by Dee Emm Elms
Often, the act of sharing stories is how a people – or a family — will learn their own history. Increasingly, however, we’ve seen a trend in modern society where storytelling within the family has been abandoned – in favor of letting impersonal media do the job. And that trend shows no sign of stopping. We now have access to thousands of different stories, any time we want them. We even have media that promises to make us part of the story – though these so-called ‘interactive’ experiences are more participatory than anything else.
But these are still usually solitary activities. For all of our ‘interaction,’ we’re still experiencing material without being in the company of a storyteller. We’re not sharing with anyone. We’re just absorbing, in the same way eating a steak isn’t the same thing as taking a pill for the equivalent in nutrients to a steak. This can be a depressing affair – and we hear it lamented sometimes, in the same way we hear folks decrying the loss of the ‘family dinner hour. But, even within this realm of impersonal absorption, there are still groups of storytellers out there who have adapted to keep the idea of sharing family stories alive. One such group of people is the creative minds behind the comedic family television series black-ish. Created by Kenya Barris, black-ish shows that the storytelling tradition has, indeed, changed to meet modern media, but at the same time centers on the storytelling act itself, both in its structure and in the way its stories play out onscreen.
A recent episode of the show displays this in a very significant way: “Plus Two Isn’t a Thing.” A quick summary of the episode’s storyline: Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), the father of the family at the center of the show, is visited by his childhood friend Gigi (Tyra Banks), who is now a very successful musical artist who is thinking of moving back to the Johnsons’ neighborhood with a new man who has come into her life. Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), who is married to Dre, thinks Dre and Gigi’s long-standing friendship is odd, and feels left-out and a little jealous about how much time they spend together. A secondary story within the episode concerns the Johnson children: oldest Zoey (Yara Shahidi), Junior (Marcus Scribner) and young twins Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin) experimenting with trying to seek out musical fame, themselves.
But the story itself isn’t so important as how it’s told, as is the case with most black-ish episodes. And that’s what makes the show so unique, and such a good example of leading by example in trying to promote the storytelling tradition.
Each episode of black-ish is narrated by Dre, who is talking to the viewer from a position outside the episode’s narrative. The time and place of Dre’s storytelling isn’t really specified. He could be an old man recounting his family history years later, or it could be the day after the events he’s experienced. Generally, though, the writing emphasizes the idea that Dre is speaking from a far enough distance beyond the episode’s timeline that he has the benefit of hindsight. This is important, because Dre’s demeanor as narrator is carefully maintained each episode so as not to reveal too much about where the story is going. This differs from many narrated shows, which work hard to tell us where the show is going. With Dre, what we think as viewers that we hear in his voice may be misdirection by design. Dre’s words are often teaching us about his family, even as he’s making us laugh from the comedy.
Dre is a knowledgeable storyteller, in that he understands the significance his words can have. Thus, when he begins “Plus Two Isn’t a Thing” by discussing how he and his wife aren’t best friends, parodying a certain dating website’s tendency to emphasize this as a positive, he is using both social commentary and the preconceptions of the audience to gently lead the viewer into discoveries he makes about the true nature of his bond with his wife, and why that matters. If the show had just shown the conflict/resolution dynamic prevalent in most sitcoms, there would be much less of an understanding of what Dre learns over the episode’s story.
Dre’s storytelling has another effect on the narrative, too: the show often jumps forward and backward in time – usually for comedic effect – but also to illustrate where characters have been in their history and how they’re different (or exactly the same) now. We see how times and fashions change, too – which also helps emphasize the family history dynamic of the show. It also sometimes establishes Dre as a classic ‘unreliable narrator,’ as the farther back into the past we go the more absurd the situations become, in much the way real-life family stories have a tendency to take on the characteristics of ‘tall tales’ the farther back we go.
But black-ish doesn’t just play around with perceptions within the narrative. It shows how sharing stories can lead to the solutions of the aforementioned conflict/resolution narratives as well.
Within “Plus Two Isn’t a Thing,” there are more stories being told than just the narrator’s. The structure of the show is built around characters telling stories to each other as well. A common occurrence within the program, present in virtually every episode — is for Dre to take his family concerns to work with him, where he converses openly with his teammates about his own life’s dramas and shares in theirs as well. This is important to the narrative because it affords characters without biases to comment on what we’ve seen in the show so far. The characters often serve double-duty in these scenes: making outlandish claims about their own lives by comparison, and giving Dre much-needed perspective.
These roundtable scenes are an essential key to black-ish, even beyond the character-work of Wanda Sykes as Daphne, or the now much-missed Deon Cole’s portrayal of Charlie. These scenes serve also to show that storytelling tradition at work (and at play). We even get brief glimpses of these other characters growing into realizations from what Dre tells them about his situation.
This subtly illustrates how storytelling helps when it’s shared, not just told. None of the characters could get anywhere without sharing these experiences. It isn’t just practicality of plot, either – the show is structured to clearly depict the act of storytelling as leading to resolution, every time, whether it’s Dre with his co-workers, Rainbow confiding in her own co-worker Pam (Mindy Sterling), or Gigi confiding in Diane about how eating the last animal of a species is only worthwhile if it’s shared. The storytelling moment is the critical one each time – for moments of comedy, drama and those particular moments black-ish where the those two dramatic masks intersect, which is often.
And, beyond that, black-ish also experiments with storytelling, within the 30-minute sitcom format. We often get stories within stories within stories. We get silent stories told through the talented actors’ expressions (Marcus Scribner’s Junior, in particular, is often the brunt of these silent moments of bafflement as everyone around Junior gets the joke but him). We get one story moving in on and interrupting or intercepting another. We get situations where multiple characters experience the same moment from different points-of-view. We get a story stopping right before a crucial piece of information is given, only to be revealed by another character later, where the actual storyteller changes within the story itself. We get different actors playing different versions of the same character, and we get different characters being played by the same actors.
These are all historical storytelling techniques, yes, but they have fallen by the wayside in modern television sitcom presentation. What makes them all work so well on black-ish is how the concept of shared stories unifies these elements together. And, given how well it works, I hope these stories continue long into the future.
Dee Emm Elms is a writer focused on a wide range of topics ranging from horror to intersectional feminism, from transgender rights advocacy to Care Bears and Ninja Turtles. Dee is currently releasing in serialized form an online horror novel for adults called SIDLINGS.