chat room

Kenya Barris on Bow and Dre’s Troubled Marriage and That Unaired Episode of Black-ish

Photo: Getty Images

Spoiler alert for the season-four finale of ABC’s Black-ish.

Time to exhale, Black-ish fans. After three consecutive episodes of witnessing the disintegration of Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow’s (Tracee Ellis Ross) 20-year marriage, the fourth-season finale climaxed with their wholehearted reconciliation.

Over the course of the episodes, we watched Dre and Bow fight over everything from washing dishes to remodeling a kitchen to her returning to work, deciding they need space in one episode to agreeing to divorce in the next. It was a lot. But it was just what showrunner Kenya Barris had in mind when he introduced the idea in the writers room, after having gone through the same thing in his marriage. Like the Johnsons, Barris and his wife, Dr. Rainbow Edwards-Barris, who have six children, also reconciled. The four-episode arc bookended a season that began on a high note with a musical episode à la Hamilton that explored the summer holiday Juneteenth, and in later episodes also covered postpartum depression, diabetes, and a girl’s first period.

The twice Emmy-nominated comedy also had another first this season: an episode that didn’t air because of creative differences between ABC and Barris regarding its content. The episode, which covered many political and societal issues on Dre’s mind, included a scene in which Dre and his oldest son, Junior (Marcus Scribner), argue over the rights of athletes to kneel during the performance of the national anthem at football games, according to Variety.

Vulture spoke to Barris about the finale and culmination of the story line that’s bummed out fans for weeks, as well as other big moments in the season, including “Please, Baby, Please,” the February 27 episode that never aired.

You took a lot of really big swings this year. This last one was your biggest for two reasons: The story was serialized over four episodes, which is different for your show, and the tone is very different than what we’re used to on Black-ish. Can you talk about why you wanted to tackle this subject matter over four episodes?
After the first couple of years of on Black-ish, my wife and I actually broke up. We got back together, and it was this really, really difficult time for me. And when I brought it up into the room, a lot of the writers had not had quite that experience, but they had been through dark moments in their own relationships. And one of the things I remember growing up is I always looked at The Cosby Show and those great sitcoms and thought, I want that to be my family. But I didn’t remember those people arguing. And so when I started having brutal times in my relationships, as a kid who grew up on comedy, you just don’t really see the moments. They don’t tell you about those moments. There’s no other bet in the world that you would ever take where someone will tell you, “Okay, you can buy this car, but more than half of them blow up the moment you drive off the lot. Okay, you want it?” “Yeah, you do? Okay, fine.” The odds are probably one of the worst odds in the in world. It’s counterintuitive to what we know is logical, but still, we do it because that’s how strong love is.

We wanted to do something that spoke to the notion of, it’s not always going to be easy. You can’t have the sweet without the sour. You can’t see daylight before you see the night. You can have good times with anyone, but it’s really different and much more interesting when you look at how you get through the bad times with someone. We knew we couldn’t go too long because four [episodes] was already bumming our audience out [laughs] to the maximum they could be bummed out. But we also felt we couldn’t go too short because we didn’t want it to feel it wasn’t fully cooked.

We were definitely getting more and more depressed as we went along. Part of that, I have to say, is due to Anthony Anderson’s and Tracee Ellis Ross’s performances. They committed to this very different side of the Johnsons. Did you ever consider splitting them up permanently?
No. We had conversations back and forth, but we knew we wanted this couple to get back together. But we wanted to go down the path of the possibility, because if you don’t, it would feel like schmuck bait to the audience. We wanted the audience to have a moment and actually get invested, because that’s the only way they could actually go on that trip with us.

The other thing that’s interesting about it is that it’s no one’s fault. It’s not like one of them did something horrible to the other person. The relationship is disintegrating and it’s on both of them.
It was very important to us. We did not want this to be Team Bow and Team Dre. We wanted to feel like it was an erosion of a relationship that is natural. It’s like anything that we care about, that needs repair. [It’s not about] cheating or an offense. It’s not about the things that we’re used to hearing.

So what was the reaction on set, when the actors read that first script and saw you were heading in this direction?
It was hard for them. There was resistance. It was a bummer on set. But I really, really appreciated them. They trusted us. I had a conversation with them and told them I would do our best to service them and they brought their A game. They showed the range that they have as actors. I always say that drama’s hard but comedy’s harder, and great comedic actors can do anything, as you see with those guys.

What about the child actors?
[Sighs.] It was difficult. They weren’t around for the heaviest episode, “Blue Valentime.” [Marsai Martin] had to dig into her acting chops. I’m really proud of what she did. She went to a place I haven’t seen her go and she went there like a champ. They rose to the occasion.

