Black-ish’s ‘Hope’ Follows in the Tradition of Great Norman Lear Sitcoms

By
Black-ish's "Hope" episode took place entirely in the family living room. Photo: Patrick Wymore/ABC

Black-ish was already a hilarious and important show. But it became a great one with "Hope," an episode that dealt with police brutality, systemic racism, the joy and optimism inspired by the election of President Barack Obama, and the depressing realization that the struggle has continued and still will continue. The episode also took the American sitcom full-circle, way back to the 1970s, when Norman Lear productions like All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, and The Jeffersons brought the day's politics into prime time, laid conflicting points of view out in lively, often blunt dialogue, and transformed the sitcom from a lighthearted conversation piece into an extension of an ongoing national conversation that always had at least two sides, often many more than that, all in conflict, never entirely resolved.

The heart of the episode — and easily the most daring and powerful scene in Black-ish's two-season run — came near the midpoint, when Dre (Anthony Anderson), the blustering patriarch of the Johnson family, talked about the day of President Obama’s inauguration, the emotion conveyed in the episode title, “Hope,” mingling with dread that an unprecedented aspirational symbol would be "taken away from us.” 

As he spoke, Anderson's eyes filled with tears, and the episode cut to footage of President Obama getting out the presidential limousine and walking with the First Lady, waving and smiling, the dread of an assassination attempt weighing heavily. The footage was silent with Dre’s words playing over it; the show often cuts away to film clips, news footage, or photographs for a joke, a technique perfected by The Simpsons, but the tone was very different here: raw, not funny and not trying to be; closer in tone to something you'd have seen on one of Lear's sitcoms, which feel emboldened to switch from very broad comedy to kitchen-sink drama and back again, within the space of minutes.

The president was not taken away, in any physical sense, but because this powerful sequence was nestled within an episode that saw the family watching coverage of a police-brutality verdict (one that ended with no indictment), there was still a sense of hope having been extinguished: hope that the Obama presidency would, if not erase, then at least alleviate some of the forces the Johnsons spoke and argued about. The episode's conclusion saw Dre, his wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), Dre's father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne), and their two eldest kids leaving the house to attend a rally. It was a note of hope at the end of a story about how hard it is to follow Rev. Jesse Jackson's exhortation to keep hope alive — how the struggle goes on and on and requires constant attention and participation. It's also about how difficult, even impossible, it can be to strike a balance between rational cynicism, which can too easily shade over into inert defeatism, and the sort of willful optimism expressed by 'Bo. She's no naïve babe in the woods, but sees her husband's worst-case-scenario mentality as unhelpful. She's not wrong, and neither is he, and neither are any of the other characters. They may be arguing and making assertions throughout "Hope," but "Hope" itself is mostly just asking questions.

The Obama inauguration sequence connected with other images in this episode depicting figures of hope who were slain by assassins: John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi. And then, startlingly and daringly, came an image of Trayvon Martin. This was the most provocative edit of the TV year, because it drew a direct line from political figures who fought for the oppressed and a representative of who they fought for, and what they fought against. The invocation of Ta-Nahesi Coates's Between the World and Me was woven into the fabric of the entire episode, and Coates himself appeared in a news segment watched by the family. And yet here, as in every other part of the episode, Black-ish managed to be reverent and irreverent at the same time: Dre complained throughout that Coates wasn't saying anything he didn't already say privately. All that and a Peabo Bryson joke, too. Amazing.

A regular installment of a 22-minute network sitcom can be political filmmaking. Lear and his collaborators always knew that a sitcom could be that, and it's stirring to see Black-ish continuing in the tradition and evolving those techniques for a new century and a more fragmented, multicultural audience. Viewers of a certain age will never forget the episode of Maude where she decided to abort an unplanned pregnancy, the episode of Good Times where an abusive neighbor scalds her daughter with an iron and the system is ill equipped to do anything about it, or the episode of All in the Family where Edith is nearly raped.

One of the signature Lear episodes, and a great example of the kind of dialectical, "both/and" writing that Black-ish mastered in "Hope," is one from season four where Archie and his son-in-law, Mike "Meathead" Stivic, get locked in a cellar and drink to excess. Archie ends up recalling, with affection and numbed horror, how his beloved father filled his head with racist thoughts and beat him. Mike suggests Archie was wrong to pass on his racism to his son, and Archie recoils, summing up the emotional factors that prevent sons and daughters from rejecting their parents' poisonous values. "Your father?” Archie asks. “The breadwinner of the house, there? The man who goes out and busts his butt to put a roof over your head and clothes on your back? You call your father wrong?” 

Other '70s sitcoms, even seemingly lighter ones, had their Lear-like moments; one of the best was WKRP in Cincinnati, which sometimes took a time-out from gentle, eccentric character humor to let a character have a melancholy, even harrowing moment, as when the show’s African-American DJ, Tim Reid's Venus Flytrap, talked about how he went AWOL from the U.S. Army in Vietnam after witnessing fellow soldiers throwing suspected Vietcong solders out of the open door of a helicopter.

Like WKRPBlack-ish is not necessarily known for bleak or troubling subject matter, but for all its raucous humor, it has never not been a serious show. And it has never not been afraid to connect to the world, to the American and African-American experience as it's actually lived. Past episodes have dealt with intra-racial class conflict as experienced on Halloween, the politics of black hair, gun control, homophobia, the constraining effect of machismo, and many other subjects that could fuel an editorial or even a book. But "Hope" was a step up in complexity and ambition — an "I didn't know they could do that" moment that young viewers today will remember with as much awe as I recall those moments from the great Lear sitcoms of my youth.