You never get a second chance to make a third impression, unless you’re Black-ish, which kicks off season four with a premiere that’s significantly superior to last fall’s. Season three began with the forgettable “VIP,” in which the Johnsons went to Disney World and made lots of references to Disney World because ABC’s production costs weren’t going to defray themselves. It was essentially a commercial for the theme park, as well as a too-faithful homage to Modern Family’s latter-day “The Facts of Life Goes to Paris” phase. To call the episode “off-brand” would be generous.
“Juneteenth,” on the other hand, is Black-ish at its most ambitious. It’s a sharp, funny riff on a little-known cultural nuance. Here it’s a tradition: the annual celebration of Juneteenth, the summer holiday commemorating the long-delayed release of African-American slaves. The discussion begins with a parental dust-up at the twins’ school play, much like “The Word,” the season-two premiere which explored contemporary use of that word Mack 10 can use but Macklemore can’t. This time, Jack and Diane help bring a shopworn “Columbus the Heroic Explorer” narrative to life, and Dre isn’t having any of it.
Dre is pissed that Jack and Diane are being indoctrinated with this romantic view of colonialism, so naturally he takes his frustrations out on his colleagues at Stevens & Lido. (By now, Stevens & Lido has to be the most culturally educated advertising firm in America.) Aloe Blacc joins the boardroom as himself, with Dre having drafted him to help come up with a Juneteenth song catchy enough to compete with “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” The first draft is modeled after the School House Rock classic “I’m Just a Bill,” complete with it’s own animated segment starring and performed by The Roots. The melody still slaps, but the subject matter is pretty dour, as would be a more historically accurate ditty about Columbus.
But that’s exactly the rub, according to Ruby, who succinctly describes the difficulty of selling Juneteenth as a holiday: “People don’t want to celebrate something we barely want to admit happened.” Shout it again for the cheap seats, Ruby! Slavery is brutal, uncomfortable stuff, so much so that even celebrating the end of an era is probably too painful an exercise. The thing about black folks, though, is that we’re good at channeling pain into art. Singing and laughing to keep from wailing and crying is a pretty foundational part of the black experience.
So the Johnsons do just that in a series of Broadway-style (think Hamilton specifically) numbers about the suffering African slaves endured, as well as the massive economic benefit they provided the country. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds on paper, in part because it allows the multi-talented Black-ish cast to show off skills that usually remain dormant. Jenifer Lewis gets to showcase her spectacular voice, and there are some pleasant vocal surprises from Anthony Anderson, who more than holds his own. The only cast member missing from the elaborate stage numbers is Hamilton graduate Daveed Diggs, which is weird, but the guy is in demand. Besides, Diggs is a ringer and might have pulled too much focus from the rest of the ensemble.
Is “Juneteenth” the funniest episode of Black-ish? Probably not, if only because the musical numbers eat up a lot of time that would have otherwise been spent on stronger jokes. But there are some strong zingers, provided most often by Charlie, a character with a ridiculously high value relative to his modest screen time. Deon Cole is a comedic genius, and his character has become to Stevens & Lido as Creed Bratton was to Dunder-Mifflin Scranton: the degenerate so open about his weird proclivities that you dare not wonder what he’s keeping secret. Plus, the songs are pretty funny, at least for anyone who thinks it’s funny to rhyme “hardly wait” with “miscegenate.” Unlike last season’s opening misfire, “Juneteenth” makes clear that Black-ish’s fourth season is playing for keeps.
• Fine job on the animation. The Roots are somehow even more adorable in two dimensions.
• Bow, to the school drama teacher: “We just want to thank you for the minorities. We can tell you’re trying.”
• That little fat-cheeked baby is already a scene-stealer. Keep an eye on that one.
• Both Yara Shahidi and Deon Cole are still around. I wonder how long until they depart for Freeform. *sniffle*