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'Black-ish' tackles police violence in a 'very special episode'

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In the "Black-ish" episode, "Hope," the Johnson family debates the issue of race and police use of force.

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Last week, the ABC sitcom Black-ish did something pretty unusual in today's broadcast TV.

It had a "very special episode."

Parents Dre and Bow wrestled with what to tell their young black kids about the protests surrounding race and police use of force. 

The episode's been hailed by critics as thoughtful and eloquent in examining the issue from all sides (and sharp-eared listeners will notice that the show referenced KPCC's own investigation on police involved shootings) 

But "very special episodes" are pretty rare on broadcast networks nowadays. The episodes – more common in sitcoms of the 70s and 80s – would break format and present the characters gripping with a specific social issue in a very serious way.

"Those very special episodes started out in a good place," says NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans, "but once the practice got abused it got to the point where it was more a signal to fans of the show, 'Hey here's something really clunky and awkward that you're probably going to think you've wasted your time watching."

Their appearance dropped off throughout the 90s and 00s – or worse, they were parodied.

Some current cable and online shows like Louie and Transparent may tackle social issues, too, but it's rare when a broadcast sitcom will do the same.

However, Deggans says he believes the episode of Black-ish, entitled "Hope," worked so well is because of the acting strength of the whole cast

"They have really figured out a way to talk about serious issues that involve race and culture and generations in a way that still remains entertaining," he says.

Listen to more of Deggans – and how a generation of children learned to stay away from caffeine pills because of Saved by the Bell – by clicking the blue audio player.