TV Review: “Mixed-ish” (ABC)

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If it’s not broke, make a spin-off. ABC has made a television universe out of its successful and Emmy-nominated sitcom “Black-ish.” Their first spin-off, “Grown-ish,” airs on Freeform and follows eldest child Zoey (Yara Shaidi) as she navigates college. Much of “Black-ish” revolves around Andre’s (Anthony Anderson) upbringing in Compton. So it’s only fair that his wife, Rainbow “Bow” Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) gets to tell her own story. The new ABC sitcom “Mixed-ish” jumps back to 1985 as it chronicles Bow’s free-spirit upbringing up against a suburban landscape trying to change her.

The pilot begins with the Johnson family from “Black-ish” needling Bow for her eccentric childhood. Bow flashes back to the summer of 1985, when her family’s commune was raided. Overnight, a twelve-year-old Bow (Arica Himmel) goes from a free love society without race constructs to the suburbs. Upon going to school, Bow and her siblings – Johan (Ethan William Childress) and Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris) – notice the stark racial divide in the cafeteria. As mixed race children, Bow feels torn between the two sides of her identity. Johan and Santamonica each fire up the TV and pick a side of the lunch room to sit and conform to, but Bow struggles to figure where she fits.

“Mixed-ish” features a level of polish that makes it feel like part of the “black-ish” family. Ross’ narration pairs well with Arica Himmel as she navigates middle school. Himmel does a good job of making Bow her own. When confronted with the racial divide in school, she tries to run away from home. “I hear there’s a commune near Waco!” she exclaims. Yet, the show works best when one separates it from its parent show. Hopefully future episodes give the younger Bow more qualities of the goofy doctor that we fell in love with initially. On the other hand, strictly adhering to the lore of “Black-ish” could keep this from becoming its own unique sitcom.

While Bow’s perspective feels fleshed out, the rest of the family could use a bit more work—or a few more episodes. Of the parents, Tika Sumpter stands out as Alicia Johnson, Bow’s mother. Upon the family’s move to suburbia, she’s the one that swallows up her hippie beliefs to accept a position at her Republican father-in-law’s firm (Gary Cole). While Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays Paul as purely idealistic, Sumpter knows that there’s a fair bit of adapting her family needs to do to survive this new world. Paul and Alicia’s love story feels fleshed out, but Gosselaar and Sumpter’s chemistry doesn’t fully jump off the screen. Once we believe their relationship, we can believe the family dynamic they’re trying to cultivate.

On first glance, “Mixed-ish” shows potential. Much like its lead character, though, it struggles to decide what it wants to be. How connected does it want to be to the flagship “Black-ish?” Will they lean heavily on the 80s setting and nostalgia for that era? For what it’s worth, we already have “The Goldbergs,” on the same network. Are the Johnsons going to give up their hippie ways and fall in line with the suburbs? Once the show finds its unique and defining voice, everything else should fall into place.

“Mixed-ish” premiered on ABC on Tuesday, September 24th. It airs weekly on Tuesdays at 9pm PST. One episode was screened for review.

GRADE: (★★½)

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