At one particularly powerful moment, Lucy, the firm’s litigious employee, makes a confession: She voted for Trump. Not because she likes him or agreed with the claims and threats he made during the campaign, she says, but because she gave Obama a chance—twice—and hasn’t seen her life get much better. “It’s eight years later, my dad’s still out of work, my hometown is about to go under,” Lucy tells her colleagues, “and Hillary comes out saying she’s basically going to keep everything the same.” Lucy was conflicted about her vote. But she wanted to shake up the system. Her colleagues hear that. They don’t agree with her. But they hear her.
“Lemons,” in general, takes for granted that its viewers will share the politics of its characters: The episode figures that, when Bow tells Zoey that “as a mom, it is my job to deliver a world where the values that I raised you to believe matter,” those are values that are, in broad ways as well as narrow ones, shared by Black-ish’s viewers. And yet this is a piece of TV that is acutely aware of the dangers of filter bubbles, and that isn’t satisfied with simply reflecting half of the country back to itself. “Lemons,” its glass-half-empty title notwithstanding, is trying to understand. It is giving someone like Lucy a voice, and a hearing. It is giving those things, too, to Dre, who finally loses his temper when Mr. Stevens accuses him of apathy: “I love this country,” Dre retorts—“even though, at times, it doesn’t love me back.”
And then Dre gives a summary of the civil rights movement, as archival images and footage fill the screen in a montage, and “Strange Fruit”—the song made especially powerful because it is Nina Simone’s achingly taut rendition—plays as a score. Dre talks about striving, in spite of injustice. He talks about hoping, in spite of history. He concludes, “I love this country, as much, if not more, than you do, and don’t you ever forget that.”
It was a scene in a sitcom that was also a history lesson that was also a plea for empathy. It was a validation of what TV—particularly network TV, with its relative ability to summon wide and varied audiences—can accomplish, even as culture fragments, even as Americans threaten to self-sort themselves away from empathy.
Kenya Barris, Black-ish’s creator and showrunner, has generally resisted, he has said, the soapboxery of the Very Special Episode vein. Black-ish may have had episodes that overtly doubled, like “Lemons,” as cultural commentary—“Hope,” “40 Acres and a Vote”—but “we don’t like to say ‘these are the topics,’” Barris told TV Guide in September. He and his co-creators preferred a more organic approach to merging their fictions with the truths of the world beyond. The 2016 election, however, changed that. “From Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, I think my show changed,” Barris told NPR’s Rachel Martin of the events that turned November 8 into November 9. In the aftermath of the election, Barris said,
We sort of calmed down and we were like, you know what? We have to talk about things that people might not want to talk about openly. But we have to dig in deeper and stay later and have more real conversations and argue amongst ourselves more and really bring our emotions to the surface and really say things that people want to hear... We have to do that more. We have a responsibility. It’s not just TV for us anymore.
It’s not just TV. It’s art.