It didn’t take long after Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States for television to address the orange elephant in the room.
The producers behind series like Designated Survivor, The Good Fight, Quantico, and Mr. Robot all publicly announced their shows would tackle the divisive election in some capacity. One of the most outspoken creators, however, was Kenya Barris, who reiterated that Black-ish, a family sitcom on ABC that follows a wealthy black family in Los Angeles trying to retain their cultural heritage in an overwhelmingly white landscape, has always been a series about addressing complex issues.
“We need to be examining each other as a country and as a society," Barris told Complex in November. "It’s not about money or having success, it’s about having a voice.”
Last week, Black-ish aired its election episode and it didn’t take long for Barris, who wrote and directed, to get to the heart of the issue. But what makes the episode as spectacular — and as exemplary — as it is isn’t the tirade against Trump. Barris spends a nearly equal amount of time giving a platform to both sides of the conversation.
Black-ish isn’t objective, nor is it trying to be, but the show doesn’t shut down opposing opinions. Instead, Barris takes the conversation that has dominated every avenue of public discourse: news programs, talk shows, Twitter, Facebook and even the tense arguments families may have had with each other and tosses it onto a conference room table. The debates we’ve all been having, or at least hearing, are hashed out in a tightly written, 30-minute episode. There’s also just enough comedy thrown in to not make it feel unbearably suffocating.
The most important part of Black-ish’s election episode is the compassion Barris brings to each conversation, including the possibility of hope for characters who feel like they're facing a bleak future
Opposing sides, but never divided
For those who don’t watch Black-ish, here’s a quick breakdown of the episode: Dre (Anthony Anderson) is upset that Trump has won. As is his very Republican, racist and sexist boss, Mr. Stevens (Peter Mackenzie). Most of the team at the Los Angeles advertising agency they work at is divided over the results, but the main discussion at hand occurs within the confines of the conference room where many other episodes take place.
When one of Dre’s co-workers, Lucy (Catherine Reitman), says she voted for Trump because she didn’t like Hillary, every facet of the debate that has echoed around the country is brought to the table. Who should be blamed for the results, what the future of the country looks like under Trump, what this means for people of color and other minority groups and the role women had to play in the election are all addressed frankly.
One of the most memorable moments from the episode, and the scene that’s still being talked about a week later, is Anderson’s monologue about how much he loves America. The speech happens after Mr. Stevens accuses Dre of not caring about the election or what’s happening in their country. Dre’s response can be seen above.
It’s passionate, heartfelt, angry and sad. It’s a powerful performance from Anderson, but it’s the writing that again deserves special recognition. Barris doesn’t use the most powerful moment of the episode, the climax of the 30-minute arc, to attack anyone. He doesn’t use the moment to point out the fallacies in anyone’s argument or to respond out of anger.
Instead, Barris gives Dre a moment to be vulnerable as he expresses himself. Most importantly, Barris ensures that no one at the table interrupts Dre. Dre’s concerns, fears, resentment, anger and sadness come through loud and clear.
Barris never claims those who voted for Trump are idiots, morons or hateful people. Barris never berates anyone, but instead goes down the more interesting route and asks why. Why would a young, white woman (Lucy) vote for Trump over Hillary? Why did this election seem to hurt and divide the country more than any in recent memory? Why are people so scared of the future?
Barris handles each of these questions with compassion and an attempt to understand. He uses the debate between Dre and his co-workers as a way of working out what’s going on, literally using a white board, figures and numbers to try and understand how things got to this point.
I’ve said before that Black-ish was the closest show to Norman Lear’s satirical All in the Family that we’ve had in decades, and the similarities between how Lear and Barris approach controversial subject matter is eerie.
Much like Barris, Lear used his characters — mainly the mostly well-intentioned but “traditional” Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) — to try and understand what was happening in the country at the time. Episodes like gun control at the height of crime in New York City, the civil rights movement or gay rights are all approached in a way that remains rare on television, much less at the time. Lear used Archie’s antiquated mentality to try and examine all sides of a complex argument, bringing in opinions from his very liberal son-in-law Michael (Rob Reiner) as the main counterpoint for Bunker’s sense of white masculinity under siege by a progressive country he barely recognizes.
Lear and Barris use intimate conversations with their comedy to start conversations or at least try to mirror the conversations we’re already having. Lear chose not to ignore the biggest issues of the ‘70s, even thought it was a challenging environment to tackle them so openly, and Barris is doing the same thing in 2016.
Black-ish has set the bar for how television should handle the upcoming change in presidency. As of Jan. 20, things will change — much more than they have already — and there are many people who are scared. Television has the power to create or continue conversation about what we’re seeing, and do so in an entertaining, powerful manner. It’s not just welcome, it feels necessary.