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'mixed-ish' review: 'black-ish' prequel is half-funny, half-serious

The cast of ABC's "mixed-ish' (left-to-right): Tika Sumpter,

The cast of ABC's "mixed-ish' (left-to-right): Tika Sumpter, Mykal-Michelle Harris, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Arica Himmel, Ethan William Childress. Credit: ABC/Eric McCandless

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the summer of 1985, Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Alicia Johnson (Tika Sumpter, "The Haves and Have Nots") have been booted from their hippie commune by the government. They and their kids move into Paul's father's house in some upscale suburb. Before they head off to their new school, the kids, Bow (Arica Himmel), Johan (Ethan William Childress) and Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris) get some tough love from their Aunt Denise (Second City improv vet Christina Anthony). Paul's dad, Harrison (Gary Cole) has an offer for Alicia she can't refuse.

This is the origin story of "black-ish's" Bow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross, who narrates). Mariah Carey — who will appear later in the series — wrote and performs the theme song "In the Mix."

MY SAY Most sitcoms in the long history of sitcomdom are like bright shiny boats that skimmed along an open sea, under a blue cloudless sky. "Black-ish" has been the sub that has zipped along just below the surface. There was comedy down there in the gloaming, potentially drama too. Spinoff "mixed-ish" is half-ish too. Half-funny, half-serious, while pain also lurks just below that surface. 

The hug-it-out sitcom moment in the pilot arrives at the requisite 21-minute mark. Paul is still clinging to the utopian values of the commune when Alicia schools him on race in America:    "Anywhere else [than the commune] I'm a black woman. It's different for me, different for our kids." 

That could almost work as the set-up line for an August Wilson play except that "mixed-ish" is a sunny optimist on a commercial network. The series does deploy a blunt (and funny) pragmatist in the guise of Aunt Denise who tells the kids that "the real world is gonna smack 'em in the face." When Paul invokes the commune mandate that they're "all above race," she guts that with "there couldn't be a whiter thing to say."

But "mixed-ish"  isn't about to let Denise hijack the series either. It's about finding racial identity in a world that wants to ascribe racial identity, be it on a census form or a hostile glance on a street. These three kids are about to navigate those streets and get that smack in the face. And if this all sounds like a glib comedy that wants or needs to be something else, then this seems like the place to remind "black-ish" fans that they already know how Bow turned out. Wise, funny, patient, and full of that quality we call human kindness, something good came from that fraught childhood. "Mixed-ish" is her story and it feels like one worth hearing about. 

 BOTTOM LINE Solid opener and Carey's theme song is a winner, too. 

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