Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. The episode of the week for September 20 through 6, 2015, is the season premiere of Black-ish, titled "THE Word."
There's a fun little subgenre of TV sitcom episodes that are all about avoiding saying a certain thing, for fear of offending either viewers at home or network censors. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Seinfeld's "The Contest," in which Jerry and the gang compete to see who can keep from masturbating the longest, while script writer Larry David does his level best to keep from using the word in question, relying on euphemisms instead.
"THE Word," the second season premiere of Black-ish, ABC's tremendously funny comedy about the upper-class Johnson family, who try to stay true to their black cultural roots while also enjoying the fortunes bestowed upon them, doesn't quite fit in with "The Contest" and its ilk, but it's in the same ballpark. "THE Word" never speaks the word in question (a racial slur usually designated "the n-word"), but it's only because it's bleeped out the several times it's said.
The reasons for this turn out to have little to do with network censors and everything to do with the march of social progress. See, the producers of Black-ish screened "THE Word" for test screening audiences, and because of those reactions, they decided to bleep the word in question for broadcast.
And that might seem heartening on some level — the slur in question has become such a radioactive word that people aren't able to detect comedy anywhere near it — but it also speaks to "THE Word's" central message in deeply interesting ways. This is an episode all about how we sometimes think getting rid of horrible words will also get rid of the impulses that animate them — and how wrong that idea can be.
How Black-ish tackles the question of who can say what
"THE Word" commences when youngest Johnson son Jack performs the uncensored version of Kanye West's "Gold Digger" at a school talent show. The show's attention to detail (and the comedy that results therein) is evident in every frame, from the way Jack's teacher stoops to the child-height microphone to announce his name to the awkward dancing undertaken by the school's mostly white staff members when Jack launches into his performance.
Of course, West's line, "I ain't sayin' she a gold digger" is followed with a line that rhymes. When Jack performs it verbatim, he runs afoul of the school's rules against hate speech — rules put in place by his mother, Rainbow (the always amazing Tracee Ellis Ross). Jack's twin sister, Diane, sighs and rolls her eyes. She told him to perform the radio edit.
That's just the inciting incident for an episode that proves incredibly adept at dissecting everything from moral hypocrisy to language policing to the very good reasons black people have for wanting to be able to police the word in question.
Rainbow, for instance, led the movement for zero tolerance for hate speech, but once it's her son who's broken the rule, she immediately comes up with equivocations and reasons he shouldn't be punished. Meanwhile, Jack's father, Dre (Emmy nominee Anthony Anderson), fumes about how white people are constantly trying to create a world where no one can use the word, or where everyone can.
And in that consideration, "THE Word" manages to offer up a surprisingly complete history of this horrific slur, all while never once speaking it out loud and while telling some great jokes.
Black-ish offers a very specific look at the American black experience
The best thing about the recent wave of great sitcoms about black families (including this, NBC's The Carmichael Show, and Starz's Survivor's Remorse) is the sense these shows offer of a window into lives rarely portrayed on television. After all, if you can't say what you really mean around your family, where can you?
No one show can, of course, speak for the entirety of any one culture's American experience, and Black-ish doesn't pretend to, with its upper-class milieu. But in "THE Word," it does its very best to examine its central subject from every possible angle. Older generations used it as an insult, while their children tried to reclaim it as a sign of friendship and respect.
But in attempting to strip the word of the hate it once carried, it's possible Dre and his friends have simply made it seem more palatable to those who don't realize its horrible history, like the white friends of Dre's teenage daughter. The episode even has time for a hilarious sequence in which Dre and several friends try to explain to their white co-workers who can and can't use the word, with the only points of agreement being that black people can use it and white people can't.
The answer comes in a seemingly insignificant B-plot, in which Dre's oldest son, Andre Jr., attempts to get the family to be more environmentally conscious by taking shorter showers and not watering the lawn. And while the family is all about saving the Earth, nobody wants to significantly alter their habits to do so. Similarly, Dre and his parents might understand the unintentional consequences of using a racial slur to refer to other friends and family members, but it's too hard to draw a firm line in the sand when it comes to their own behavior.
The only conclusion the episode ultimately draws is that use of the word is up to any black individual — but only after understanding the word's historical connotations and awful power. It's rare that an episode of television can tackle an important topic and find a way to demonize no one, while staying funny. "THE Word" works because it's not an episode with answers; it's one with questions. That makes all the difference.
You can watch "THE Word" on Hulu right now. Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30 pm Eastern on ABC.