Passing the Baton

‘black-ish’ Is the New ‘Modern Family’

A little bit of controversy, a little bit of diversity, and a lot of sharp writing: after five interminable years, ABC finally found a worthy companion to its Emmy-winning hit.

Modern Family debuted five years ago. It was a huge hit. It still is a huge hit. But five years in, it’s looking considerably less, well, modern. And ABC has never been able to find another sitcom for the five-time Emmy winner to, if not pass its baton to, at least be its fitting companion: a “family friendly” TV show that reflects how families actually are today, with a sharp comedic edge and a humorous bite.

There’s a crowded graveyard of series that died in that post-Modern Family time slot, which given the sitcom’s outsized ratings still remains the biggest launching platform ABC has for a new comedy. Happy Endings, Mr. Sunshine, Suburgatory, Cougar Town, Super Fun Night, and, most recently the offensively bad Mixology are among the series that have tanked there. But five years and a morgue-full of D.O.A. sitcoms later, ABC has found its new modern family.

And they just happen to be black. Ish.

black-ish debuted last Wednesday behind Modern Family to stellar ratings, retaining 99 percent of Modern Family’s total viewers. That’s huge. It’s the highest retention of Modern Family viewers there has ever been in that time slot. And while there was pre-premiere handwringing over the cultural responsibility of purporting to call a show “black-ish,” and whether the title would limit its initial appeal to a diverse audience, there is a simple reason for why black-ish performed so well after Modern Family: for once, it’s a pairing that actually makes sense.

Especially in recent years, ABC has been particularly obtuse about its scheduling, blatantly ignoring programming choices that complement each other, to the end of sabotaging two new series instead of one.

Last season, for example, ABC’s two big new sitcoms were the Rebel Wilson starrer Super Fun Night and the ensemble family comedy Trophy Wife. Its horrific title aside, Trophy Wife was the closest thing in style, tone, and humor to Modern Family that ABC had ever produced. About an awkwardly blended family of a father played by Bradley Whitford, his new wife (Malin Akerman), and his two ex-wives (Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins), Trophy Wife had the same madcap comedic energy calming to the heartwarming life-lesson finale that had become Modern Family’s signature—and managed to do it while avoiding the maudlin, saccharine trap that so many other Modern Family wannabes so often get caught in.

But instead of airing the utterly winning, critically hailed Trophy Wife after Modern Family, a programming choice so obvious it’s painful, ABC launched Super Fun Night behind it. It’s sort of understandable, maybe. Kind of. Rebel Wilson was the buzziest new talent on TV at the time, and ABC wanted to milk her for as many viewers as it could. But Super Fun Night was just atrocious. Mean-spirited, often crass, and horrendously written, the show was not only not funny, but its tone paired with Modern Family like oil and water.

In the end, both Trophy Wife and Super Fun Night were canceled. Willowing away without a logical, highly-rated lead-in on Tuesday nights, Trophy Wife quickly rusted, with viewers failing to discover it. And ruined by its own awfulness, Super Fun Night’s initially strong sampling of viewers fled rapidly and in droves. ABC had effectively removed the launching coil on its Modern Family springboard.

But as perfect a pairing as Trophy Wife was with Modern Family, black-ish is, too. And more. Starring Anthony Anderson as the patriarch of an affluent African-American family in Los Angeles, the show is, first and foremost, incredibly well written, with astute observations about pop culture, particularly as it relates to ethnic identity. In the same way that Mitch and Cam simultaneously embody, skewer, and dispel gay stereotypes on Modern Family (and that Gloria and Manny do the same with Hispanic stereotypes, and Claire and Phil do with that of the nuclear family), black-ish’s Johnson family lends a humorous slant to cultural issues—of both the black-ish and white-ish kind.

It arrived on air last week with a strong sense of itself, its sense of humor, and, perhaps most importantly, what it wanted to say. The last time a comedy debuted on network television that hit all those tenets was—yep—Modern Family back in 2009. It’s such a natural fit to pair these two sitcoms together (and if you watched them back to back last Wednesday, you know how seamlessly they flow from one to another) that, given its recent history, it’s almost shocking even that ABC hit this particular programming nail on a head.

(We’re surprised that ABC managed to resist the temptation to air Selfie, its most curious new offering, in the slot—going for the bolder, but in hindsight perfectly logical choice of black-ish.)

The Johnsons live in a nice, white neighborhood. Anderson’s character, Andre, and his curmudgeonly father, played by Laurence Fishburne, did not grow up that way. It sparks a comedic crisis of cultural conscience, which will presumably play out across the series. His kids, for example, are not aware that Barack Obama is the first black president, or why that’s important. But the questions raised—is it a bad thing, or actually a good thing that they’re so well-adjusted as to be desensitized to racial milestones?—are provocative, and always punctuated with good humor: His youngest daughter may not know Obama’s historical importance, but she knows the name of his goldfish.

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The truths, prejudices, preconceived notions we have, and, most crucially, the embarrassment over the preconceived notions that we have that are explored in black-ish are right in line to the ones that Modern Family presented with its debut—specifically with the plot lines surrounding Mitch and Cam’s adoption of Lily.

It’s fun, five years and five Emmys later, to revisit the rave reviews that Modern Family received, especially in regard to those talking points. “Smart, nimble and best of all, funny, while actually making a point about the evolving nature of what constitutes ‘family,’” wrote Brain Lowry at Variety. “Modern Family works because it does something the network sitcom hasn’t managed in years: it offers a comic equation for almost every audience segment, while never blanding out the characters for mass consumption,” wrote Ken Tucker in Entertainment Weekly.

“…for mass consumption” is a crucial point that Tucker is making. For all of the words we’ve devoted to the value of the post-Modern Family time slot, we can’t undersell how significant it is that ABC thinks black-ish, and what it represents and what it is saying, is not only deserving of the amount of viewers that time slot carries, but good enough and appealing enough to entertain them and keep them.

“I didn’t want to tell a story about a family that happened to be black, but about a family that was actually black,” black-ish creator Kenya Barris told The New York Times. “I felt like race was being talked about less than ever, when I feel it should be talked about more.”

But Barris has also been careful to clarify that his show doesn’t set out to specifically define what it means to be black, but to simply spark a conversation about our changing culture and how we relate to identity. Kind of in the way Modern Family never really set out to explicitly define what a “modern family” is, but instead just present three versions of one and allow you to relate to them. Or not.

The Johnsons, the Dunphys, the Pritchetts. They’re not black-ish, or white-ish, or gay-ish. They’re modern. Ish.