It’s easy for a producer in season four to just stay steady.
You know your audience. The audience knows what they love about the show and it’s easy to not rock the boat too much. But from the beginning of this season, you’ve been going for it with episodes like the musical premiere about Juneteenth and the postpartum depression episode. What kinds of conversations did you have in the writers room at the beginning of the season about your vision for the season?
We didn’t want to rest on our laurels. We’ve been so lucky to be able to do so many great stories and we wanted to continue to let this family grow, as this country is growing, as our audience is growing and changing, we want to talk about things that are provocative and evocative in a way that made us excited as writers. And as a showrunner, I still had a lot of stories that I personally wanted to talk about and things I wanted to show, in particular this story line with them breaking up. And whenever I would talk to people about them, there were so many things that would resonate with people and I was surprised by that, because it’s not something we’re conditioned to talk about. All of that played into the bigger picture.

It may feel like it aired a long time ago, but “Juneteenth” was so big in so many ways, not the least of which was that it was a musical. You packed a lot in 20-something minutes.
I can’t believe it came out the way it did. I’ll just say that. At every turn, I was like, This is going to fall apart! But, once again, that cast, that crew, the writers, and Anton Cropper, who directed it, and Peter Saji who wrote it, everyone just dug in. It was a true, true team effort.

Was it the musical part you were concerned about?
Absolutely. And the story we were talking about. The network was even a little bit worried and concerned. The testing kept saying white viewers were uncomfortable. And I was like, Wow, you mean the episode about how talking about slavery makes white people uncomfortable is actually making white people uncomfortable? Shock! There were a lot of people from the network to the writers and actors … this season was the season of trust. It took a lot of trust for people to get onboard and trust what we were doing and hope that it worked out. And I really feel like, in my opinion, it did.

On that note about trust, you had a situation in March with an episode that did not air due to “creative differences” with the network. I’m wondering if you wanted to talk about what happened and what you learned from that.
We had our moment. You know what I’m saying? We got past it. I think we still had a really great season. We decided that the body of the show speaks for itself. And it’s nothing we harped on. We’ve moved past it.

What was difficult about it? Why didn’t it air?
We just had a difference of opinion. I don’t think it’s the first time an episode hasn’t aired. You know what I’m saying? It probably won’t be the last. And I feel like it was something for us that we felt like we couldn’t come to an agreement and mutually decided just to sort of move past it.

After that, an episode of Roseanne aired that had a joke about the “black and Asian” shows on ABC, meaning your show and Fresh Off the Boat. The joke was that “they’re just like us,” and I’m wondering what you thought of that.

[An ABC representative interrupts the conversation at this point and asks that the remaining questions be focused on the Black-ish finale.]

Earlier you mentioned that you hoped the Johnson marriage story line would bring about some watercooler chatter for the show. What feedback have you gotten?
I had people say, “I’m never going to watch Black-ish again.” [Laughs.] I don’t think they meant it, but I understand some aspects. It made people feel something. A lot of times when people go to see comedies they want to show laughter. But, like I said before, the sweets aren’t the sweet without the sour. And, ultimately, I didn’t see one person say that they thought it was bad television. I think people felt like it took them on a ride. I don’t want to sound douchey. But it is art what we’re doing. When you walk past a painting in a museum, if it doesn’t make you feel something, then it’s probably a failure. We wanted to make people feel something and we’re really proud of it.

Did people try to debate you on whether they should be together? Or what they wished for?
Absolutely, 100 percent. [Laughs.] We wanted people to feel something. The whole show, what we’ve been about, is being honest. And we felt the place we put them in was not exploitative or arbitrary. We felt like we put it in a place that was based on a couple who have been in a relationship as long as they have been.

I’m sure everyone’s going to be happy when they see the finale.
I hope so. But there are even some sad things that happen in that.
We are not trying to play games.

Why did you decide the catalyst would be the loss of her dad? The reconciliation is mixed in with that profound sadness.
It’s like shock therapy a little bit. And you have these moments — your foxhole moments. And when you’re in the foxhole, I’m sure you have your person in your life that when you’re going through that moment, you’d rather be going through it with them. And sometimes those moments shock you into saying, This is what life is really about. It’s not about this cap being off the toothpaste. It’s when the chips are down, this is my guy. Or this is my girl. Or this is whatever. These are the moments we need to look at. We see that as Americans during hurricanes, and things like this. Black, white, rich, poor, we galvanize through the hard times. We really see it happen in relationships. In the best and worst of those moments, you come together and you look for your tribe.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Black-ish’s Kenya Barris on Bow and Dre’s Troubled Marriage