It was nice to have some breathing room from the heaviness of “Hope,” but I’ve been a little anxious about how Black-ish could follow such a strong episode. “Any Given Saturday” proves there was no need to worry. Once again, we get to see how Dre loses himself in parenting by trying to correct mistakes from his childhood, but he learns that he’s already prepared his children to avoid following those ill-advised paths. Tonight, Jack is the one who teaches Dre a valuable lesson in pursuing a goal.
Jack and Diane have to create biography projects about each other. Jack is the simpler twin, so he chooses to make a frame of potato chips around an unflattering picture of Diane, despite the fact that Diane doesn’t even like chips. Overachiever Diane goes the extra mile and creates a documentary about Jack’s skills as a basketball player (and to condemn people’s obsession with sports). The episode is shot from Diane’s POV behind the camera, complete with reality-show confessionals with the family. Diane actually does a great job as a director. She asks tough questions and has a knack for showing her family being vulnerable, which means she sneaks up on them a lot and films them when they’re not aware.
While Diane makes her movie, Dre explains that the rest of the kids have no athletic prowess because of Bow’s white genes, but the “Caucasian curse” skipped Jack, who is the star of his rec league. And because he’s the best player, Dre and Bow reap the benefits. They don’t have to bring snacks and are treated like royalty at every game.
All that changes when Dre speaks to another parent, Marcus (Bumper Robinson), whose child is playing travel ball in Compton. Travel ball is basically NBA for kids. Neither Dre nor Bow like the idea that Marcus’s son might be a better player than Jack, so Dre gets on the phone to get his son on a team’s roster. Dre repeatedly threatens to kill his contacts to get Jack in the league. (Yikes.) He uses his work connections to convince State Farm to sponsor the team — complete with singing the jingle, in case the episode’s advertisement wasn’t clear — and now Jack is playing for the Good Neighbors in Compton. Dre and Bow want the best for Jack, but they also want the bragging rights associated with having a star athlete in the family. And there’s also an element of Dre’s wish fulfillment at play: He wants to watch his son achieve certain things he didn’t as a child.
I’ve mentioned before how Black-ish likes to show love to many actors from the heyday of ’90s black television, and “Any Given Saturday” is yet another example of that. Bumper Robinson grew up through various bit parts and recurring roles on almost all of the black television shows from the late ’70s through the ’90s — from The Jeffersons to A Different World — including a stint on Living Single, a sitcom created by Yvette Lee Bowser, who wrote this episode. It’s good to see showrunner Kenya Barris paying tribute to the actors he likely watched and admired.
Now playing travel ball, Jack moves from being a big fish in a little pond to being eaten by sharks. His performance on the court is alarmingly bad. Neighbor Janine’s son, Caleb, is in the league — doing a little culture co-opting, according to Dre — and even he manages to be a better player than Jack. Bow also suffers in this new league. She’s no longer beloved as “Jack’s Mom”; now, she is in charge of snacks. Much to Ruby’s dismay, Bow brings gazpacho to the next game. Who brings cold soup to a basketball game? Ruby calling it chunky V8 gave me one of the biggest laughs of the episode.
Seeing the Johnson family from Diane’s point of view was refreshing, even if the mockumentary style was familiar from years of The Office, Modern Family, and countless reality-TV shows. Diane uses some of the footage she’s collected to show Dre how pushy he’s been about Jack being a basketball player. He threatened colleagues; he had Jack flipping tires at 5 a.m. as training; he begged the travel-ball coach to put Jack in after he’d been benched for poor performance. Dre had become overbearing and way too intense without considering how Jack felt about everything.
Ruby and Bow have a rare moment of accord when they tell Dre it’s okay to quit some things. Dre doesn’t want Jack to be a quitter. He wants his son to know he can compete in life, that he doesn’t have to stay down when he falls. Ruby counters that if she had not allowed Dre to quit so many activities — like ballet! — he never would’ve found his true passion. Dre finally talks to Jack about this, but Jack doesn’t want to quit. He’s determined to be the best and he knows that you have to play with the best to rise to their level.
In the meantime, Zoey is taking advantage of the fact that because she makes good grades, she can get away with dating a 19-year-old high-school junior, who was held back twice so he could play sports. Since she’s such a good student, she knows Dre and Bow won’t hover over her as much as they do the younger kids, so they have no idea what she’s doing. Zoey’s story line is kind of a throwaway here. She gets regulated to being boy-crazy and there’s not much interesting to pull from that. Meanwhile, Junior plays a strange and delightful role, serving as referee for Jack’s games. One particular highlight: Junior gives Dre a technical foul, evicting him from the game … but then asking him not to leave since they rode together.
The Johnsons are all ridiculous, but they are committed to their passions. Jack isn’t the brightest bulb in the family, but he is his own person. That is something that should make anyone proud. And it blends well with one of the best aspects of Black-ish: In the end, Dre and Bow are willing to change their minds, so long as it helps their children develop healthy attitudes about life’s challenges.