#blackAF is the first series from writer Kenya Barris as part of his $100 million dollar deal with streaming service Netflix and the series is a lot to take in for fans of the writer’s other series like Blackish and Grown-ish. For one, this series features Barris himself in what is clearly an exaggerated version of himself and his persona.
The show centers on successful Hollywood writer Barris and his travails dealing with both his success and how it affects his six children. Along with his wife Joya, played by Rashida Jones, Kenya becomes the subject of his second oldest daughter Drea’s (Iman Benson) NYU Film School documentary submission. The series takes on the style of a reality show/documentary as the family’s personal drama plays out for the viewer.
The show is a hybrid of reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and scripted/improvised shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and that’s where the series becomes the most controversial. Most shows give you a character or two with which you can identify and connect with. For #blackAF, that connection is stripped away because the two lead characters are almost instantly unlikable. The fictionalized version of Kenya Barris is an ill-tempered, paranoid, insecure jackass who would rather be praised for being a good father and provider than actually doing the things that would make him so.
He’s constantly undercutting his own points about being a better husband and father by engaging in superficial slights that he likens to slavery, Jim Crow and the struggle for Civil Rights. To make matters worse, those traits are what make him so entertaining and funny on the show. If Barris weren’t so insecure and crass, he would be boring and Barris’ deadpan delivery sells this version of a man who worked hard to get where he is, but can’t seem the fill the holes in his personality with the wealth he’s acquired.
Joya (Jones) is equally unlikable for her own reasons. She is in constant competition with Kenya to be the better parent and that competition has produced the dysfunctions embodied in their children. Both want to be perceived as the better parent, but neither seems to want to actually be the better parent and that dynamic makes the series interesting. Her personal struggle for identity has merit, but the ways she goes about is where the comedy lies. Her need to one-up her equally emotionally absent husband is hilarious, but their bond is funny to see as they both kill themselves to hang onto their perceived youth.
There are no heroes on #blackAF. All of the kids are exaggerated stereotypes of the worst of what children can become without guidance, but there is a connection that is interesting between them all. The show is an overblown, cartoonish satire of Hollywood, upward mobility and marital drama, but it tackles all of those things with great comedy and poignancy in many of its messages. The worst thing that could possibly happen with this show is that it tries to be sweet or sentimental. Barris has hit an interesting and funny lane with this show and he needs to unapologetically stay in it.