|'black-ish' cast members and creators (from left) Laurence Fishburne, Anthony Anderson, Kenya Barris, Deon Cole and Tracee Ellis Ross accepting an NAACP Image award for best comedy early this year in Pasadena, California. — AFP Photo|
LOS ANGELES — ABC’s sitcom-with-a-conscience black-ish returns this week, offering its usual brand of social commentary from diverse voices often denied airtime on primetime TV — but this time with a one-off musical twist.
Noted as much for tackling controversial issues like the "N-word," police brutality and President Donald Trump’s election as for its on-point jokes, the series has bagged a hatful of awards.
Never happy to rest on his laurels, however, showrunner and creator Kenya Barris is throwing out the usual format for the premiere to the fourth season, which airs Tuesday at 9 pm — a new day and time slot.
The episode will be an homage to Broadway smash-hit Hamilton, using music to take potshots at the Columbus Day holiday while also celebrating Juneteenth, the June 19 commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States.
Barris, 43, says it was inspired by a conversation he had with his teenage son, who came home from school revealing that he had learned that Christopher Columbus had never been to North America.
"I looked it up, and he never set foot in North America. His name wasn’t Christopher Columbus. He was a war criminal," Barris told reporters on a visit to the Disney Studios lot where the show is filmed in Burbank, California.
"All the war criminal stuff I’d heard before but he didn’t discover the world wasn’t flat either — all these things that we bought into growing up. I was like, ’Why are we having a holiday for this?’ and it started making me think."
black-ish follows the trials and tribulations of Andre "Dre" Johnson (Anthony Anderson) and his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) as they try to carve out a stable, healthy home life for their four children.
A successful businessman, Dre worries that the clan is losing touch with its black roots because they are growing up in an affluent, white Los Angeles suburb.
Helped out by his father Pops — played by Laurence Fishburne (Boyz n the Hood, The Matrix) — Dre tries to imbue his family with a sense of cultural identity.
"We were just talking about the number of episodes where we have dealt with stuff that most people would not even begin to think about, whether it’s the ’N-word’ or God, the election, these police shootings, being biracial," said Fishburne, 56, in a break from filming.
"The fact that we’ve just touched on all these kinds of things and that they continue to try and find that kind of material is amazing."
The show broke even more ground in January when Ross became the first African-American woman to win the Golden Globe for best TV comedy actress since Debbie Allen for Fame in 1982.
Around the same time, black-ish delivered its own response to Trump’s election win in an episode lauded by critics, elevating the series "to another level of cultural relevancy," according to New York magazine’s Vulture website.
Changing the game
Asked if the election had forced a rethink on storylines, Ross said black-ish had "never been in response to something" but rather was a show told "from the inside looking out."
"What’s happening in our country right now will more change how people look at our show than how we make our show," she added.
Despite the critical plaudits, the show has experienced a steady — but not unusual — decline in audience, from 11 million for the first episode in 2014 to under five million for the season three finale in May.
ABC will be pinning its hopes on the novelty of a musical premiere generating buzz for season four, with the cast describing Tuesday’s episode as the most fun ever to film.
"We did really take a step out of what black-ish normally does and change the game for everybody," said Yara Shahidi, who plays the Johnsons’ teenage daughter Zoey.
"What was really nice is that it was a learning process for everyone on set."
The 23rd episode of the third season, Liberal Arts, doubled as a pilot for a spin-off show "grown-ish," featuring Zoey as she goes to college, to debut on ABC’s sister network Freeform early next year.
"It’s been pretty exciting and scary — but mostly exciting — and we’re just figuring out what we’re going to cover, what trouble Zoey’s going to get into," said Shahidi.
"It’s strange that I’m not going to be in this house 24/7." — AFP