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‘Black-ish’ Was Built to Nail Wednesday Night’s Election Episode

The weekly network sitcom took on the election — and was perfectly positioned to do it

(ABC)
(ABC)

Black-ish is not the first television show to take on Donald Trump after the election. South Park, for one, with its inhumanly fast and insistently lo-fi production schedule, was able to strike while the iron was hot. But “Lemons,” the 12th episode of Black-ish’s third season, is the first example of Trump-era television with the consideration, emotion, and careful composition of a scripted show. It arrived at precisely the right time — long enough after the election for some perspective, but certainly not so long that the feelings behind it weren’t raw. That timing is a unique privilege of the network show, which has both more breathing room than the daily churn of late night and more responsiveness than cable shows written months in advance. “Lemons” as a whole, and especially its boardroom climax, makes the case for the broadcast sitcom as an ideal venue for exorcising our demons and providing catharsis.

Few broadcast shows are better equipped to do a Trump episode. Black-ish is a family comedy with a well-established core of characters and dynamics: advertising executive Andre, patriarch and slight man-baby; doctor Rainbow, now Golden Globe–winning hippie; cool teen Zoey, extremely uncool teen Junior, and twins Jack (the sweetheart) and Diane (probably a sociopath, but in a cute way). Black-ish knows how to play its components off of one another, which is crucial to making its topic-of-the-week format click — most famously in the form of police brutality bottle episode “Hope,” which takes place entirely in the Johnsons’ living room as they watch and discuss the news, but also more routine installments like last week’s “Their Eyes Were Watching Screens.” Even if the president-elect hadn’t once asked his Twitter followers if the show’s title was “Racism at highest level?,” a Trump episode was always coming.

“Lemons,” the first Black-ish episode to be both written and directed by series creator Kenya Barris, dispenses with TV’s traditional apoliticism: its characters wanted Hillary Clinton to win, and they’re shocked and horrified she didn’t. The Johnsons are upper middle class black professionals living in Los Angeles. It’d be disingenuous to pretend they didn’t have a very particular investment in this contest, or even that the people around them didn’t. Even Dre’s patrician, country-clubbing boss turns out to be a Never Trump-er.

As always, Black-ish makes sure the comedy clicks. The token Trump voter in Dre’s office calls Hillary “the Ben Carson of white women”; in an extra-pointed gag, Dre’s boss has sent people home because “there’s no way we’re getting any work done today” every day since the election, leading to a crunch session that inevitably implodes into election squabbling. But Barris also makes sure all three of the episode’s subplots build toward a genuinely affecting climax, each striking a different beat — anger, futility, and hope — with equal conviction.

Even though “Lemons” eventually works its way to across-the-board idealism, its standout moment belongs to Dre. His boss, noting Dre’s abstention from the day’s screaming matches, asks why he doesn’t “care about what’s happening in this country.” What follows is an extraordinary speech about how this election felt to him as a black American. “Black people wake up every day believing our lives are gonna change, even though everything around us says it’s not,” Dre says, as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” plays over a montage, a tactic that’s become a staple of Black-ish’s visual style — “Strange Fruit,” a lament of the horrors of lynching, on network television. “Truth be told, you ask most black people and they tell you no matter who won the election, they didn’t expect the hood to get better,” Dre fumes. “But they still voted, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

It’s a similar sentiment to the “Election Night” sketch in Dave Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live episode — liberal white people are so shaken because they’ve grown up believing this country works for them; black people aren’t because they haven’t — but delivered with pathos instead of dry humor. The scene lands considerably harder than the other two plotlines, because it’s an expression of what this election felt like not just to shell-shocked Hillary voters, but to black Hillary voters: as a challenge to an idealism that’s seen far graver tests, and emerged both stronger and more complicated for it. “Lemons” is a perfect example of the specificity that’s key to making good television work, and the prime position a weekly show can occupy in our discourse when it chooses to enter the fray.