We love Black-ish in our house. It is usually a delightful, unambiguously funny and joyful show. It addresses serious issues with humor and respect, and it has a stellar cast. Episodes rarely dip below a B+, and they have amazing guest stars, from Tyra Banks to Daveed Diggs. The show has also spawned two spin-offs, Grown-ish and Mixed-ish. The latter is currently in its first season, and while it has struggled to find its groove, the cast is amazing and the show is narrated by Tracee Ellis Ross, a fan favorite on Black-ish. I have yet to get into Grown-ish, which follows the eldest daughter Zoey into her first year of college, but we have just watched “Liberal Arts,” one of the last episodes of season 3 of Black-ish. It serves as a backdoor pilot for Grown-ish, which is currently airing its third season. Watching it, I can only assume that there’s going to be improvement, because this pilot is baaad. It might be the worst episode of Black-ish.
Zoey takes over the narration of the episode from her father to take ownership of her own story, but actually does very little in the episode. She basically undos the mistakes of her father, who forgot to submit her housing forms. A lot of logical leaps have to be made in this episode, clearly showing that it was not written by a woman, let alone a young woman. Housing forms have been online for years, Dre, who has cameras in most of the rooms of their house, would not waste time and money on going to to post office when he could fill a form in from his couch.
Also, Zoey, who is usually pretty woke, is uncomfortable and bored in orientation when the orientation leader introduces themselves with their pronouns and sexuality. This orientation leader is written to be the worst possible version of a young person, annoying the viewer with their excessive political correctness and overfamiliarity. This is when I sat up and googled the writer of this episode. Lo and behold, it was a middle aged man, Larry Wilmore, of The Nightly Show fame. I love Larry, he’s super funny, but clearly, watching this episode, he’s out of touch. Also, somehow a dozen uses of the word “prostitute” got past editing, because apparently it’s 1992?
There is a point when Zoey is immediately shown into the university president’s office when she tries to figure out her housing, which is intended to create the misunderstanding about housing and black students. First of all, no one looking for housing help would end up at the president’s office, let alone at the same time a student group was supposed to be meeting with him about housing issues. They assume she’s from Hawkins because she’s black, do not listen to her, and then she is blamed for their wrong assumptions for the rest of the episode.
The “cute boy” in the episode, Aaron, practices racial gate-keeping when he calls Zoey “mixed” like it’s an insult, and says she’s ignorant. Obviously, being mixed does not make one less black, and this kind of behavior is super shitty from a relative stranger. Zoey grew up with parents who educated her on the importance of her heritage and was exposed to black greatness all of her life.
There’s also a super fun new character, Miriam, who I, a Jewish cinephile, immediately clocked as a Jew. Great! Black-ish takes place in LA, a town lousy with Jews, and so far has had only one Jewish character, a coworker of Dre’s who has no personality. Unfortunately, it took about two minutes for Miriam to suck. When race becomes an issue talking to Aaron, Miriam loudly excuses herself saying that she is Jewish and has made out and done “top stuff” with black guys. Sigh. Great, she’s ignorant, privileged, and can’t identify some of the most important black luminaries of all time. We love immediate negative characterization of one of the two Jews on a TV show. It’s one thing that Charlie Telphy is insane- there are positive portrayals of black men on the show. But now we have two Jewish characters, neither of which is portrayed in a positive light. Awesome.
Overall, “Liberal Arts” is a C-, disappointing for a show that usually delivers an amazing half-hour of network television. Black-ish is truly an extraordinary show that delivers on its premise, but I’m not sold on Grown-ish if this is what we can expect from it. It just is incredible to me that they could not find a young woman of color to write this episode. Show creator Kenya Barris has a unique voice, but if this show is going to be about Zoey, it should sound like her, not a middle-aged man concerned about PC culture.