When sitcoms get serious: Grappling with the black-ish divorce episode
The “Very Special Episode” is not what it once was — and that is a very good thing. In the olden days, when sitcoms were consistently sitcommy, the VSE signaled a record-scratch tonal shift from aggressive cheeriness to subdued seriousness — often with stories involving drugs, creepy strangers, or death by refrigerator.
In today’s far more inclusive TV landscape, comedies are free to have dramatic elements and vice versa, and many sitcoms regularly blend humor with weightier storylines. ABC’s comedy black-ish is particularly good at executing “issue” episodes — like season 2’s “Hope,” which tackled police brutality, to last year’s “Lemons,” in which the Johnson family grappled with their sadness and disappointment over Donald Trump’s election victory. (They’ve even weighed in on the controversy about athletes kneeling during the national anthem… but we’ll never get to see it.) Now in season 4, black-ish — about an upper-middle-class African American family in Los Angeles — is turning its attention to issues inside the home, specifically the marriage of Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross).
The problems started last week in an episode entitled “Fifty-Three Percent”: After 20 years of marriage and five kids, Dre and Bow find themselves in a little bit of a funk. It’s happened before, Dre assures us via voiceover, but this time, the couple is having trouble getting things back on track. Their bickering over mundane conflicts (see: Bow rewashing a plate Dre just cleaned) masks greater concerns, like anxiety about their 1-year-old son, Devante, who has yet to take his first steps. Black-ish has always done an excellent job making the Johnsons’ marriage far more nuanced and grounded than your typical TV union, and Ross and Anderson’s comfortable chemistry makes Bow and Dre’s squabbling (and subsequent makeups) all the more relatable and authentic. And no matter how serious the topic, black-ish knows how to inject just enough levity to each episode, allowing the show to maintain a well-calibrated balance just this side of dramedy. (There are few mainstream sitcom pleasures as pure as watching Wanda Sykes, who plays Dre’s coworker Daphne, yell, “Hey! White woman! Are you having sex with black Dre?”)
That’s perhaps why this week’s episode, which continued the marriage-troubles arc, felt so jarring. “Blue Valentime” began with a brightly-lit, colorful family tableau, as Dre and Bow playfully smooch their kids goodbye and send them out into the sunshine for a wonderful day at school. As soon as the front door closes, though, the mood in the house turns darker — literally:
A greyish-blue filter settles over the scene, matching the grim expressions that settle on Dre and Bow’s faces. The effect might not have seemed so heavy-handed if it weren’t for the music that accompanied it: Maxence Cyrin’s piano cover of The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind,” a far-overused track (see: The Leftovers, Mr. Robot, The Tick, and probably many more) that it no longer evokes a feeling of dread and vulnerability — it evokes a feeling of “this show is trying to evoke a feeling of dread and vulnerability.” Even worse, the show goes to the Coldplay well not once but TWICE this episode (“The Scientist” and “Fix You,” natch) — just in case viewers didn’t realize that all of the flashbacks to Bow and Dre in their happier days were supposed to fill them with waves of bittersweet longing and regret. (All of these songs have been, as my colleague Darren Franich put it, officially Hallelujah’d. Time to take ‘em out of rotation for a while, music supervisors).
“You’re better than this, black-ish!” I found myself saying to my screen. If “Blue Valentime” had skipped all of the Important Episode signaling, it would have been just as effective. Ross and Anderson’s performances were finely-drawn and moving, as Bow and Dre grapple with the stresses of a kitchen renovation that only serves to underscore how far they’ve grown apart. After spending four seasons building exceptional characters through strong writing and outstanding performances, I just wish the black-ish team had trusted us — and themselves — to bring Bow and Dre to this breaking point without all of the unnecessary (and distracting) flourishes. That said, when characters are so real they feel like family, you don’t give up on them after one stumble, so I’ll be there next week to watch as Bow and Dre (hopefully) get back on their feet.