A long-shelved episode of ABC’s “Black-ish” has finally reached the public – not on the network, but rather its sister Disney-controlled streaming service, Hulu. Yet watching the half-hour, titled “Please, Baby, Please,” reflects more on the misguided timidity of the broadcaster that balked at airing it than the episode itself.
It’s not entirely accurate to say the episode – which was made in 2017 and played a role in series creator Kenya Barris’ decision to leave ABC, signing a lucrative deal with Netflix – is much ado about nothing. In the half-hour, the character of Dre, played by Anthony Anderson, expresses his concerns through a made-up bedtime story to his infant son, highlighting the racial division in America (news clips are used), and referring to President Trump as “the Shady King.”
The political views expressed in the show, however, could hardly come as a surprise to anyone who had previously watched “Black-ish,” which premiered in 2014. So those who criticized the episode would have likely been bad-faith brokers, looking to score points at the network’s expense.
For executives, such situations are never fun. But if you’re going to produce and order shows that have any sort of real-world relevance or edge, it’s a cost of doing business.
The shifting nature of the TV landscape, moreover, has changed the broadcast networks’ relationship with the audience. Yes, major networks like ABC still aspire to be big tents, inviting in millions of viewers. Yet the truth is even successful shows now attract relatively small percentages of the population each week, with only a few annual broadcasts – most notably the Super Bowl – drawing in tens of millions of casual viewers, the kind who might be genuinely offended by being confronted with an opposing political view.
Notably, networks appeared braver about tackling issues in another starkly divided era, the early 1970s, when shows like “All in the Family” and “Maude” dealt with hot-button issues, back when most homes received only a handful of channels and streaming options like Hulu didn’t even exist.
Against that backdrop, it’s hard to see what made ABC so skittish about “Please, Baby, Please.” Yes, the episode focused on racial division, highlighting not only Trump but the reaction to President Obama’s election, calling him “Prince Barry.” The story closed, though, on what felt like a hopeful note, addressing the inherent good of most people and Dre’s hopes for a better future.
Would its broadcast have provoked some comment at the time? Probably. Would most of it have come from people who were basically spoiling for a fight? Almost certainly.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Barris said he was “incredibly proud” of the episode, and hoped it would spark “much-needed conversation … about where we want our country to go moving forward and, most importantly, how we get there together.”
That conversation hasn’t gone away, which makes the material as timely now as it was when Barris wrote and produced it.
Still, the much-delayed availability of this episode ultimately says less about “Black-ish,” then or now, than it does about the network that opted not to air it.
“Black-ish” is available on Hulu.