“Win. Win, win, win win. Fuck everything else, win, win, win, win.” Those are the lyrics of Jay Rock‘s “Win,” which is the theme song to Kenya Barris‘ new Netflix series #blackAF. It’s an apt choice, as that’s what the show’s characters care about most. Winning. Winning at life. Winning arguments. Winning attention and affection.
#blackAF finds Barris playing a fictional version of himself, the obscenely rich creator of the Peabody Award-winning ABC series black-ish, and the father of six very well-cast children. He’s also married to longtime sweetheart Joya (Rashida Jones), a lawyer who supported Kenya for years while he fought to make it as a writer, and gave up her career to focus on her family. These days, however, her focus has been slipping — something Kenya doesn’t mind pointing out, nor is he shy about reminding everyone that he’s the family’s sole breadwinner now.
The series is an odd but entertaining mix of traditional family sitcom, talking head documentary in the vein of The Office, and heavy-handed history lesson, as each episode features a mini monologue about black history, which is very clearly on Barris’ mind here, as evidenced by episode titles such as “Because of Slavery,” “Because of Slavery Too,” and “Hard to Believe, but Still Because of Slavery.” It’s kind of a lazy gag, but it also emphasizes Kenya’s worldview. Barris’ ancestors suffered for hundreds of years, and he’s ready to enjoy the high life, not only because he earned it the hard way, but to show people in his community that they don’t have to be a rapper, an athlete or a drug dealer to rock a gold chain. That chain he’s so fond of represents the success that Barris has coveted since he was a young boy, when he watched those kinds of people flash their jewelry as a status symbol. He’s none of those things, just a talented TV writer, but that perception of success is still important to him.
Though #blackAF is presented in a way similar to The Office, since it’s effectively a documentary that Kenya’s second-eldest daughter Drea (Iman Benson) is making as part of her application to NYU film school — in theory giving her final cut of #blackAF — the comedy classic it reminded me of most was Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Barris subbing in for Larry David. Of course, Larry has eccentric quirks in place of children, but the two shows definitely share some DNA, mainly in how their creators see the world just a little bit differently than most people. Barris isn’t as naturally engaging an onscreen presence as David, nor does he have the same underdog spirit that makes you root for him, but there’s a weariness to his soft-spoken shtick that helps make him relatable as a put-upon TV dad.
Newcomer Benson, who some viewers will recognize from Netflix’s Alexa & Katie, steps into her own here, and it’s clear that she’s a budding young star with strong comic timing. Having said that, Jones is the clear standout here, and she revels in the opportunity to be a “bad mom,” but not in a cartoonish way like the Mila Kunis movies. Joya is very self-involved, and not only is she just about as far from Jones’ Karen Filippelli as it gets, but I appreciated the three-dimensionality with which the character was created. Jones deserves to be in the Emmy conversation for her work here, as she makes bold choices and isn’t afraid to let Joya come off as negligent, because at the end of the day, you know she’ll be a fierce mama bear when she needs to be. An episode where Joya accompanies Kenya to buy drugs is particularly funny.
When Barris isn’t being interviewed by his daughter and avoiding his other children, he’s bossing around his schlubby assistant Danny, played by Gil Ozeri from Netflix’s Big Mouth and Uncorked, and leading a room full of kiss-ass sitcom writers, including The Office alum Angela Kinsey. After Entourage, which #blackAF vaguely resembles from time to time, I think it’s proven that everyone loves a harangued assistant, and while the scenes set in the writers room may come off as inside baseball to some, that’s the only kind of baseball I enjoy. If you liked Mindy Kaling‘s movie Late Night, you’ll enjoy the workplace scenes quite a bit. In fact, Barris’ uses the writers room as a place to introduce several ideas about today’s racial climate, a subject that the show has plenty to say about. For example, when Kenya sees a movie made by a rising black director, he hates it, and is stunned to see his community support it blindly, effectively questioning what has happened to standards.
Barris bravely gets some of his best-known friends to discuss ths pressing cultural issue, friends like Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, Will Packer and Tim Story, whose video conference call is not just the highlight of the fifth episode, but a stark reminder of how full of shit Hollywood can be. I mean, can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people praise a film at its premiere, and bad mouth it as soon as they get in the car. There’s some comic gold during this scene as Kenya and Co. take turns taking shots at each other, with Barris making fun of Night School, a film that Packer proudly boasts made $100 million worldwide. There are also some potshots taken at black-ish, which Barris takes in stride. After all, he doesn’t really care if they like it, or if it stands the test of time, because it bought him that big house and that sick car and those dope tracksuits he wears everyday.
If there’s any worrisome drawback to this series, it’s that Kenya and Joya aren’t written as the best parents, so they may leave some viewers cold. I really enjoyed their particular blend of the sour and the sweet, but others may get turned off, particularly those expecting a wholesome family show. This is a show about the black experience, yes, but it’s also about the 1%, and to me, that makes for an interesting combination, one that allows for both conversation and occasional controversy.
On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David makes you feel like the whole world is conspiring against him, whereas with #blackAF, it kind of feels like Kenya is out to stick it to the world. You’ve gotta have the goods to do that though, and this time, Barris does. He wins. Again.
Grade: **** (out of 5)