Like all media forms, sitcoms have generated a number of contrivances, clichés and certainties since their inception. The idea of an established cast of characters encountering humorous hijinks in their day-to-day lives is in constant peril of going stale. How many times can the same group of faces experience a 30-minute lesson in morality before they run out of lessons to learn? That answer depends solely on the innovativeness of a show’s writers and the ingenuity of the narrative they craft. The third season premiere of ABC’s critically acclaimed “Black-ish” plays into this hand of familiarity in more ways than one.
Centering around the comedic trials and tribulations of the Johnsons, a well-to-do African-American family residing in modern suburbia, “Black-ish” deals with matters of identity in the family, workplace and world at large. Yet, despite its title, the show does not wholly focus on issues of race. In “VIP,” the series’ first episode this season — following its multiple nominations at the 2016 Emmys — Andre “Dre” Sr. (Anthony Anderson) decides to indulge in an exclusive VIP vacation package at Disney World in an effort to treat his family to the luxuries of life he could never afford as a child.
While Dre and his kids soak up the line-free rides, free swag and most effortless trip to Disney World that money can buy, the Johnson matriarch, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) is forced to spend time with her crabby in-laws in a disappointingly standard-fare storyline. Only the cast’s performances and the ending’s subversion on the “appreciate what you have” moral work to save the premiere from complete mediocrity.
Anderson milks every moment he’s on screen as Dre, relishing in his economic advantages with a hilarious nonchalance — as do his on-screen children. They strut up to Space Mountain, Kanye West’s “Monster” pounding in the background, revitalizing what it means to be privileged in hysterical fashion. Ross tries her best to banter with Dre’s mother and father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne) and Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), but the trio’s trip through the park is more akin to corporate sponsorship than comedy writing. The constant stream of Disney food, attractions and souvenirs remind the audience of the setting without having an affecting moment for Ross’ character, save for the fact that she intends to max out Dre’s credit card — a story in itself that does little more than pad the episode’s run time with what feels like a prolonged advertisement.
The episode really shines in the moments wherein the children have to cope with moving through the park grounds as normal patrons. The show doesn’t attempt a tired, sentimental lesson about respecting a wealthy background. Instead, it allows for the kids to organically accept their newfound reality. They don’t miss being VIPs. Consequently, there’s a dismantling of the pedestal that affluence is so often placed on in media and life.
The premiere not only asserts that an appreciation of wealth does not cure entitlement but also that no remedy may exist, and that’s OK. “VIP” proves that fulfillment is subjective, blind to economic background. Unfortunately, this is too briefly covered in the closing minutes and does not justify the episode’s preceding 20-something minutes.
The season three premiere of “Black-ish” relies more on conventional humor and tested gags (i.e. sibling rivalry and in-law scrutiny) than the series has in the past, rendering the episode fairly subpar.
The build-up to the plot’s most pivotal moment is tepid at best, and if not for the charisma of Anderson and his peers, it wouldn’t live up to the series’ standards. For fans of the show, it will satiate, but it’s not an episode to act as an introduction to the series.
The hilarity of “Black-ish” stems from the naturalness with which its main characters navigate the world today, while also living as people of color. It’s a refreshing series that makes a point without ever having to make one.
“VIP” tries to provide a new perspective on economic privilege, but like the fireworks displayed over the Magic Kingdom, that dissipates fairly quickly.