In episode two of its third season last night, Black-ish tried to carve through the idea of atheism and religious hypocrisy among black people, and while it did so in unprecedented fashion for a primetime family show, it’s a shame there was little room to be more offensive.
The propensity to equalize controversial topics has largely worked in the show’s favor, but this also has the unfortunate effect of diluting knottier issues. Black-ish can’t realistically (or refuses to) choose the side of God or no God. So last night’s episode did the Black-ish thing of just letting people talk in an effort to kinda go there. The idea of religious conflict is presented through the eyes of a teenager grappling with belief—Zoey, their eldest daughter—in a family with their own questionable views of what faith means. Black-ish would never come down hard on atheists or Christians (maybe that’s a task for The Carmichael Show) and so they didn’t. The point was to parse opposing religious viewpoints that occur in (black) families where a sacrilegious attitude is punishable by death stares and constant judgment.
The episode opens with a standard dinner table setting that turns contentious when it comes time to say grace. Zoey declines to lead the prayer and wonders out loud how there’s a God if so many bad things happen in the world, including cancer and men wearing pleats. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable leading grace, when I’m not sure if I believe in God,” she says, after which Dre asks if she’s a Wiccan.
Zoey has the vocal support of Bow’s uppity brother Johan (Hamilton’s wonderful Daveed Diggs), who’s joined the family after two years spent teaching in France and loves very specific foods. Dre calls him “fake Maxwell” and thinks he’s a “pompous croissant-eating fool.” Johan also happens to be a casual black atheist. “I’m with Zoe,” he says during dinner. “I believe in science, not some fake man in the sky.”
For the rest of the episode, Dre panics and goes to extremes to force Zoey to believe, which includes tricking her into praying. After a conversation with his white co-workers, he makes a defective conclusion that atheism is a symptom of whiteness. “This is some white shit,” he declares after realizing he’s “surrounded the kids with so much white people stuff that they no longer believe in God.” It’s a loaded argument that Dre gives historical context by explaining how black people turned to religion during slavery. Bow argues that Zoey’s existential inner conflict is normal for a teenager. In fact, it would be normal for a person at any age, and I wondered if this episode would’ve worked better if they had the practical, cynical Diane be the one to question her belief instead.
Not even Dre and his mom Ruby, who prays to black Jesus, have a grip on the merits of religion, even though they see it as a measuring stick of righteousness. As Dre tries to convince Zoey that she needs God to guide her through life, it’s clear that he and Ruby are the type of convenient Christians who can’t help being offended by someone’s personal choice to wonder about unknowable things.
For story and sitcom purposes, Black-ish chose to push aside the fact that variations exist in the degrees to which families and individuals express spirituality and instead focused on the prominent cultural narrative that being an atheist or simply nonreligious is condemned in black families. The best the show could do in its current 30-minute carnation was the tough job of discussing a heady topic out in the open to cut through the fear many people have in bringing religion up in conversation. The episode certainly could’ve pushed harder, though it feels major to see a version of the themes I struggled with—having grown up in a Lutheran church only to later disregard religion but not the idea of belief—played out on TV, and not by way of some sanctified Seventh Heaven storyline.
In that typical sitcom suspension fashion where lessons are learned quicker than humanly possible, Dre has a change of heart and questions his own hypocrisy. By the end, the universe is in less disarray after an unsettling scene in which Bow gets an ultrasound while surrounded by the family. There’s a panic moment as the doctor searches for a heartbeat. The sound of the baby’s heart eventually breaks the moment of silence and Zoey says, “Thank you, God,” which could be an instinctual reaction from her—she could still be questioning her beliefs. It’s also the sound of a show choosing to err on the side of caution.