The first two seasons of Black-ish ended with elaborate fantasy sequences, with the first season finale putting the Johnsons in Cotton Club–era Harlem, and the second porting the characters into Good Times. The third season finale, “Sprinkles,” takes the opposite approach, forcing the family to deal with the frightening unpredictability life brings. In doing so, Black-ish delivers its most emotional half-hour yet, an episode that presumes the audience won’t mind foregoing some jokes in favor of bonding with the Johnsons.
Everyone is in good spirits when the episode begins, especially Dre, who has recently learned that baby showers aren’t what they used to be. Once Rainbow drags him along to a co-ed shower, a boozy affair with goofy games, he’s so excited he decides to take the lead on Bow’s shower. Soon, he’s surrounded by cupcakes and catering samples and seeing if he can get Red Alert to DJ the event. (Jazzy Jeff has a prior engagement.) The family goes overboard by focusing on the gifts and grandeur while taking for granted the basics — that the baby will be born healthy without complications.
Naturally, complications develop. A routine checkup becomes anything but when the Johnsons’ obstetrician diagnoses Rainbow with preeclampsia, a condition that causes her blood pressure to spike to unsafe levels. The doctor says the best course of action is to deliver the baby two months ahead of the due date, which is most surprising because it seems like Rainbow has already been pregnant for four years. Nevertheless, the Johnson family halts its premature victory lap and turns its attention to the premature birth after Pops blabs the news.
“Sprinkles” becomes more and more dramatic once the action shifts to the hospital where the Johnsons must wait. It’s easy to forget how compelling a dramatic actor Anthony Anderson can be until he’s actually doing it, and “Sprinkles” serves as another reminder of his talent. Anderson does a terrific job playing Dre’s frayed nerves as he gradually comes to grips with how serious Bow’s health situation has become. Tracee Ellis Ross matches his intensity, and their emotional scenes are a potent reminder of why Anderson and Ross are one of the best husband-wife pairings on television. They have genuine chemistry, and the more dramatic material shows it off from a different angle. (Also, some credit is surely due to director Eva Longoria Bastón.)
The episode’s somber tone is both its greatest strength and its most glaring flaw. There just aren’t a lot of jokes to be found, though the charming Daveed Diggs scores some early zingers and Deon Cole brings the heat as usual. (Yet again, Charlie Telphy just happens to show up wherever the Johnson family is. They should consider a restraining order, but Charlie’s fear of Diane should be enough to keep him at bay.) Even Jenifer Lewis, who can create so many laughs with so little material, goes into worried-grandmother mode and forgoes her comedic punch. The tender moments between Rainbow and Ruby are a sweet and refreshing change of pace given their contentious relationship. But it wouldn’t have hurt to give Ruby one or two times to exclaim, “Black Jesus!”
Black-ish often excels with more serious moments, particularly when they deal directly with racial and political issues, as in “Hope” and “Lemons.” “Sprinkles” is a dramatic episode that isn’t rooted in the family’s racial identity, so it feels much different than anything else Black-ish has done before. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s an odd note on which to end the season, especially following “All Groan Up,” the awkward clip show, and “Liberal Arts,” the Zoey-centric backdoor pilot. Black-ish hasn’t been quite itself in weeks.
But the show isn’t primarily a social satire. It’s a family sitcom first and foremost, and “Sprinkles” deepens our relationship with the Johnsons. It isn’t cutting-edge and it isn’t controversial, but Black-ish can be just as powerful when it shows how black families are like every other kind of family. This season finale shows a family in crisis finding a happy ending, and while not everyone will laugh, most of us can relate.