Oh, thank the sweet, merciful Entertainment Gods, TV is back! And unlike some really disappointing premieres, season 2 of black-ish started with what might be the strongest episode since last season’s “Crime and Punishment” aka the spanking episode.
And like “Crime and Punishment,” last night’s “The Word” dealt with how Dre and Bow deciding how to parent Jack. This time instead of spanking and its racially-charged history, the Johnson’s had to tackle the N-word and its racially-charged history. Or more accurately, its history.
And at this point, I could talk about the ways in which black-ish manages to be hysterical and socially relevant, but that’s been the show’s hallmark since day one. What was actually delightfully surprising in “The Word” was its blatant disregard for its white audience — an audience which makes up the majority of its viewers. black-ish at 24 percent does have a sizable black audience. But, according to CNN, it’s nowhere near Empire (61%), Scandal (37%) or How to Get Away With Murder (32%).
Three quarters of black-ish’s audience is white, and the reasons as to why we can’t use the N-word are never addressed. We just can’t. Period. And in whatever ways we find acceptable usage of other unacceptable racial terms (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United Negro College Fund), the N-word has no acceptable usages and that fact requires no explanation. This is not our teachable moment.
This is instead a conversation being had by three generations of black people which we, the white audience, are privy to. Is the N-word a term of self-hate? (Very possibly.) Is it a reclaimed term of endearment? (Also very likely.) Is it now a term that’s been so stripped of its original meaning that anyone can use it in its reclaimed term? (Nope.) Should it be used in “mixed company”? (Definitely nope.) The show very clearly establishes that there are very few hard and fast rules (other than the fact that white people cannot use it), and that even individuals who like using the N-word have a complicated relationship with its usage. Even deciding which Latino groups get to use it is more about gut feeling than articulable standards (Big Pun and Fat Joe, yes. Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin, no.)
The fact that the comedy is found not in teaching white people about racism but by acknowledging the complexities of the black community is what makes black-ish the best comedy on TV right now. (Yeah, I said it. Suck it, Veep. (I didn’t mean that, Veep. I love you.)) It sounds astonishingly simple, but the show excels based on their ability to show real characters with complex emotions really discussing underrepresented topics. When you can do that and be funny, you can really say just about anything you want.