The next great new streaming comedy is here, and it’s “#blackAF.”
Like Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Louis C.K. in “Louie,” the show’s creator and star Kenya Barris (“black-ish” and its spinoffs) plays an exaggerated version of himself in this brilliant, biting, edgy, hilarious, poignant and multi-layered single camera sitcom that delivers a steady stream of cringe-inducing laughs — before it taps you on the shoulder and hits you with some thought-provoking social, cultural and racial commentary.
I’m not regularly astonished by how good a show is right out of the gate. “#blackAF” is astonishingly good from the get-go.
The conceit allowing us into the lives of Kenya, his wife Joya (Rashida Jones) and their six children is a documentary teenage daughter Drea (Iman Benson) is making as part of her application to NYU film school. As the camera pulls back to reveal feature-film level trappings, Drea says, “I didn’t ask my dad for any of this. A seven-man camera crew, really? They shot ‘The Revenant’ with less than this, OK?”
Drea walks us through her father’s wildly successful career, ticking off the shows he’s created and mentioning his new and quite lucrative development deal with Netflix, which is very meta considering this very show is the first project in Barris’ three-year, $100 million deal with Netflix. “Everything he’s ever done has been about black people doing black things,” says Drea as the family gathers at the Four Seasons to celebrate “his new Netflix show … about black people. God, he’s such a one-trick pony.”
Kenya has an opulent house, wears designer sweat suits, has a giant gold chain around his neck and has recently purchased a ridiculous orange sports car. When fellow showrunner Steve Levitan (“Just Shoot Me,” “Modern Family”) bumps into Kenya outside the Four Seasons and spots the car, he cracks, “What else did you get at the Vin Diesel auction?” As Kenya considers getting rid of some of the trappings of newly minted wealth, the soundtrack plays, I kid you not, Bradley Cooper singing “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die…” from “A Star Is Born.”
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Kenya’s wife Joya, a lawyer who hasn’t practiced in years and has reinvented herself as a wannabe Instagram personality, and the Barris children, who regularly call out their parents for being terrible while displaying some questionable personality traits of their own. (When the Barris’ youngest is shown on camera, a graphic says: “BROOKLYN, AGE 3. THE ONLY LIKABLE BARRIS.”)
Every episode pushes the envelope and is dripping with satire but also carries the ring of essential truth. After Kenya and Joya have dinner with an insufferable liberal white couple who prattle on about how much they like Cardi B. and talk about how things are lit, Kenya says on the way home: “I f------ hate white people. I do.” Based on the two white people they’ve just had dinner with, it’s a perfectly reasonable observation.
“#blackAF” has classic sitcom staple scenes such as the family having breakfast, but their morning conversations are along the lines of the kids learning their father went to a Lakers game and then a bowling party afterward — two things he’s never done with them. But, but Kenya once took the kids to a Clippers game, prompting one of the kids to crack, “Yeah, during the Donald Sterling era.”
The cast handles the whip-smart dialogue perfectly. It’s hardly a surprise Barris and Rashida Jones are terrific, but it ain’t easy finding a half-dozen young to very young actors who are so authentic, so skilled at comedic timing, so good at creating original characters who are believable even in his heightened comedic atmosphere.
And oh, the subjects “#blackAF” tackles with hilarious, unblinking truth and humor. One episode cuts from a standard rendition of the National Anthem to footage of Marvin Gaye singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1983 NBA All-Star game as Drea says her father calls this the real National Anthem. It’s Juneteenth—the anniversary of June 16, 1865, “the day slavery quote-unquote ended,” says Drea. “Although you may not have black people, Rachel Dolezal, Michael Rapaport and the all the Kardashians have every reason to celebrate it.” Enter Dad wearing his Kaepernick jersey and bringing in strawberry soda, which he hates but drinks anyway because he’s making a damn statement.
In a sure-to-be-classic episode, Kenya gathers some of his showbiz peers — Tim Story, Issa Rae, Will Packer, Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe — on Zoom in the hopes they can have a frank and constructive and uplifting conversation. After DuVernay demonstrates a less than effusive opinion about Kenya’s work, he retorts, “Because f------ ‘A Wrinkle in Time” was so groundbreaking,” and then takes a jab at Story for making “Ride Along 2.”
This is one of the things that makes “#blackAF” so great. Although it’s an exaggerated take on real life, we see greatly gifted artists sometimes behaving like jackasses, sometimes indulging in petty disputes, sometimes coming off as narcissistic. In other words, REAL. In the early going, it seems as if we’re never going to warm to most of the Barris family because we’re not supposed to — but we see cracks of real humanity and love beneath their often awful exteriors, and with Drea guiding the way through her narration and camera work, we quickly come to love spending time with this crazy family.