“With Police Brutality Episode, ‘black-ish’ Shows How Sitcoms Can Still Matter”

“For “black-ish,” its characters and its audience, it was finally time to have The Talk.

Within the show, The Talk was the conversation that African-American parents have with children about the realities of police brutality against black citizens. Between the show and its audience, however, The Talk was the acknowledgment that “black-ish” is about a family in which that conversation was eventually going to happen.

Wednesday’s remarkable episode, “Hope,” pulled off both about as well as you could imagine: It was funny but heartbreaking, nuanced but not mealy-mouthed, blunt but not despairing. It firmly established “black-ish,” if there was any doubt, as a sitcom that’s not just timely but up to the challenge of its times.

The action in “Hope” started as a lot of topical sitcom episodes do, with a family watching the news on TV. The story was about a young black man brutalized by the police on video, with an indictment decision pending — but which one? The episode made the confusion part of the joke: Was it Chicago? Cincinnati? Charleston? Who can keep track? (Watching the episode, I had to Google whether the case — with familiar scenes of protest and coverage from CNN’s Don Lemon — was fictional.)

We’ve lived this scene many times, after all, since “black-ish” began in September 2014, a month after unrest broke out over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. On the one hand, its timing was perfect: Here was a sitcom that was not only about a black family but asked what it means to be black today.

On the other hand, the premise of the pilot — Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) wrestles with how to instill racial consciousness in his kids, who he worries are growing up with an attitude that is too-postracial — already seemed almost quaint. The story lines in the first season of this ABC sitcom were smart about the particular dynamics of an upscale black family’s experience, but relatively small-scale.

The second season upped the ante, right from the premiere, “The Word,” a blistering and hilarious breakdown of a racial epithet and the customs around it. Even before this week, it had referenced police issues, as when Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), in a recent episode, urged Andre to call the cops, “but before you do, make sure they know a black man owns this house…”



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