TV shows, even the popular ones, used to end without warning.
Tracee Ellis Ross remembers that from “Girlfriends.” After a cozy, eight-season run, it simply vanished.
“We didn’t know the show was ending,” Ross recalled in a Television Critics Association virtual press conference. “We didn’t get a wrap party; we didn’t get a finale – none of that.”
Now she has the opposite experience on “Black-ish” (shown here). Before work began on this eighth season (9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC), everyone knew this would be the last.
Stories could end, lives could settle. And, like the last stretch of Johnny Carson, guest stars could show up. It was Michelle Obama on the opener, Jan. 4; coming are athletes, large (Magic Johnson) and small (Simone Biles), plus actors (Daveed Diggs, Vivica Fox), musicians (Babyface) and more.
“Michelle Obama was easy, because Tracee and Michelle are friends,” said Courtney Lilly, the show-runner. And for Johnson and the others? “Anthony (Anderson) was our hook-up …. Tracee and Anthony, essentially, know everyone.”
These two stars came from opposite worlds. Anderson is from Compton, Cal., a working-class world where the NWA rappers formed and where his dad owned clothing stores. Ross is from the diva world of her mother, Diana Ross.
But as an onscreen couple, they blended neatly ,“I’ve been pretend-married to (him) for a really long time and had … a hundred children and a dog that disappeared,” Ross said. “It’s going to be hard to let go.”
But don’t assume their entire lives are entwined.
“Anthony and I have never been out to dinner together,” she said. “We’ve never been to each other’s homes. But we work incredibly well together as partners.’
The original goal was simple, said Kenya Barris, the show’s creator: “I hoped to accomplish getting a show on the air.’
He also hoped to add bite. “We grew up loving ‘The Cosby Show,’ (but) we felt like ‘The Cosby Show’ happened to be Black. We wanted to do a show that was absolutely, positively, just outwardly Black.”
Or, at least, trying to be. Rainbow Johnson (Ross) is a doctor and Dre (Anderson) is a successful ad executive, chafing at the upper-class life that encases them. With the help of his dad (Laurence Fishburne), he stretches for Black issues.
“I think we covered a lot, … from Juneteenth to police brutality to postpartum depression to just being a family,” Ross said.
The toughest episode for her, she said, may have been on “colorism” – subtle biases involving how dark a Black person’s skin is. For Barris, the toughest was the premature birth of the family’s fifth child.
And for Courtney Lilly, now the showrunner, it was the fourth season, with the couple at odds. That sprang, he said, from being told this about the “Cosby Show” couple: “I just wish, growing up, I had seen the Huxtables fight.’
The Johnsons fight and love and keep changing, Now the key people move on:
Anderson and Ross are both working on animated shows. She produces and has the title role in “Jodie,’ MTV’s “Daria” spin-off; he’s developing the autobiographic “Just a Kid From Compton.”
She’s also producing “Hair Tales” (“a docu-series about Black women, told through the portal of hair,” she said). And he’s returning to his long-ago character on ‘Law & Order,” when the show returns Feb. 24. It’s like “sitting in a well-worn saddle,” he said.
And the producers have spin-offs and such, “Mixed-ish” has ended and “Old-ish” hasn’t gone beyond its pilot film, but “Grown-ish” returns to Freeform on Jan. 27 and there’s talk of a Latino project, informally dubbed ‘Brown-ish.” Life remains kind of busy-ish.