Mixed-ish, the instantly likable prequel to Black-ish, is about an American family with ideological differences. On the one hand, there are the hippie parents, on the other hand there are the kids who just want to fit in at school, including their son who wants to be a millionaire… no, wait a minute, I’m thinking of Family Ties.
Okay, how about this: Mixed-ish is a reminder that mixed-race families were just starting to become a thing in the 1980s. It all starts when these children of color come to live in a house owned by a stuffy white man with lots of money… no, no, that’s Diff’rent Strokes.
Maybe you’re getting my point. The second spinoff from Black-ish is a breakneck punchline machine, the kind audiences expect from a 21st-century network comedy. It shows a willingness to touch upon touchy topics like race and class, as long as they don’t go all Harry Truman in the passing lane and slow things down.
And yet, unlike its predecessor, Mixed-ish has a cheerful, Hands-Across-America sensibility that is a throwback to Eighties sitcoms. I don’t know if it will continue down this path, because the pilot episode was the only one ABC provided in advance. (And the pilot was originally set to air as an episode of Black-ish until someone smelled spinoff.) But I hope it does. Mixed-ish is a delightful example of how history — not nostalgia — can be used to help us see our present day more perceptively through the lens of yesterday.
The show opens in the present-day Johnson home of Black-ish, with Andre (Anthony Anderson) in utter disbelief that none of his children is the slightest bit interested in watching Breakin’, the 1984 movie that featured a break-dancing Jean-Claude Van Damme and led, as Andre rightly notes, to the fantastic Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
What stupefies him even more, however, is learning that his wife Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) has never seen the Breakin’ films either.
“What’s the big deal?” she says casually. “You know I didn’t have movies on the commune.” And we’re off.
Within moments we are transported to 1985 and an idyllic outdoor northern-California-ish setting inside the compound of an unnamed multi-cultural cult. Everyone is dressed in simple, flowing garb, the children are happy, the adults are happy, there’s peace, organic vegetables, and bigamy everywhere. Also weapons, though we don’t actually see those. What we see are ATF agents busting up the compound and forcing 12-year-old Rainbow, her younger brother and sister, and her hippie parents out into the real world.
(This sympathetic treatment of communal life reminds me of my favorite episode of Lou Grant, which was maybe the unlikeliest spinoff ever and was "smothered" by CBS in the early Reagan years. It was the episode where Charlie’s son joins a cult and Charlie tries to have him de-programmed. Later, though, Charlie has to admit that his son is pretty damn happy just chanting Krishna all day, and isn’t our kids’ happiness what’s most important? Now that was the Eighties.)
I’ll let Bow explain the rest to you. Almost the whole pilot is narrated by Ross, who's listed as one of the creators of Mixed-ish. But in a nutshell, young Bow (winningly played by Arica Himmel) is torn between the idealism of her p’s and the very real need to fit in, which her sibs are desperate to do.
Dad (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Mom (Tika Sumpter) are both a parody of over-enlightened law-school dropouts, and a sincere representation of a loving interracial couple. Dad chafes at having to return to the capitalist world (“I can't believe these people charge for manure!” he growls while out in the garden). Mom is no less committed to the fight, but as a black woman living rent-free in a house owned by her white father-in-law (Gary Cole), she takes a somewhat more pragmatic approach to putting on a suit and earning filthy lucre, compared with her husband.
Likewise, the parents try to teach their children well, in a Berkeley kind of way (“Who interrupts while others are talking?” “Fascists,” the kids reply unenthusiastically in unison). But when the children make bad choices, that’s cool too, because that’s how boomer parents roll. This provides the setup for the pilot’s glorious apex, when Bow’s younger brother Johan (Ethan William Childress) and sister Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris) ignore parental admonitions to avoid the “idiot box” in the living room, which they know is their portal to a world of mass entertainment and acceptance by their peers at school.
It’s a scene that wonderfully captures the TV culture of the time, and is eulogized by James Poniewozik in his new book Audience of One: “Television was something that flowed into your house,” Poniewozik writes. “You turned on TV like a tap and let gush out whatever happened to be coming through the pipes.” Having been denied this utility at the commune (as well as indoor plumbing), Johann and Santamonica try to make up for years of lost viewing in one weekend. They don’t just stare at the tube, they bask radiantly in its light as we hear a montage of theme songs from their viewing orgy: The Jeffersons, Three’s Company, Facts of Life, and — yes — Diff'rent Strokes.
Those are some telling choices: escapist comedies over dramas, three shows with minority casting. Even in the age of least objectionable content and resurgent conservatism, pop culture is more diverse than anytime before. And the fragmenting of America is only beginning.
Bow wants no part of the boob tube. And it’s not just because she's the responsible oldest child. Looking back on commune life older Bow declares, "I wouldn't trade those years for anything." This mixed-race kid may someday have to be practical like her black mom, but she’s just twelve, is carrying the DNA of a radical white dude, and is seriously feeling his heartbreak at being ripped away from their Eighties Shangri-La.
And so, despite the relentless demands of network comedy, Mixed-ish seems determined not to oversimplify, to avoiding casting its characters in purely black-and-white terms. Grandpa proudly displays a portrait of Ronald Reagan in his law office, believes Commies are bad and greed is good — but “he loves his brown grandchildren,” Bow assures us.
By establishing such strong bonds between ideologically and racially stratified characters, Mixed-ish is a kind of Mailgram of hope from the Eighties: Remember, we had a polarizing president, cops rounding up people of color, godawful hair, and we made it through all right!
In short, today’s troubles will seem lighter if we can just learn to apply the simple life lessons we all learned… from sitcoms.
Mixed-ish premieres Tuesday, September 24th at 9:00 PM ET on ABC
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.