The seventh episode of Black-ish, “The Gift of Hunger”, incorporates several standard family sitcom conventions in an effort to propel this sluggish plot to something greater. Unfortunately by employing tired tropes instead of capitalizing on the show’s unique perspective, this episode meanders until the end. Pratfalls and precociousness provide momentary laughs, but Dre and Rainbow’s plans to ensure their kids don’t end up spoiled largely retread old comedic territory.
The episode begins with Dre (Anthony Anderson) taking the family to the Beef Plantation, which prompts a couple solid zingers from the family (“You have Roots on Laserdisc, but eating at a place called Beef Plantation doesn’t bump you?”). Growing up eating baking soda sandwiches, Dre thinks his kids are spoiled because they don’t appreciate the (bad) food he relished as a kid. Consequently he leaves nothing but baking soda, ketchup and baloney in the refrigerator to teach them a lesson. Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) offers a counterpoint to Dre in that she – a successful doctor – grew up with some money, but she joins his side when the youngest kids, Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin), beg for food from the neighbors across the street. Here is where the show’s story trajectories separate into Dre’s bland A story and Rainbow’s somewhat witty and topical B story.
Dre employs the older two kids, Zoey (Yara Shahidi) and Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner), at his advertising firm which results in Andre Jr. screwing up at every turn in an overdone series of physical comedy bits – he drinks all the coffee trying to figure out which one is decaf and runs into the door excited he finally got the order right. Hardy har har. The main focus, however, is on Dre discovering that his self-obsessed and seemingly airy daughter Zoey actually has a successful make-up tutorial Vlog channel. Zoey’s premise would be pretty clever – if it hadn’t been blatantly stolen from a far better Modern Family episode.
In season five, episode 13 of Modern Family Phil and Claire take their eldest daughter, Haley, out to dinner in order to convince her she needs to start thinking about her future until they find out she has already been profiting off a makeup tutorial Youtube channel. Here the stakes are continually raised because Phil and Claire get drunk and are revealed to Haley to be humorously manipulative. Unfortunately for Black-ish even if we didn’t have the powerhouse Modern Family to compare it to, the plot points are so obvious and the writing so bland it wouldn’t have executed the premise well anyway. The father-daughter plot even gets resolved with an almost Full House-esque speech where Zoey complains about how Dre took control of the one thing that meant something to her and he apologizes for blah blah blah, you can piece it together.
The B story with Rainbow, Jack and Diane still kind of played to the tropes of the normally smart mom going to absurd lengths to impress an inconsequential neighbor, but at least it was done with some finesse. This episode Rainbow has largely been the mouthpiece of this show’s unique voice, highlighting, for example, that Diane begging on behalf of the only black family in the upper middle class neighborhood puts them all in an awkward position. Then the neighbor misconstrues Jack and Diane’s lemonade stand as Rainbow’s pathetic attempt to make some money, which isn’t particularly clever but the surprisingly strong acting of Marsai Martin especially gives the talented Tracee Ellis Ross someone to play off.
This episode was distinctly mediocre not because it was uninspired, but because it just did not understand how to make use of what differentiates it from Modern Family and all the other single-camera family sitcoms out their right now: the Millenial/ Gen X, wealthy black perspective on family life. Instead of squeezing out pithy one-liners that could be found anywhere, they should build on the Beef Plantation and the oddly fitting cutaway to the kids in an early 2000s R&B music video fantasy that no other show on television could pull off. Here’s to hoping Blackish finds its real voice before ABC moves onto another show that can.