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Black-ish’s anxiety over a Trump presidency sneakily highlights the show’s own bubble

A Trump presidency has Americans at one another’s throats. Thank goodness for Black-ish.

The Johnson family watches the election returns roll in.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for January 8 through 14 is “Lemons,” the 12th episode of the third season of ABC’s Black-ish.

Hollywood isn’t sure what to do about Donald Trump.

The movie and TV industry, long a center of cosmopolitan liberalism, often finds itself cast as the villain in the stories that red-state America tells itself. At the same time, it’s hard to remember an instance when the industry was this united against an incoming president. Sure, many in Hollywood disagreed with Ronald Reagan, but he was still a son of the industry, and decorum supposedly reigned.

But Trump? Nobody will perform at his inauguration, and the Golden Globes were essentially an extended riff on an early joke that host Jimmy Fallon told, the punchline of which boiled down to, “A year from now, we’ll all be dead.” Hollywood not only doesn’t support the president-elect — it’s actively scared of him.

And, to be sure, a majority of Americans didn’t vote for Trump, nor are his approval ratings all that great. In 2017, criticizing the incoming president doesn’t mean risking one’s career in the way that Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines did when she criticized George W. Bush in 2003. There are an awful lot of Americans who are just as scared as these celebrities, and someone like Meryl Streep, speaking at the Golden Globes, hopes to connect to them.

But what about everybody else? Pop culture is ostensibly for everybody, and even if it challenges our assumptions or forces us to think about different viewpoints, it generally tries to do so in as nonconfrontational a manner as possible. How do those in the industry who oppose Trump stand up against him without hurting their bottom lines? (After all, if nothing else, Hollywood is wildly capitalist.)

“Lemons,” the most recent episode of Black-ish, has some ideas.

The characters on Black-ish just assume everybody they know voted for Hillary Clinton — until they meet someone who didn’t

Dre and his co-workers argue over what lost Hillary Clinton the election.

The American sitcom is better than any other TV format at staging long conversations that express multiple viewpoints. It’s true that the sitcom spent many years steadfastly avoiding the sorts of blood-drawing, exhaustion-causing political arguments Americans have in their living rooms.

But then All in the Family came along in 1971. And from that point on, the sitcom has been perhaps the best TV genre for capturing how people who love and respect each other can also disagree violently.

Early in Black-ish’s third season, the episode “40 Acres and a Vote” illustrated how the series fits neatly into this tradition. In it, the characters argued about the then-upcoming election, expressing their ambivalence about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders’s loss in the primaries, and voting in general, examining each issue with sharp wit.

What you might notice is that all of that election-related ambivalence assumes a mostly progressive audience. This makes sense. Unlike its fellow ABC sitcom Last Man Standing, which depicts a conservative dad and his more progressive daughters, all living in purple-state Colorado, Black-ish occupies two longtime Democratic strongholds: the black community and the city of Los Angeles.

Indeed, when “Lemons” begins with a view of the 2016 Electoral College map and then dives into the sea of blue surrounding LA, the implication is obvious: These characters live in their own bubble.

And that bubble is only reinforced throughout the half-hour, as the various characters struggle, two months after the election, with Clinton’s loss and Trump’s triumph. Dre (Anthony Anderson) worries that his advertising office won’t complete a pitch in time to meet a deadline because his co-workers keep adjourning to deal with election-related stress. His wife, Bow (recent Golden Globe winner Tracee Ellis Ross), keeps donating to various progressive causes.

And his kids have the day off from private school because some of their white classmates told a Hispanic teacher she would have to leave the country after Trump’s victory. In response, the school is holding a “healing rally,” which seems like the sort of thing that would only fly in LA.

But the longer “Lemons” runs, the more Black-ish sets about showing just how permeable the Johnson family’s bubble always was.

One of Dre’s co-workers, Lucy (Catherine Reitman), reveals she voted for Trump, throwing his other co-workers into a frenzy. Bow frets as her daughter Zoe (Yara Shahidi) seems unconcerned with the results of the election or with political advocacy. And Junior (Marcus Scribner), asked to recite Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the healing rally, learns that the speech has more in it beyond “I have a dream.”

In all storylines, the same message is gently underlined by creator Kenya Barris: The things you think you know are often not true. Your co-worker might vote for Trump. A famous speech might involve much more than its most famous line. And your own daughter might have a good reason for pulling back from advocacy.

Then, in the episode’s climax, Barris goes for broke.

“Lemons” tries to tie the characters’ experiences to the black experience in America

Dre passionately asks his co-workers to try to see through each other’s eyes for a bit.

Dre’s climactic speech — in which he informs his co-workers that to be black in America is to already love a country that will always let you down, so Trump’s win hasn’t made him feel any more let down — is the sort of beautiful, hopeful agitprop that Black-ish traffics in at its best.

At its heart, Black-ish believes that progress is possible and that we’ve made plenty. But it also believes we’ve made less than we might like to congratulate ourselves for. Dre tells his white co-workers that in the wake of Trump’s election, they might have experienced, for a split second, what it means to be black in America: feeling terrified of having everything yanked away from you but still needing to move forward, because progress, for its own sake, is worth it.

Indeed, that progress is baked into the show’s premise, albeit on an interpersonal level. Dre and Bow have a better life than their parents did, and they’ve been able to give their children an even better life, which is theirs to do with as they will.

So there’s hope there, but also frustration. The family’s assimilation into America’s upper class means its roots in the working class, which are still present in Dre’s memory, are fading further and further into the past.

Of course, it’s not as if progress is a foregone conclusion, and the show doesn’t try to fool anyone not believing it will be easy. “Lemons” ends with a plea from Dre for everybody to start listening to each other, as he insists that not everybody who voted for Trump is racist or completely out of their mind. Then again, believing the alternative might be just too depressing to express.

This need to somehow maintain a hopeful status quo is a weak spot of the American sitcom. What if Trump’s presidency is as bad as it could possibly be? Sitcoms trade in sunny optimism. The shows themselves must always occupy a happy little bubble where the jokes flow freely, even in times of tragedy or catastrophe. The characters of Black-ish will march right along as they always have, regardless of what happens in the outside world.

But no matter what, there’s value in acknowledging that these fears exist. Maybe Dre’s hope for a world where we all try to understand each other better comes to pass, and maybe the fears of his co-workers do too. Black-ish can’t say for certain; all it can do is peel back the sitcom’s sunny surface to peek at whatever lies beneath it. The show might have hope, but it’s smart enough to know that hope always goes hand in hand with fear, at least a little bit.

Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30 pm Eastern on ABC. And the entire run of the series so far is available on Hulu.