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Heady Stakes for ‘Black-ish’ on ABC

The first time I heard about “Black-ish,” ABC’s new sitcom about an affluent black family in Los Angeles, I was skeptical about its premise. Early commercials and previews played up tired stereotypes about “acting white,” made jokes about curvy behinds and took shots at the heritage of the show’s biracial matriarch, played by the effervescent Tracee Ellis Ross. The coup de grâce was the title, which seemed to suggest that the family’s status was not in line with what it means to be authentically black in America.

But a few episodes in, the show has taken a much more nuanced and complicated dive into racial identity than initially advertised, particularly in the way it weaves plotlines around assimilation and appropriation, and how they impact black culture. In one episode, Anthony Anderson, who plays the father, frets over his son’s decision to go by Andy, instead of Andre, at his predominantly white school. In another, he lectures his son on the importance of acknowledging other black people he encounters, saying, “No matter who you are, or where you’re at, it’s your duty to give ‘the nod.’ ”

And hovering above all that is a more subtle – and quietly clever – narrative arc, involving the gap between parents and children and how each generation has a different awareness of what it means to be black in 2014.

“The PC way of handling culture has been to not talk about it,” Kenya Barris, the show’s creator, said in an interview. “But we should be talking about it.”

And so far, his approach seems to be a hit. The premiere resonated with critics and attracted a robust 11 million viewers, besides generating a lot of positive reactions and discussions on social media. In a vote of confidence, ABC has given the show a full-season order.

That news is thrilling because I am rooting for “Black-ish.” I want it to succeed because the show arrives when black characters on mainstream broadcast networks who directly deal with issues like race are incredibly rare.

Maybe it isn’t fair to hold a new show to such high expectations. But being a black consumer of media requires a certain disconnect from reality, since the world you see on screen rarely reflects your own. TV is resplendent with ethnically diverse casts, from procedurals like “Law & Order: SVU” and “NCIS: Los Angeles” to hits like “Scandal” and “Elementary” to sitcoms like “New Girl” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

But the characters on those series don’t often deal directly with racial issues in everyday life and, by not doing so, perpetuate another kind of colorblindness, one that homogenizes characters and treats race as inconsequential, when it is anything but. To those watching at home, it seems as if networks think that post-racial storylines are the only acceptable ways of showcasing black characters on television.

What black viewers are left with instead, said Dayna Chatman, a media researcher at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, is a dynamic that “makes whiteness the norm.” Chatman noted that reality television often showcases African-Americans, but since that genre is often about over-the-top performances, she said, it isn’t “particularly representative or flattering.”

In other words, there’s no middle ground: Either race is largely absent or exaggerated to the point of caricature. The lack of texture and diversity on television is harder to ignore amid the rise of streaming and online series (say, Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” or Issa Rae’s “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl”) as well as social media like Instagram and Vine (see King Bach’s account). They offer a welcome and much more nuanced window into black humor and culture.

That absence is in part what prompted my initial skepticism of “Black-ish,” one that was shared by friends and blogosphere types alike. After seeing few shows about black people on TV, to have one emerge that wanted to deal with race directly was unnerving, and we were all unsure whether it would simply reinforce stereotypes and clichés rather than explore the depth and breadth of black culture and the black experience in America.

Barris said he was determined to do more than create a successor to “The Cosby Show,” although “Black-ish” draws from its legacy. But while the popularity of the Huxtable family centered on its warmth and relatability, it was, Barris said, “about a family that happened to be black.” He added that he wanted his show to be much more cognizant of modern racial identity, and to reflect the class and racial dynamics of being black in America.

It’s a fine line to walk. Chatman, the media researcher, said that since there are so few shows – outside sketch comedy – that try to tackle the experience of African-Americans, the effort is fraught for the very audience that show runners are after.

Demby, of NPR, said that whether Barris is prepared for it, time will tell: “No show should be encumbered with the weight of representing a barrier for future television casts. But the crazy thing is, whether they want to or not, the creators of ‘Black-ish’ are weighted with that.”