This season of black-ish, ABC’s family comedy about an upper-middle class family at the intersection of ‘woke’ and ‘made it,’ has had some of its most political episodes yet. It opened with a Hamilton-inspired musical number that touched on the effects of slavery. And last night’s episode “Don’t Feed The Animals” tackled the prison industrial complex in way that was complicated, honest, and thorough. The 30-minute episode took a more comprehensive take on this issue than some shows have done over a whole season. “Don’t Feed The Animals” didn’t slack on entertainment value, or humor, but it was a digestible way of raising awareness on an issue plaguing our country. It’s part of the reason black-ish is so ahead of the curve.
Prison is on people’s minds because Andre’s (Anthony Anderson) godbrother, Oscar, has been incarcerated for years. The episode opens with a monologue and accompanying montage about the growing number of Americans who are incarcerated, and how Oscar represents one of the groups that are disproportionately affected by it, African Americans. It’s one of the many issues Dre feels passionate about. But even though he has a good framework for incarceration, he ignores Oscar’s phone calls. It is Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) who understands the importance of human connection to the outside and how it can help Oscar cope with his sentence.
Bow has spent years taking Oscar's calls and maintaining a (sometimes inappropriate) relationship with him. She has enjoyed describing scenes from Lemonade’s visual album and sharing her existential crises with Oscar. More than philosophizing on what the prison industrial complex does to communities, black-ish went deeper, by seriously considering what a life behind bars does to individuals. So when they find out that the Innocence Project — which got a huge shoutout on the show — has found Oscar to be innocent and arranged for him to be released, Dre and Rainbow both change their different tunes.
Angered by comments made by his boss and colleagues (it’s hilarious that Dre uses a board of white men and Charlie [Deon Cole] as his advice council) Dre feels compelled to help Oscar transition back into society after his release. In another really powerful moment of the episode, Dre recalls the story of Kalief Browder, the teenager who committed a suicide after his release from a three-year stint at Rikers Island for a crime he never committed. Hoping to help Oscar avoid the same fate, Dre wants to let him live with the family and help him adjust to his new life. Bow, however, is totally against the idea.
Oscar’s innocence does not change the fact that he’s spent a decade in very close quarters with people who were not. His schedule was regimented, and his actions were dictated by guards who maintained order using the omnipresent threat of violence. Rainbow is worried about the potential effects of post-traumatic stress on Oscar, and by extension, her family. Their disagreement called into question what it means to criminalize the formerly incarcerated and whether or not we truly believe in second chances for offenders.
While it’s not clear whether or not Oscar will live with them (or what he looks like), Rainbow agrees to join Dre as they welcome him home at a diner. She wants to at least give him a chance. In a half-hour comedy block, black-ish put more humanity into this issue than some shows do in entire seasons of examining our justice system.