Last night’s episode of black-ish “Hope” was a weird viewing experience. It was simultaneously the most and least like itself. And that led to both some of the best moments of the season, but unfortunately some of the blandest.
We should get the bad of the episode out of the way. For starters, it was uncharacteristically unfunny. And not unfunny in a “this is too serious of a topic to joke about way.” There were moments of attempted and failed humor (the running Chipotle gag) which really only served to underscore the importance of the topic. The same can be said for the bottle episode setting. All of the action (except for a couple of flashbacks) took place in the Johnson’s living room, centering around the family arguing/ discussing police brutality, the Black Lives Matter protests, what information to give to the youngest kids, etc. Overall it felt like the showrunners — worried that they were creating a Very Important Episode — tried to reassure us that this was just like an other episode of black-ish and it backfired completely.
I would have much preferred if they’d abandoned any pretense that this wasn’t a very special episode, because it was. They couldn’t cover the topics the way that they wanted to within the show’s usual format. Which is fine. Blow up the format for a night. It was clunky and weird to have Dre Jr try to casually name drop Ta-Nehisi Coates into the conversation. So don’t have him name drop. Bow and Dre have drastically different experiences with and therefore opinions of the police. Don’t cover that with PF Chang side jokes. Ruby has lived through riots before. I get that she’s usually comic relief, but have her talk about those riots. And not in a way that uses government cheese. There were just too many elements that were clearly contrived, but were forced into “organic” trappings. The fact that we weren’t allowed to acknowledge the pretense just made parts of the episode uncomfortable.
Now, I know that sounds like a lot of bad, but it’s only to highlight how great the show was when it got out of its own way. Jr. had to try to casually reference Coates, but that led to Dre referencing Malcolm X and Pops talking about James Baldwin. Which led to an outburst from Dre about kids dying in the streets, which renewed the argument with Bow about how much information Jack and Diane should have about police brutality. All within like 90 seconds. It’s not just an incredibly impressive amount of information to pack into such a small segment, it’s also how conversations happen in real life.
Which is also why for all of its failings, this might have been the best episode of black-ish, so far. In addition to being (at least to the best of my knowledge) the only network show to address the Black Lives Matter protests, it’s taken all of the elements that have been discussed in earlier episodes and weaved them into this conversation. The generational differences between Pops and Dre, how class differences impacted Bow and Dre’s lives, whether it’s more important to be optimistic or realistic, when protecting yourself and your family becomes sheltering. “Intersectionality” has become a bad word in some areas of the Internet, but this show was like a goddamn seminar in it.
And honestly, if you’ve never watched an episode of black-ish and have no interest in doing so, at least watch “Hope” for the scene between Dre and Bow about Obama’s inauguration. If there’s been a more gut-wrenchingly honest scene on TV recently, I haven’t seen it. And it’s those moments that make what I wrote about the opening episode much more true for “Hope.”
It sounds astonishingly simple, but the show excels based on their ability to show real characters with complex emotions really discussing underrepresented topics.
Thank you for doing what you do, black-ish. No one else could.