“Are you really gonna try to cover Black hair in 22 minutes? Good luck!”
Tuesday’s midseason premiere of ABC’s black-ish, written by Marquita Robinson, did indeed attempt to cover the scope of Black hair within one episode, and it was pretty remarkable.
Centered on a mother/daughter trip to the hair salon with Bow (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) and Diane (Marsai Martin), black-ish‘s “Hair Day” marks a point that occurs for many Black women and nonbinary people: the decision to go natural. Though Diane is originally planning to get her relaxer touched up, she has a nightmare about the relaxer burning her hair off and, upon waking up, realizes it might be time to try something different.
What follows is a fun, relatable, and even musical episode (singer Jill Scott played hairstylist Yaya) that’s all about the complexity and beauty of Black hair. Bow wants to have a one-on-one conversation with Diane about her hair journey but Diane prefers to do it in the salon — a wonderful setting that accurately depicts Black hair salons, and that’s full of numerous Black women with braids, buzzed heads, perms, afros, wigs, and more. Complete with Diane doing her best Eddie-Murphy-as-James-Brown impression and a full-on choreographed music number led by Scott, “Hair Day” was a success.
“Hair Day” feels more in line with the first two or three seasons of black-ish rather than the last few which have suffered from mixing up its main cast (such as Yara Shahidi’s Zoey moving on to the spinoff grown-ish) and out of place storylines (such as Season 4’s marital-issues plot that felt hastily thrown in). It works because it’s both specific and universal, because it doesn’t care if white audiences don’t understand certain aspects but it’s instantly relatable to its Black audience. It doesn’t give Diane a right answer but instead gives her her answer — and it’s quick to point out that regardless of what hair choice you decide on, “you’re still a sister.”
Because this was so reminiscent of OG black-ish, it’s interesting that the midseason mixed-ish premiere episode it was paired with was one that felt like a departure from the rest of the first season. The main story in “When Doves Cry” revolves around the Challenger disaster and how each member of the Johnson family has a different way of dealing with grief. It’s not a particularly bad episode, but it’s one that feels … off and out of place. It tries to balance the grief with Bow’s (Arica Himmel) crush on a classmate; she wants to feel sad about the explosion because that’s the normal reaction but she’s also walking on sunshine because he made her a mixtape. It should be an interesting take on compartmentalizing and the ability to care about one thing without it overtaking your life (which is certainly a relevant topic in 2020) but it’s too scattered.
So much of mixed-ish thus far has had a laser focus on being mixed (which, of course, is the entire premise) that it felt noticeably absent throughout “When Doves Cry.” Granted, it hasn’t been able to find the cleanest way to navigate these thorny biracial issues but it still hasn’t found a way to be a family comedy, either. Whereas black-ish often and skillfully mixes in aspects of black culture and “hot topics” with its natural familial sitcom beats, mixed-ish tends to feel forced and one-note.
All told, mixed-ish is a strange case: It’s gotten funnier as it goes on — particularly when it comes to the awkwardness of middle school and Gary Cole’s performance — but it hasn’t exactly gotten better. It certainly has the potential, as we’ve seen in episodes like “Let Your Hair Down” (about Bow getting self-conscious about her hair, which would have been a much better pairing with black-ish‘s “Hair Day”) or “Puttin’ On The Ritz” (in which Bow’s mother Alicia, played by Tika Sumpter, digs into her own insecurities and pressure to be the perfect, well-behaved Black person while in an all-white environment). But it always feel lacking, half-formed.
Of the three series in the black-ish universe, which includes Freeform’s grown-ish, it makes sense that only the original has found its footing. The others, particularly mixed-ish, is still trying to figure out what works best for it. black-ish‘s midseason premiere reinvigorated a sixth-season sitcom that is trying to find its way back after multiple changes, making viewers optimistic for the remainder of the series while mixed-ish tried and faltered with a new approach, though it still has plenty of time to get better.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: black-ish‘s “Hair Day” was a lively, wonderful return to form (bringing its Season 6 grade to “B”), while mixed-ish‘s midseason premiere continued its lackluster, “C+” run.