"Keeping Up With the Johnsons" is a terrific episode, and not just because it's funny. The humor is definitely there, but it's surpassed by the realest, most honest writing we've seen so far in Black-ish's sophomore season.
The episode begins with a history of black consumerism: After 400 years of unpaid labor, Dre explains, the first thing black people want to do is spend their paychecks. As we see stereotypical images of black men and boys with expensive clothes, jewelry, and cars, Dre admits, "Everyone wants to have [money], but no one wants to talk about it."
This money problem certainly affects the Johnson household. Bow begins to wonder if they're being too careless with their spending, and encourages Dre to take a more proactive role in their financial management. She insists that he stop listening to the horrible advice of their accountant, James Brown (John Witherspoon). They have a deal, though: Dre handles the finances, and Bow handles all the kid stuff.
Once again, we're seeing how gender roles affect the relationship between Bow and Dre. He's the husband, so he takes care of all the finances. Bow is the wife, who's expected to deal with parental issues. Black-ish is a refreshing look at a contemporary black family, but in many ways, Dre and Bow are still old-fashioned parents. In this regard, the show is quite similar to its network mate, Modern Family.
On Modern Family, Claire Dunphy and Gloria Pritchett are stay-at-home mothers, while their husbands, Phil and Jay, act as the breadwinners. Bow is a doctor and works outside of the Johnson home, of course, but all three women lean on their husbands to handle larger financial responsibilities. The wives are expected to raise the children. Bow, Claire, and Gloria have very different personalities, but they're all strong-willed and unafraid to speak their minds. (If we went through ABC's slate of family sitcoms, I wonder if this pattern would hold. How do gender roles shape out for heterosexual couples on other shows? I'd be interested to find out.)
Back to Black-ish. Dre and Bow both visibly sweat at the prospect of swapping responsibilities, so they agree to go on a money diet. Dre won't buy any more expensive tennis shoes; Bow will cut back on her organic beauty products. At one point, Dre calls Bow out on her "weird" issues with money, and we finally get a flashback to her childhood. A young Bow asks her mother what money is. Her mother replies, "An artificial masculine construct that fosters hostility and war and builds a wall between you and love."
No wonder Bow doesn't want to talk about money.
Dre goes to work in normcore clothes and shoes. When Mr. Stevens and Josh point out how they never see Dre or Curtis wear the same outfit twice, Dre tries to give them a cultural lesson. He explains that black people have to dress for the jobs they want, while white people can wear whatever they want and still get hired. Mr. Stevens, calling upon his HR training, declares that he'll listen without speaking. He's waiting for the moment Dre connects wardrobe to slavery. It's probably time for Mr. Stevens to take a refresher course in diversity and inclusion.
Back home, Bow pulls out a bag of newly-purchased organic hair products. The cheap stuff destroyed her hair, so she's going back to expensive shampoo and conditioner. When Dre demands an explanation, Bow pulls out the new tennis shoes Dre ordered from overseas. He didn't stick to their financial diet, and Bow is fed up.
They get into an intense argument: Dre claims that Bow has no problem with his spending when it fits her Suburban Princess lifestyle. After all, she didn't say no to the house or the cars or the Sub-Zero freezer. Bow snaps back, "I didn't say no because I thought I married a man who could take care of business."
Ouch. She drops the mic right where it hurts.
During the argument, Tracee Ellis Ross stretches out from her usual routine as the straight woman to Anthony Anderson's goofiness. Bow is frequently the sensible one, but in this scene, Ross plays her as angry and hurt. Ross is a great comedian, but she has significant dramatic chops — it's great to see her use them as she explores this role. Remember how I asked the Black-ish universe to give us more Bow? It seems like that wish was granted.
Later, Bow video-chats with her mom, Alicia. As she asks her for advice, Bow realizes that she's repeating a pattern of financial ignorance that she picked up from her mother. Alicia didn't like to talk about money because she didn't understand it. It made her feel stupid. So, she left the finances to her husband, which is probably why they're living in a RV that runs on human waste.
Dre fusses at Pops for not helping him learn more about financial planning. Pops explains that for his generation, "financial planning" was making sure they had a roof over their heads and food on the table. There was no planning because there were no finances.
Discussing money is a challenge because it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Seeing how much you make, how much you spend, and how much you're in debt can cause significant stress. As usual, Black-ish covers this difficult topic in a compelling way that's both humorous and enlightening. Bow and Dre don't want the kids to repeat their financial mistakes, so they begin a dialogue with them about managing their money better.
The talk comes just in time: After the twins overhear their parents talking about fiscally responsibility, Diane assumes the family is broke. In a send-up of Boiler Room, Wolf of Wall Street, and just about every other Wall Street movie, Junior begins day-trading. He uses Zoey's trendiness as clues for investment, since calling Apple to ask for insider-trading tips doesn't work out. Unfortunately, he doesn't want to give Zoey a cut of his earnings, so she decides to stump him by reading newspapers and using a rotary phone. (It even has a landline.) Junior and Jack get roped into their big brother's scheme, and end up losing all of their money.
I can't get over how strong Black-ish has become. The kids used to be the show's weakest link, and now, they always work so well together. Diane is the obvious stand-out, but the writers are clearly cautious about turning her into this generation's J.J. or Urkel. Let's hope they don't wear out her character — she's such a treat.
There's another reason for the show's fine form, too: the chemistry between Anderson and Ross. It's not a steamy, Tumblr-friendly, OTP kind of love. They exude a comforting, familiar trust, which makes Dre and Bow's fence-mending feel realistic and honest. As the episode ends, Dre and Bow trade apologies, then sweetly begin to tease each other. It's the kind of thing real-life couples do. It's their way of saying, "We can get through this. You still make me laugh."