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Black-ish - Juneteenth/Mother Nature - Review: “Soon, Diane Johnson”

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People really don’t like talking about things that make them uncomfortable, and both Black-ish’s ambitious musical season opener and its devastating second episode showcase this theme in very different ways. Together, they represent the show’s two greatest strengths. Black-ish is powerful when it confronts the racism inherent in American culture and the ways people of all identities shape and interact with their own narratives. It’s also fantastic at bringing these lofty ideals down to earth in character studies of the Johnson family. Yes, talking about reparations is uncomfortable. Talking about post-partum depression is uncomfortable. Both are necessary.

Black-ish went all out in “Juneteenth,” the season premiere. As what happens in so many episodes, Dre’s outrage over something small ends up leading to a meaningful discussion about a larger cultural issue. In this case, a very badly-thought-out “diversified” Columbus Day play ends up becoming a history lesson for the audience.

As the Johnson family (now with tiny adorable DeVante) watch the twins’ Columbus Day play, Dre and Pops can’t bother to hide their contempt. Bow just wants a butterscotch from Ruby and, after Junior makes a great meta joke about the nature of quirky spinoffs, Zoey straight-up leaves. She jokes that she’s never coming back. Soon, it might not be a joke.

While Pops just doesn’t like child performances, Dre is hostile to the idea of a Columbus Day play. Why are we celebrating an explorer who didn’t discover anything and was merely a harbinger of slavery, genocide, and violence to the native people? Dre scoffs that the school would never allow the children to tell the real story of Columbus and slavery, and the tone-deaf show coordinator isn’t changing his mind. Her attempts to change the show, by adding diversity but not changing the meaning, are a great indicator of how much she just doesn’t get it. Her saying, “Colored children” pretty much proves that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

While the twins are just embarrassed by their dad’s outburst, Dre is convinced that this is a wrong that needs to be righted. He enlists the help of musician Aloe Black, who is just at the office to help make a Samsung advertisement. Together, the two start educating Dre’s coworkers about Juneteenth.

Is there any show that engages with history as much as Black-ish? In this one episode, Dre and Aloe (well, mostly Aloe) provide a history lesson about Juneteenth, economics, the reconstruction period and more. This is a show that’s comfortable talking about “forty acres and a mule” and understanding that the audience will get the reference. Best of all, it does it all in musical form.

While there was a small interval of Jack and Diane rapping earlier, the first musical scene of this musical episode is a Schoolhouse Rock inspired number. The cute cartoons are a terrifying juxtaposition to the horrors they’re singing about. Just because it’s dressed up in a song and dance number doesn’t make the realities less bleak.

Dre’s coworkers, however, aren’t entirely on board with celebrating the day that every American was free, although, due to Aloe Black, they will concede that slavery was bad. Dre decides to talk to them in a language they can understand – money. As Aloe Black helpfully points out, economists believe that slaves contributed 300 billion dollars to the American economy. And lived in those “cute tiny houses” on Josh’s grandparents’ plantation.

When his coworkers protest that that was a long time ago and everyone should just get over it, Dre delivers the most powerful speech of all and the final song hits us. It’s heartbreaking to see the slave family in the musical, played by the Black-ish cast, list all the things they’re so excited to do now that they’re free – marry who they wish, sit at lunch counters, and more. Dre’s most important point, and why he becomes determined to celebrate Juneteenth, is that history doesn’t just stay in the past. It constantly affects the present lives of all American citizens. It would do us all well to remember that.

Slavery isn’t the only uncomfortable subject Black-ish isn’t afraid to tackle. Tonight’s episode focused on an issue that many feel uncomfortable discussing – Rainbow included.

It begins with another expositional speech from Dre. While most of Dre’s intros end up telling truths about American culture, this one was purposely wrong. He gushes about how motherhood should be the most natural thing to a woman. As we soon find out, it’s this exact attitude that’s making Bow have such a hard time after the birth of DeVante.

Because most of “Juneteenth” took place either in the office or fantasy musical sequences, this is the first chance we have to check back in with the Johnson family. Zoey is still around, not yet headed for her spinoff. Diane is still as blunt as ever, and now knows Charlie’s home address. Jack thinks that a skull and crossbones means that something is for pirates, not straight-up poison. Pops is still grumpy. Ruby is still snippy. It’s good to see them all again.

The only Johnson who has really changed is Bow, who goes through the episode completely miserable. It’s a great testament to Tracee Ellis Ross’s acting ability that Bow looks absolutely horrible in most of her scenes. She’s grouchy, testy, and alternates between worrying about the baby and staring off into space. Everyone knows that something’s wrong, but no one can put their finger on it.

For once, Dre’s coworkers have unintentionally good advice. They suggest that Dre read women’s magazines to see what’s going on. They are very against approaching Bow directly.

Luckily, Dre picks up one that actually mentions post-partum depression and he tries to get Bow to agree to take a quiz. While, like most of Dre’s gestures, it’s pretty obvious, something obvious is just what Bow needs. She insists that she’s ok, because women are supposed to be ok. In fact, they’re supposed to immediately be amazing mothers. Bow doesn’t want to admit that that’s not the case, but a 49/50 on Dre’s quiz convinces her to seek professional help.

For a lot of sitcoms, the hard work would be done. The Johnsons had a problem. They found a fix. Roll credits. That’s not the case for “Mother Nature.” Going to a psychiatrist and going on medication isn’t the end of this journey, but just the beginning. As Bow still struggles with the effects of PPD, the rest of the Johnsons step up in a heartwarming way.

Junior takes charge of the kids. He orders them to help Bow and stop leaving pens out everywhere. Jack baby-proofs everything, which means zip-tying all the cabinets and locking the toilet. Diane offers to write thank you letters for the dumb baby gifts she hated.

Pops and Ruby also react to Bow’s change of circumstances. For Pops, this means offering good advice about Bow's problems. Ruby, on the other hand, takes it as an opportunity to needle Bow about her insecurities. Gone are the days of yelling at nurses for blankets for her daughter. Now that both Bow and the baby are out of life-threatening danger, Ruby is back to her old self. She slyly suggests that it’s Bow’s breastmilk that’s the problem and cattily brings up the medication.

That’s it. Bow, who has put up with Ruby’s comments for years, can’t take it anymore. While lashing out in anger may not be the best move for her, it sure feels good to hear her give Ruby hell. It’s only when Ruby insults Bow as a mother that she finally stands up to her mother-in-law and orders her out of her house.

And that’s when Dre steps up. When Ruby turns to him for help, he stands by his wife and tells her to leave. All episode he’s been stressing about what he could do to make Bow feel safe and comfortable, and he manages to do the exact right thing.

It also finally forces Ruby to do the right thing and apologize. She commends Bow for seeking help when she needed it and tells her that she’s a good mother. This alone isn’t enough to shake Bow of her PPD. The point of the episode is that nothing on its own can shake it. Still, we see Bow make the first steps to recovery at the end and finally enjoy her time with DeVante. We leave the Johnsons in a better place at the end of the episode, spending time with the newest addition to their family.

Thanks for tuning back in to watch Black-ish with me. What did you think of these two episodes? Do you prefer the bigger, thematic episodes or the quieter character-driven ones? Let me know in the comments!

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