish, but it could very easily be called Everyone Hates My Wife And Kids After Dad Got A Promotion. What has been marketed and reviewed as subversive and politically incorrect looks and feels like a 26-minute-long IKEA spot that would air during the NBA All-Star Game.
That said, I do think Black-ish is a good show, and I do enjoy watching it. Yes, the cuteness is a bit too conspicuous and pervasive, but it works because it's also actually funny. In the first two episodes, there have been multiple smile and chuckle moments and one true rolling on the floor laughing my ass off sequence — the immediate reaction both Anderson and Marcus Scribner ("Andy") have when Andy's caught masturbating — which is what you expect from a good sitcom. Several smiles, a couple actual laughs, and a want to repeat the process again in a week. It's not Chappelle or even Key & Peele, but it's unfair to expect it to be.
I wonder, though, if the producers made a mistake in making Anderson the center of the show instead of Ellis Ross. I've always liked him, and he doesn't not work in this role, but Tracee Ellis Ross just feels like more of a natural comedic fulcrum. She is an extremely gifted comedic actress whose expressiveness can bounce between manic and motherly in the same frame, and her wit and sense of timing would be better served helming this ship instead of riding shotgun. Also, if we're going to go full real Black life here, in the typical upper-middle class Bougie Black family, it's the woman who tends to be the one most concerned about losing the family's cultural identity, not the man. The real-life Andre would have been coaching Andy's field hockey team while the real-life Rainbow would be taking "Zoey" (Yara Shahidi) to natural hair conferences every weekend. I'm splitting hairs here, but if you want actual politically incorrect correctness, there it is.
This leads me to a question I've asked myself while watching each of the episodes and reading the reactions to them: Am I watching the same show those disturbed by the racial humor have been?
Clearly, the answer is no, I am not. There is a certain type of Black person who was immediately off-put by the title of the show. This type of Black person might not know exactly why they're off-put by the title, but something about Black-ish just rubs them the wrong way. These are not bad people. But they are people who just don't think Blackness should be mined for humor. Especially not in front of White people. So a prime-time network show with a Black-related pun as the title is going to be disturbing.
And I get it. There is a delicate balance between finding jokes in Blackness (good) and making Blackness the joke (bad), and the history behind why that balance is so delicate doesn't need to be articulated. I understand why some Black people would prefer it wasn't even attempted. This feeling also provides a context for why some people (and by "people" I mean "White people") think Black-ish is so edgy. When reading these reviews and critiques of the show, I have to remind myself that the type of racial humor that's old hat, mundane even, to me and people who share my racial sensibilities, is controversial to Black people who don't operate in that space and White people unaware that space exists.
Perhaps this does make Black-ish controversial. After all, what is or isn't controversial is decided by the larger consensus, not the people who've made a permanent home on Black-ish island. It's just funny to see the conversations everyone reading this has had at happy hour or in their living rooms or on VSB considered to be provocative.
Actually, it's not just funny. It's cute.