“Seinfeld” got at a lot of sad-funny truths about white urban life, pettiness, and hygiene. It pushed the envelop of network standards in the 1990s, using inference and euphemism (“master of your domain”) to build episodes around sexual organs and sexual activities. But writer-producer Larry David was holding back a lot, it turned out, something audiences learned when he came out with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in 2000. He had much pricklier things to say about narcissism and trivialities, and with the help of HBO’s creative freedom, he is still saying them.
There’s an analogy here when it comes to Netflix’s new comedy “#BlackAF,” created by and starring Kenya Barris, the writer-producer behind the ABC sitcoms “Black-ish” and “Mixed-ish,” as well as Freeform’s “Grown-ish.” It’s an anomalous analogy, since “Seinfeld” was often criticized for delivering a seemingly all-white New York City. But Barris lets it all hang out in “#BlackAF” in a similar way to David in “Curb,” playing himself as a cranky, self-centered man who obsesses over a revolving set of issues. For Barris, those issues include being Black in America, being Black in Hollywood, being Black after slavery, and being a parent. He brings almost everything back to this Lazy Susan of notions as he suffers through the mundanities of his personal and professional lives.
Any content barriers that Barris faces at ABC — which once pulled a “Black-ish” episode involving President Trump, the racial violence in Charlottesville, and the NFL protests — are gone at Netflix, which will deliver the first season of “#BlackAF” on Friday. Barris is free to put any and all of his opinions and historical references on the table, along with curse words, and he takes full advantage. The Barris on the show, a married father of six, is prone to calling his kids “idiots,” he can’t remember their birthdates, and he enjoys watching the white people around him — including his assistant, the white writers he works with, and a white couple at dinner — squirm as they strain not to be racist. Some of the cringe-iest material on the show revolves around whites stereotyping Blacks, both consciously and unconsciously, and Barris’s sarcastic reactions to them.
The whole thing is set up as a documentary that second-oldest daughter Drea (Iman Benson) is making as an application to the film school at NYU — a documentary her father has invested $50,000 to make, with a camera crew and a slick set for “confessional” interviews. Drea is onto her father, baiting him constantly to get him ranting on camera about one of his pet issues, such as “the white gaze,” and teasing him for building a career entirely on Black stories (“God, he’s such a one-trick pony,” she says). Her voice is a critical element in the show, and so is that of Barris’s long-suffering wife, Joya (played enjoyably by Rashida Jones); they remind us that we can laugh at Barris even when he’s in his most agitated states. Their perspective on him leavens his intensity enough to make it endurable. And Barris has moments, rare though they are, of self-awareness that also help rescue us from his self-righteousness.
In some ways, “#BlackAF” is fun. Barris ably creates an alter ego, like David, Marc Maron, Chris Isaak, and Kirstie Alley before him, and he improves with each episode. He finds a way to grumble and pitch fits in a low-key way — without the telegraphing many sitcom actors develop — that I found humorous. But there are a few problems, too, many of which could be ironed out with more episodes.
One of the persistent negatives is the lack of arcs, both in terms of story and character. There’s a sense of stasis in the air, something David has remedied on “Curb” by giving each season at least one defining forward-moving plotline (this year it was Larry’s spite store) to hold the smaller bits together. Some of the subplots — one about Black people judging the work of Black artists, another that has Joya (who is mixed race) worrying that her kids don’t identify enough as Black — get a little lost in the disorder. Also, the Barris family’s deeply embedded materialism is overplayed, at times to make a point about wealth, class, and people of color, but most times just as an expensive backdrop.
And while the premise of Drea’s application video brings a welcome, loose mockumentary tone, it also strains believability regularly, not least of all when the camera crew films itself. It’s the kind of clever setup that’s a great idea until it becomes facile and distracting. It’s going to be hard to maintain if the show returns, one of the things that makes “#BlackAF” merely good-ish.
Starring: Kenya Barris, Rashida Jones, Iman Benson, Justin Claiborne, Genneya Walton, Scarlet Spencer, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Richard Gardenhire Jr.
On: Netflix. Season one available on Friday.