When black-ish creator Kenya Barris was planning his exit from ABC this summer, he was also planning how to keep the sitcom — about a black family in a predominantly white, upper-class neighbourhood — in good hands. The prolific TV producer left the network in August, three years before his contract was up, to write and produce exclusively for Netflix.
Premiering in 2014, black-ish made history as the first major broadcast network comedy in almost a decade to revolve around a black family. The sitcom was also Barris’ most personal project, one largely based on his own family and experiences, so it was vital to hand off the show to people he could entrust with his vision.
Barris first turned to Jonathan Groff, who was a co-showrunner with Barris for three seasons. Next, they immediately tapped Kenny Smith, an experienced writer-director who was a showrunner on BET’s The Game and was most recently co-executive producer on NBC’s Marlon. Smith also served as black-ish’s co-executive producer in season three.
Over email, Barris wrote about his decision for choosing Smith.
“Because he’s black. No other reason. It sounds like I’m joking... and I am. But only sort of,” Barris wrote. “It was really important to me to have someone who shared the experiences of this family also be a part of telling the stories about a black family.”
For Smith, becoming a black-ish showrunner presented an opportunity to join a history-making series that resonated with his family.
“I’ve been on almost a dozen comedy shows, but to also be on a show that says the things that this show says and has the kind of fun this show has, and honestly still be a black show... it feels really good,” Smith said.
“There’s certain stories you can’t tell on Modern Family or on any other family show that can only be told by this black family, and that’s what I love and appreciate,” Smith noted later.
The issue-based sitcom about “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson), an advertising executive who lives with his anaesthesiologist wife, Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross), their five kids and his aging parents, began its fifth season last week. Last season took a dramatic turn with Dre and Bow’s brief separation. In this season, the Johnson family navigates new challenges, including their 18-year-old son Junior returning home for a gap year and twins Jack and Diane entering junior high.
Although Barris still reviews scripts for the show, Groff and Smith have taken the reins. Together with a diverse writing staff, they’re ready to continue Barris’ legacy and move the show forward. “We all know [Barris’] voice and the things he kind of clings to as an interesting story,” Groff said. “It’s been pretty smooth for us.”
On an early October day, Smith made his way to the set on the ABC-Disney studio lot from the black-ish offices, sporting a big grin when he stepped into the Johnson family kitchen. He was there to observe a scene from the season’s eighth episode where Bow persuades Dre to take Junior (Marcus Scribner) back to his job after being called a sellout.
Although Ross and Anderson were deep in rehearsal mode, closely reviewing lines by the kitchen island, they instantly lighted up when they saw Smith, exchanging high-fives and daps. “Down here on the floor, there’s no difference,” Ross said during a brief break from rehearsal, referring to Barris’ departure. “By season five, we’re in our flow, and I think [Barris] did such a good job of setting up what the tone of the show was.”
“Everybody’s firing on all cylinders,” said Anderson, who is also an executive producer on the show. “It’s a family affair here, and our ship is still being steered pretty straight.”
“There’s certain stories you can’t tell on ‘Modern Family’ or on any other family show that can only be told by this black family, and that’s what I love.”
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black-ish streams in the UAE on osn.osnplay.com.