Junior delivers Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Black-ish’s election episode, “Lemons.”
Black-ish has already distinguished itself as a mainstream sitcom that smartly and thoughtfully addresses racism and other social issues. But “Lemons,” the episode that aired Wednesday night and addressed public reaction to Donald Trump’s election, elevated the series to another level of cultural relevancy. This half-hour of television so captured the mood in major swaths of America, it was as if Kenya Barris — the Black-ish showrunner who wrote and directed the episode — banged it out on a laptop Wednesday morning, shot it around noon, edited it at dinner time, then raced a copy to some hypothetical ABC control room, à la Joan Cusack in Broadcast News, so it could get on the air at 9:30 p.m. ET. The only thing that would have given it more immediacy was a reference to Russian kompromat. Then again, maybe we all needed a break from that.
In recent months, a number of TV comedies have addressed the 2016 election. As always, programs like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee have acknowledged the actions of the president-elect via sketch comedy and satirical news coverage. With its focus on the recount that, for the first time, could have legitimately put Selina Meyer in the Oval Office based on actual election results, Veep felt like a riff on the race between Clinton and Trump. The season-two finale of The Carmichael Show aired an episode called “President Trump,” in which patriarch Joe Carmichael (David Alan Grier) pledged his support to “Make America Great Again.” But that was all back in May, before he actually won. South Park, which has a reputation for being not just of-the-minute, but practically of-the-second, aired an episode on November 9 — less than 24 hours after Hillary Clinton conceded — that touched on Trump’s victory. But no scripted mainstream sitcom has captured the very real mix of post-election grief, frustration, confusion, and sadness with as much spot-on accuracy — and, miraculously, also humor and openness to multiple viewpoints — as Black-ish did in this week’s episode. The fact that it was broadcast the day after President Obama’s farewell remarks and just a few days before the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I Have a Dream” speech played a key role, gave it an extra shot of timeliness.
“What happens when the winners and losers are supposed to be on the same team?” Dre asks early in the episode, after comparing the election results to a shocking upset in sports. “Seriously. I’m really asking. What happens?”
By picking up the action eight weeks after Election Day, with the inauguration on the immediate horizon, “Lemons” shows us exactly what happens. Some Americans, as illustrated by Bow, funnel their disappointment into support for worthy causes. (“Everything you’re wearing is from an NPR commercial,” Dre observes as Bow mopes around the house in Habitat for Humanity sweatpants and a pair of flip-flops from Unicef.) Others, like young Jack, become fixated on seeing the glass half-full. (His pragmatic sister Diane reminds him the glass is actually totally empty and, also, he’s looking at a bowl.) High-school students, like the ones in Andre’s class, feel emboldened to chant “Send her back!” at their Spanish teacher. And co-workers like the ones at Stevens and Lido, Dre’s workplace, are so distracted by Trump tweets and fights over who’s most at fault for getting Mr. Bigly elected that they can barely conduct business. All of this is so hilariously, achingly familiar that it’s like watching footage of what’s been happening in our own homes and conference rooms. (The distracted American worker stuff lands particularly strong, a comment I just typed while restraining myself from searching for the latest news on the Russian dossier.)
Barris is careful not to make the episode solely about those feeling disillusioned by the election, though. At one point, we see Dre walking the halls of his office, watching two co-workers celebrating. “The world had become a mixed vortex of anxiety and elation,” Dre says to himself. In a brilliant reflection of those conflicting emotions, the soundtrack fills with the sound of Kanye West, a black man who recently visited Trump Tower, rapping how “we coulda been somebody” from “Blood on the Leaves.” Later, during one of multiple smartly written conference-room confrontation scenes, Dre’s co-worker Lucy, the lone white woman at the table, admits that she voted for Trump and tries to defend herself when her co-workers express their disgust.
A 25-minute episode of television, minus commercials, certainly can’t fully capture the breadth and complexity of this truly bizarre and stressful political moment. But it comes close, and even more commendably, leans all the way into some tough conversations and feelings of bitterness that this rickety presidential transition have forced to the surface.
“Black people wake up every day believing that our lives are going to change, even though everything around us says it’s not,” Dre says in one particularly moving monologue, which is delivered by Anthony Anderson, who is outstanding in this episode, and underscored by Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” an anti-racism song sampled in West’s “Blood on the Leaves.” “I’m used to things not going my way,” he continues, addressing his colleagues. “I’m sorry that you’re not and it’s blowing your mind. Excuse me if I get a little offended, because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains.”
This is a stunningly honest and real thing to say in a Wednesday night ABC sitcom.
Since All in the Family, many scripted half-hour comedies, have wrestled with political issues and matters of social justice. But only a few mainstream sitcoms have so specifically addressed an actual president or candidate for an entire episode that aired on a major broadcast network. That aforementioned The Carmichael Show is one example. So is the 1992 Murphy Brown episode, “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato,” in which Candice Bergen’s news anchor addresses comments previously made by vice-president Dan Quayle, who suggested in real life that Brown’s decision to have a child out of wedlock was eroding American family values. But that episode didn’t air on CBS until four months after Quayle called out Murphy Brown for its “lack of morals,” and it played out in a political atmosphere that was much less volatile and far more civil.
With “Lemons,” Black-ish goes straight to press with an episode that aims to point America toward healing at a time when tensions remain high and the hurt isn’t just fresh — it seems to deepen every day. Some may bluntly say “too soon” in response to the hopeful note it tries to strike at the end, as Andre recites a rarely heard passage from King’s “I Have a Dream” while Dre reaffirms his love for America, a note that, coincidentally, echoes the optimism Obama evoked in his farewell speech. But the fact that Black-ish does all of this so soon after the election and so shortly before Trump takes the oath of office is what makes this an episode of TV that feels like it’s becoming part of history right before your teary, weary eyes.