The supposedly controversial 'Please, Baby, Please' is sweet, searching, and prophetic.

By Darren Franich
August 11, 2020 at 09:41 AM EDT
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Remember when North Korea was the hourly existential terror? Maybe you had to be on the West Coast, mid-to-late 2017, when one legitimate geopolitical possibility was two overinflated idiots with nuclear codes engulfing Los Angeles in fire and fury. (Such a possibility made a clean statistical sense; after all, we didn’t vote for him.) This fear — vain beyond reason yet genuine and omnipresent — apexed with a missile scare in Hawaii, the California of California. SoCal’s bout with atomic paranoia got dramatized one year later with the explosive beginning of American Horror Story: Apocalypse. That was the first Horror Story to run out of good ideas before the title sequence, but it had one perfect moment for the 2010s time capsule: Billy Eichner, caught in traffic in the shadow of a missile, screaming “Do not leave me in f---ing Santa Monica!”

Turns out that black-ish got there first. Admittedly, there are no actual thermonuclear blasts in “Please, Baby, Please,” the long-shelved episode of the ABC sitcom that finally arrived on Hulu this week. North Korea is just one of many night terrors tormenting Dre (Anthony Anderson) through a long rainy night. He can’t sleep, and neither can his new-ish-born son Devante (August and Berlin Gross). Dre’s head is full of nasty images: white supremacists in Charlottesville, police brutality on the news, a shooting in Las Vegas, glaciers collapsing, elephants disappearing. And Devante is wide awake because, like, he’s a baby.

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Dre tries handing the kid off to Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), but his wife’s already done early a.m. baby duty six days this week. Tell a bedtime story, Dre! He grabs Goodnight Moon, and Devante’s not interested. That little bunny boy in his money-colored room with a full fireplace and multiple framed artworks? No question: #whiteAF. Dre reaches for Please, Baby, Please, Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee’s day-in the-life ode to a wonderfully impossible little girl. That doesn’t work, either — despite an impressive bit of animation that brings Kadir Nelson’s illustrations to life, and a voiceover by Spike Lee himself.

Dre starts telling a different story, explaining the first year of the Trump administration as filtered through a healthy dose of 2017-ish Game of Thrones fandom. The president becomes the Shady King, taking over the country from much-loved (and much Blacker) Prince Barry. The bedtime story skips freely across American history, with Dre just barely modulating the facts for a family audience. Slaves are, errr, “really cheap gardeners.” And he can’t figure out why beloved Prince Barry gave the medal of freedom to “a dancing daytime talk show host” — the best Ellen burn of the summer, written almost three years ago.

Rainbow pipes up from the bed, begging Dre to talk about something else. She already worries about places that used to feel safe: workplaces, schools, music festivals, all under attack. Can’t she have some peace here in her bedroom? Downstairs, Pops (Laurence Fishburne) is working on a nightcap or three, remembering the old days when Klan monsters were cowardly enough to hide their identities. Today, “these bigots are marching around here with their own camera crews.” The younger Johnsons have their own struggles. Junior (Marcus Scribner) is grappling with his school’s new policy, an anti-Colin Kaepernick rule in all but name, that will suspend any athletes who kneel during the national anthem. Even twins Diane (Marsai Martin) and Jack (Miles Brown) are wide awake. “Let me guess,” says Dre. “You’re afraid of race riots, or the opioid crisis, or — oh, here’s a good one, North Korea!” Nope: They’re scared of the storm. Of all the storms: The weekly hurricanes, the weather out of control. Also, now they’ll Google why they should be afraid of North Korea.

Black-ish creator Kenya Barris co-wrote “Please, Baby, Please” with Peter Saji, and directed it himself. The script is less a proper story than a litany of explanation, with the sleepless authenticity of a journal entry or an improvised prayer. That Lee voiceover nudges you to notice the larger homage: the rush of news images and historical stills over narration, the way everyone seems to have 27 off-the-cuff thoughts about American history. In 2018, “Please, Baby, Please” would have been recognizable as a plaintive soliloquy in sitcom form. It’s about Trump and about Kaepernick, but also about climate change and nuclear war. It connects the euphoria over Barack Obama’s 2008 election with the legalization of gay marriage — and connects those transformative events to the MAGA backlash. Dre’s an advertising executive, and he recognizes a good sales pitch when he sees one. Trump’s supporters, he explains, are buying White Pride.

