How Black-ish’s Stars and Producers Pushed ABC to Carry the Present Again for Fall
When ABC announced in June that Black-ish would not be part of its fall schedule and would instead be held for midseason, the sitcom’s stars were not happy—and they made it known to network execs.
During an ABC virtual press event promoting the show’s seventh season, which premieres at 8 p.m. on Oct. 21, the show’s cast said they pushed for the show to return quickly following a summer that has been marked with nationwide protests against racism and racial injustice. While creator Kenya Barris said the midseason decision was reached earlier in the year, before the surge in anti-racist activism and protests, the news cycle made him feel that the Johnson family’s story as depicted in the award-winning sitcom was “unusually but importantly necessary.”
The show’s costars agreed. “I felt that it would be doing a disservice to our audience, a disservice to the community and a disservice to our show to have our voices muted in a time like this,” Anthony Anderson, who plays Johnson family patriarch Andre Johnson in the sitcom, said.
So they sprung into action as a team. “We were hopeful that we could convince them to take a look at things and reconsider,” said Laurence Fishburne, who portrays Pops Johnson. “We were hopeful—and we were vocal,” Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Rainbow Johnson in the series said.
“Tell them about all the screaming we did on the phone,” Anderson joked.
Of course, their pushback worked. Two days after Black-ish’s midseason premiere was announced, ABC reversed course and put Black-ish back on the fall schedule. But the brief period when the show was off the fall schedule gave room for the show’s creators and writers to pitch a special that would allow them to have a voice prior to the November presidential election.
“It was a happy accident, because we were trying to figure out a way to still have a presence, especially in an election year, with the notion that we didn’t now we could be on,” Barris said. “So it was sort of like, ‘Let’s at last make sure the show has a presence during this time and try to get people to rally around voting for whoever they choose to vote for, to at least be present at the polls.’ ABC completely appreciated that.”
That election special, which is set to air this Sunday, Oct. 4, is a two-parter, with the first part centered on Andre Johnson Jr. (played by Marcus Scribner) as he prepares to vote for the first time, but finds he has been scrubbed from voter rolls. The second part, which will be animated, will follow Dre’s boss Leslie Stevens (played by Peter Mackenzie) as he tries to run for a seat in Congress.
The special had to be developed at breakneck speed after Black-ish was once again put on the fall schedule.
“There was about 24 hours when we weren’t going to be on the fall schedule, and that was when the specials came up,” showrunner Courtney Lilly said. “And then 24 hours later, it was like, okay, we’re back on the fall schedule—cool, cool. And we got these specials. Oh. Oh, OK!”
The development of the special, like the effort to get Black-ish back on the fall schedule, was a team effort. The idea to animate the second episode was born from a conversation between Ross and ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke in which Ross suggested animation as a safer alternative. They’re not the only show to try out such strategies: Pop TV’s One Day at a Time and in NBC’s The Blacklist, among others, have tested out animated specials and season finales.