Most sitcoms find their voices during holiday episodes. After safely bunting its Halloween storyline, black-ish's "Thanksgiving" episode, even though it wasn't officially about the holiday, did follow the seasonal themes of family, food, and not getting along. And it does a much better job of integrating its goofy sense of humor with its strong character work by introducing the venerable Jenifer Lewis, known from the original theatrical cast of Dreamgirls and who already shared the screen with Tracee Ellis Ross in Girlfriends, playing Dre's overbearing mother. Lewis' diva could not be more different from Ross' Rainbow, with her droll passive-aggressive barbs, greasy soul food, and the uncomfortably close bond that she and Dre share.
How rare it is to see a sitcom character who likes their parent, and they needed to establish a different relationship than Dre has with Pops — so they made him a mama's boy. I can buy that. So I forgive them for indulging in the mother-in-law-from-hell trope. Especially since Lewis' quirks are so… odd. That coughing was just bizarre, and her repetition of "Zulu-Cherokee" is wonderful.
There are two things right now that determine whether or not black-ish will have a good episode, and this half-hour has both of them. The first is Rainbow. When she has something great going on in Dre's story, the show is great. When she's floundering in the background, the episode is usually a little all over the place. But thankfully there was plenty for her to do, and less of Dre's coworkers — limiting them to just one scene made for all of their very broad characters to come through in one or two strong jokes per person. Then we spent the rest of the 30 minutes with Dre and Bow bouncing off of one another and Dre's mother.
The other element that ensures black-ish is firing on all cylinders is intergenerational conflict. Obviously, this one had that in spades. That's where they make all of their salient cultural points. Take Diane's hair, for example — it's a great choice for conflict because it's a real source of pride and of stress for many black women, and definitely a place where Rainbow would feel vulnerable. Those little details are where black-ish stops being just a family show and becomes a show about navigating blackness as family. A family that now encompasses Lewis and her fantastic chemistry with the rest of the cast. While both she and Fishburne are merely guest stars, here's hoping Grandma and Pops share the screen in an upcoming episode.
Image: ABC/Kelsey McNeal; Giphy (2)