ABC was going to air “Please, Baby, Please” on Feb. 27, 2018, and then it just didn’t. The network declared “creative differences." Barris left for a Netflix deal. Seen this week, the episode remains powerful, built around a desperation that’s only gotten more potent. “The thing that’s bothering me the most is how bothered everyone is around me,” he narrates, ”And how helpless I feel to stop it.” Helplessness is the 2020 mood for anyone who trusts scientists, and the central simmering racial anxiety has boiled over into global protests and the expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement into a massive political force. The rush of transformative context has turned the supposedly controversial Kaepernick references into the episode's lightest softball. In 2018, the man was ostracized for his activism. Now, that activism got him a Netflix deal, too.

It’s fascinating to slot “Please, Baby, Please” into the larger cultural reaction to the Trump administration. Getting a Spike Lee cameo wasn’t exactly hot zeitgeist action when the episode filmed in 2017. The director was still months away from launching his critical-commercial revival with BlacKkKlansman, which ends with its own clips of the Charlottesville horror. The storm raging outside the Johnsons’ home symbolizes a larger tempest of social unrest — just like the rain that never stops throughout season 3 of The Good Fight, which came in 2019. Today we’d recognize the twins’ environmental pep talk as an embedded reference to teen climate activist Greta Thunberg — but she didn’t start skipping school until summer 2018.

The original airdate was just 11 days after ABC’s parent company Disney released Black Panther, a cultural phenomenon that money-talked Hollywood toward greater blockbuster diversity. It’s striking to consider the interior mega-corporate headspace that okayed one project and not another. Okay: A fantasy shadowboxing implicit meanings via subtext and “But is the villain actually a hero?” think-piecery and a happy ending. Not okay: A strange little fable about a rough night in an unsettled American home. The two can coexist, of course — but only one was allowed to exist. Don’t underrate the thrilling danger of blunt reality, I guess. And never assume, kids, that Disney knows what’s best for you.

I wondered briefly if "Please, Baby, Please" got booted because it violated an old network TV rule of never establishing main characters’ preferred political party. But ABC was also just weeks away from relaunching Roseanne, a megahit revival whose premiere clearly delineated which characters voted for Trump and who voted for Jill Stein. Roseanne, of course, got killed into The Conners after Roseanne Barr’s racist-tweet scandal. That all happened while "Please, Baby, Please" languished in purgatory: You blew it, ABC. Worth noting that the black-ish kerfuffle occurred as the network was developing The Kids Are Alright and Schooled, two sitcoms set in the ‘70s and the ‘90s. Take a trip to glorious Pastville, with no possibility of people addressing current events! One season and two seasons, respectively: You blew it, ABC.

In contrast to the Roseanne mess, it’s striking how low-key “Please, Baby, Please” really is. Everyone’s ruminating. Dre wonders if it’s hypocritical to support James Brown singing “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” while condemning the notion of white pride. Junior worries the anthem protests are denigrating the armed forces. The soundtrack is effusive: Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Rihanna and Jay-Z on “Umbrella,” Run-DMC, even some White Stripes. The Socratic structure is repetitive, no question. Could this have been sharper distillation of Barris’ larger concerns — by which I mean, could this have had a plot? Perhaps some deeper exploration of resurgent racism as a marketing tactic, windowed through Dre’s own career as an ad man? This was sort of the approach of the “Juneteenth” episode from earlier in the season — itself a signpost of larger cultural transformations ahead. Then again: This material, in this conversational and non-argumentative form, was already too sharp to air. You blew it, ABC.

On Hulu, “Please, Baby, Please” currently sits at the end of season 4, sub-labeled “Episode 99.” That seems right somehow: A number so wrongfully high, like a 404 Error, or a couple tilted nines away from infinity. I’ll remember Dre’s confusion, the baby who won’t sleep, how every generation in the house has its own impossible concerns. The episode strains — too much, really — for graceful resolution. Dre sees his family in bed, all together sheltering in place. “At that moment, everything suddenly came into focus,” he says. “I knew that everything was gonna be okay.” Well, that was then.

"Please, Baby, Please" is streaming now on Hulu.

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