After 8 seasons, a fond farewell to 'black-ish'

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (TNS)

In the latest episode of "Black-ish," advertising executive Andre "Dre" Johnson returns from an unfulfilling day of work with life changes on his mind.

"I feel like I'm questioning everything," he says. His wife, Rainbow, admits she's feeling the same way.

So what else is new?

For eight seasons, the Johnsons have found themselves at the crossroads so many times they should name the intersection after them.

But this time, it's the last. Tuesday's episode marks the end of both an enduring sitcom and an eye-opening dialogue on what it's like to be Black in modern-day America.

More:Password sharing now a bigger problem for Netflix, other streamers

More:Popular 'American Pickers' TV show returning to York County

That conversation has included a wide range of topics: police brutality, colorism, Juneteenth and Prince's legacy.

"I think we covered a lot," said Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Rainbow, during a virtual chat with TV critics. "I think we probably could have gone another 10 years. It was really about this family navigating the world that we all live in, in a timely way. And so, there's a never‑ending amount of topics for us to discuss that are a part of the wallpaper of our lives that we're trying to make sense of. We leave with a whole bunch of joy and pride about how we handled everything."

"Black-ish" certainly isn't the first series to deal with racial issues. But it's hard to think of another network sitcom that would dedicate an entire episode on how to deal with a 6-year-old casually repeating slur words from a rap song.

Executive producer Kenya Barris wanted to create a version of "The Cosby Show" in which the family was more "outwardly Black." But he never expected the series to become such a cultural touchstone.

"You give birth to a baby and you're like, 'He's going to be the greatest basketball player ever,'" he said. "And he becomes a pianist. It's like, you just let it become what it's going to be."

Anthony Anderson, left, and Tracee Ellis Ross are seen in a scene from the series finale of "black-ish," airing Tuesday.

"Black-ish" was not a ratings juggernaut. It never cracked the top 50 in the Nielsen ratings. Viewership steadily decreased, from 8.5 million in its first season to an average of under 3 million this year. But it meant a great deal to hard-core fans who relished its smart debate on complicated topics that didn't turn into shouting matches.

"We never tried to land in a place where we were telling you, 'This is what you should do,'" Barris said. "The formula was like writing a thesis paper. We would suggest something, try to explain it, then prove or disprove it. That, for me, was the best kind of storytelling technique."

That approach enticed a number of Black icons to make guest appearances. Magic Johnson, Michelle Obama, Octavia Spencer and Sean "Diddy" Combs all popped by. In the finale, Dre gets advice from Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles. And those were just the celebrities who appeared on camera.

"Sidney Poitier visited the set. Dick Gregory, Kendrick Lamar," Barris said. "It meant something when the people we looked up to, our heroes, would stop by the show or be part of it. It was amazing."

"Black-ish" had its lighter moments, too. One of the best running jokes was the rivalry between daughter Diane (Marsai Martin) and Dre's creepy co-worker Charlie, played by Deon Cole. The two made peace, at least temporarily, in a recent episode in which Charlie marries actor Vivica A. Fox.

Their wedding ends in a joyous dance routine to Michael Jackson's "Beat It," one of many highly choreographed numbers that the show staged over the years. It's fitting that the series ends with the cast strutting their stuff in a New Orleans-style second-line parade.

"You're my favorite dance partner," Rainbow tells Dre shortly before the credits roll in the finale.

During the virtual chat, Anderson heaped praise upon his on-screen wife, comparing the two of them to Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

"I've learned to trust in my fellow actor, that I don't have to shoulder the load, that it's not all about me," said Anderson, who is currently starring in the "Law & Order" reboot. "I know that if I take a leap, Tracee is never going to allow me to fall. And I'm there for her. I've not always been that type of actor in the past. Tracee has taught me and opened up a new world for me."

The show also relied on a group of talented young actors, including Minneapolis native Yara Shahidi, who plays the oldest child, Zoey, and makes a brief appearance in Tuesday's episode. The 22-year-old actor left "black-ish" as a regular cast member in 2018.

Her character's show "grown-ish," is one of the most popular shows on Freeform. Other spinoffs have been less successful. "mixed-ish," which centered on Rainbow's childhood, was canceled after two seasons. A proposal for "old-ish," featuring Dre's parents (Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis) touring the country in an RV, seems stuck in idle.

As long as "Grown-ish" continues to thrive, there's a good chance of guest appearances from Shahidi's TV family. But those cameos can never re-create that special feeling of working on the set of "Black-ish" for eight years.

"It's been a beautiful end because we knew it was coming," Ross said. "I walked into it with a very open heart and was very present from the full season. In our last episode, Anthony will tell you, there were a lot of tears from me. They just kept coming. He was, like, 'Are you seriously crying again?' And I would be, like, 'Yeah, I am.' "