To kick off his new $100 million Netflix deal, Kenya Barris — the talented creator of black-ish, grown-ish, and my personal favorite mixed-ish — decided to step in front of the camera. For once, I think his creative judgment has abandoned him.
In #blackAF, Kenya Barris plays fictionalized version of himself, a rich and successful TV producer of shows including that very same ABC hit, black-ish. He has a wife named Joya (played by Rashida Jones) and six kids. The parents reek of entitlement and self-centeredness. The kids are various degrees of wack. The show celebrates/normalizes black families and race relations while undermining them with humor that cuts close to the bone.
As Alan Sepinwall has pointed out in impressive detail, #blackAF is almost a character-by-character re-creation of black-ish. It’s weird if you think about it — Kenya on #blackAF being based on Anthony Anderson’s Dre, who himself was based on the real Kenya Barris. But then again, it’s not like this is uncharted territory for a situation comedy.
And in hindsight, it’s not that surprising. As we’ve already seen from the streamer’s previous megadeals with David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld, and will see again when Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood drops next month, Netflix pays a premium for brand names. It’s a play-it-safe strategy with largely predictable outcomes that generally pay off, although not always (helloooo Chelsea Handler).
To that point, the fact that Barris would make a show this derivative suggests a very quick pitch meeting: Something like this (gestures to screen on wall), only with me as the star (plus the usual Netflix add-ons, like swearing and shaggy-lengthed episodes).
And if that were all there was to #blackAF, I’d be fine with it. Tonally, though, something is wrong. When I watch an episode of black-ish, I’m not left feeling like I’ve just watched two horrible people raising six horrible kids. Dre and Bow are flawed parents, to be sure, and if my grandkids got caught pulling some of the stunts these kids get away with, I would fully approve of the worst punishment imaginable, which these days is a week without Minecraft Realms.
But there are two crucial differences here. First, black-ish, like mixed-ish and grown-ish, are narrated sitcoms. An omnipresent, omniscient voiceover walks the viewer through — Dre on black-ish, grownup Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) on mixed-ish. In contrast, #blackAF is a mockumentary. And not a Modern Family or late-seasons Office mockumentary, either. This is a full-on, “I’m doing a documentary for my NYU film school application” mockumentary.
Secondly, Kenya Barris — who has no prior acting credits — is starring in his own sitcom. When you mix these two volatile elements into a traditional sitcom (or an anti-sitcom), other things happen, none of them good.
For starters, Barris’ acting inexperience means the heaviest lifting in #blackAF’s early episodes falls on his oldest daughter Drea (Iman Benson), the one who’s trying to get into NYU. Taking advantage of her daddy’s millions, Drea has hired an entire documentary crew to follow her and her family around all day long, tape high definition greenscreen interviews with the talent — er, other family members — and generally impede on what passes for normal family life.
It’s a mess. The whole show kind of is, but this Spinal Tap-meets-Loud Family conceit is really a mess. When other storylines aren’t working, the poor doc crew gets dragged into the frame to save the scene. For instance, in the third episode, Drea frantically hands her iPhone to a crew member and sends him running upstairs to capture the moment when Joya walks in on daughter number three, Izzy (Scarlet Spencer), dancing with her white girl friends to “Act Up.” The joke takes way too long to set up, only to crumble into a soggy heap moments later when Kenya and a boyhood friend mumble some punchlines about Izzy’s choice of “Act Up” (“That’s the music equivalent of a dirty hypodermic needle”).
Mockumentary is an inherently brutal format. It’s all cutaways and confession-cam putdowns, whiplash and sharp edges. The reason you bring in a narrator is to soften the edges, inject some dulcet-toned humanity into the scene. That’s all missing here. The result is that I don’t find the kids’ ugly habits endearing, or the adults’ ugly sides relatable. And do we really need to see that tired joke, not once but twice, where Drea pretends to stop filming while her mom says something incriminating on camera?
In the second episode, daughter number two Chloe (Gennaya Walton) and her parents go to the same hip-hop rave. When the adults realize that Chloe is high, and she realizes her p’s are high, the crew is there to capture every moment through their long lenses. And yet ... it just hangs there uncomfortably. “Do something! Say something!” I yelled at my screen.
There is in fact a narrator on #blackAF, but it’s not Kenya; it’s his heartless, desperate-to-get-into-film-school daughter Drea. This is another unfortunate choice, as we see in episode three, when an attempt to bring some interesting black history into the show — it’s one of the best things about mixed-ish — turns into a confusing and troubling form of virtue signaling.
The episode revolves around what Drea, in a voiceover, explains is the “real” Independence Day — not July 4th but June 19th, aka Juneteenth, the African-American holiday to mark the date in 1865 when the last southern slaves were finally told they were emancipated. It’s a lovely sequence that includes video of Marvin Gaye singing “The Real National Anthem”… but then Drea proceeds to crap on everything she just said by announcing that her father is “the only person who celebrates Juneteenth,” implying that he just does it to connect with his nonexistent black heritage (like trying to drink strawberry soda, which he hates).
The scene reminded me, in a way, of Amazon’s Hunters, which felt it had to invent Holocaust history because the real Holocaust wasn’t horrific enough. By pretending to extol Juneteenth only to lampoon people who extol Juneteenth moments later, you’re trivializing the use of history.
There are certainly LOL moments in every episode I watched of #blackAF, like Kenya’s interactions with his browbeaten white intern in episode one, or the scene where he buys an expensive piece of contemporary art — essentially an 8-foot-square canvas painted almost solid black — and Joya demands he explain what it is.
“It’s a … postmodern contemporary piece on gentrification,” he stammers.
“How much did you pay for this?” she interrupts him. “You’re like an old lady who just got email!”
Oddly, these megarich moments — which you couldn’t do on an upper-middle-class show like black-ish — are more relatable than any of the dysfunctional family scenes. Having Kenya joke about leaving his family isn’t funny. Having a wife cynically explain her husband-appeasement strategy on camera isn’t amusing, And pitting a super-ambitious daughter against her parents because it makes for a good show? That’s just hateful.
I say this as someone truly disappointed that #blackAF didn’t turn out better, but also as someone who knows that Kenya Barris has just begun to spend Netflix’s millions. I’m sure he’ll do better next time — hopefully from behind the camera.
The first season of #blackAF drops on Netflix today.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.