This post contains details from the Black-ish season 1 finale, which aired Wednesday, May 20.
From its very first episode, ABC’s Black-ish has been about culture and identity. Yes, this is a family sitcom that has a lot in common with a lot of other family sitcoms. It boasts a lot of similar qualities and comedic beats to its Wednesday night lead-in, Modern Family. Black-ish is different though. It’s not just a traditional sitcom that happens to have a black family at its center. Instead, Black-ish is a show about being a black family, and that’s a big difference. The show has the form and tropes of a traditional sitcom, but it isn’t shy about its subversive nature, grappling with themes of identity, race, class, and privilege, and all while being one of the funniest shows on television.
It’s fitting then that the first season finale of Black-ish, “Pops’ Pops’ Pops” dives into the past and explores not only the history of the Johnson family, but also the history of black culture. Twins Jack and Diane are charged with making a family tree for a school project, and other than including their grandparents, they can’t seem to go any deeper into their family’s roots. “Can we fill it out with dead pets?” inquires Jack, which isn’t such a bad idea, if a touch morbid.
The lack of depth in their family tree inspires Pops to tell the story of the Johnson family, going back to a moment during the Harlem Renaissance in 1927 that forever changed the course of not only their family, but of black culture. It’s hyperbolic, but that’s the point! This is Pops’ story after all–”who’s telling the story?” he continually asks after being interrupted again and again–and his place at the head of the family gives him a bit of artistic license in terms constructing the family history.
Pops tells the story of his great grandfather, Drex Johnson (Dre’s 1930s stand-in), an ice deliveryman who fell in love with a club dancer named Bea (Rainbow’s 1920s stand-in) and wanted nothing more than to run away with her. The problem was, she was trapped at the club, under the thumb of owner, ruthless gangster, and terrible dancer Elroy Savoy, played by Sean “Diddy” Combs. In true ridiculous caper fashion, Drex plans on stealing Bea away, winning her freedom from Elroy in a dance off.
Within this story, all the current Johnson family are players—in a solid running gag, when Pops introduces a new character, he mentions how much they looked like one of the contemporary members of the Johnson clan. It’s a blast watching the cast play 1920s versions of their characters, from Zoey using Morse code to text while working her horrendous job at the club’s coat check, to Jack (a.k.a. Party Time) standing in for Elroy in the dance competition.
The story itself is hardly consequential; Drex of course gets away with Bea after winning the competition by inventing break dancing, and they take three orphan children with them as they go. There’s not much to the story, but it is one of the funniest episodes of the season, packed full of small jokes rather than big punchlines. The best of the night comes from Drex, the ice deliveryman: When he tells 1920s Zoey that he brought her some ice, she’s ecstatic to be getting in on a diamond heist. “No,” he says, putting a chunk of ice down on her counter, “ice ice, baby.”
“Pops’ Pops’ Pops” is so much more than just a showcase for the comedic adaptability of the cast though, as the finale ties together all of the thematic explorations of the season. Black-ish has spent much of its first season exploring black culture and identity, reckoning with what it means, and has meant in the past, to be a black family in America. Whether it’s Dre wanting to put his son through a traditional African “coming of age” ceremony, the parents worrying about their son being a Republican, or the show acknowledging the mixed race of Rainbow, Black-ish isn’t hiding the fact that it wants to be a show that explores issues that are unique to black families.
This isn’t the black Modern Family, nor is it a contemporary version of The Cosby Show. Black-ish is forging its own identity, suggesting that representation on television isn’t just about putting people of color on the screen. Representation is about green-lighting and supporting TV shows from creators of color, and supporting shows that boast a vision that’s unique to those creators and the communities they’re a part of.
“Pops’ Pops’ Pops” ends with Dre saying that no matter how ridiculous the story Pops told may be—the kids got an ‘F’ on their assignment because the Johnsons probably didn’t invent jazz, break dancing, and texting—it’s important because it’s about “our family, our culture.” Representation is really about depicting different families, stories, and cultures in a meaningful way. Black-ish has done just. “Pops’ Pops’ Pops” is a strong finale and a fitting end to the touching, hilarious, intelligent first season of one of the best new shows on television.