With its heavy-handed opening detailing life in the ‘hood once again, Black-ish seemed posed to throw itself into the deep end of a story it really had no interest of telling. But “Man At Work” is no regular episode of Black-ish; since when has Black-ish been able to handle a third act swing like it does here? As familiar as the scatterbrained storytelling of this episode is, there’s no preparing for the emotional turn “Man At Work” takes in its final act, when it disposes of the listless Sha material, and says farewell to the show’s most consistently entertaining character.
Now, Charlie’s character isn’t much more than a cipher for random bits, but Deon Cole brought a lot to the office sidekick role Charlie played. Once Charlie was introduced, the slightly off-kilter office humor Black-ish was trying to force across fell neatly into place, offering a dynamic setting other than the Johnson home to draw laughs from (Black-ish suffers from its inability to fill in the world around its central location; the office is really the only other place it has). So it’s no surprise his sudden exit would have so much weight: if there’s a reason the audience is invested in Dre’s job, it’s because Charlie is there, so seeing him suddenly move on with his life is a jarring, unsettling moment.
Charlie’s final scene with Dre is among the most somber moments Black-ish has ever offered itself, usually willing to bury emotional resolutions under trite voice overs or low-brow humor, undercutting its own sense of tension and resolution in key moments. Charlie’s exit is not one of those times. After spending the episode fighting to keep Charlie’s job, Dre immediately knows Charlie leaving is a good decision for him, and respects the decision his friend makes. For the first (and only time, at least that we get to see), Dre treats Charlie as an equal – one who is actually really good at his job, no less – and gets sent out with his head held high, riding his scooter to the stars (or wherever he goes to pick up all of that raw lamb meat).
It feels out of place, especially after the first half of the episode is spent with Dre’s lazy, overweight friend from the ‘hood,’ who just so happens to be an extremely gifted artist. Sha’s character is just a bunch of “wow, he’s lazy” or “wow, he’s large” jokes, and doesn’t really set a strong foundation to connect itself to Charlie’s decision to leave the company; they may both prove to be productive members of society minutes before their exit, but there’s nothing added to Sha’s presence except the reassurance that having faith in others pays dividends. It’s a nice sentiment, but one that has absolutely no weight to it, given Sha’s lack of influence on Dre, or the series as a whole. Sure, they try to tie it together when Sha gets his art grant and thanks Dre for seeing through his nonsense to the artist inside; but that sentiment feels as contrived as it sounds, and one that doesn’t really offer any meaningful connective tissue to Charlie’s independent decision to seek new challenges in his life (or just get paid more to work less, according to him; that’s a new kind of challenge, right?).
What interesting ancillary threads “Man At Work” is toying with – primarily, the children adopting Sha’s work/hygiene philosophies – are swallowed up as soon as Dre begins trying to save Charlie’s job from Wanda Sykes, and rightfully so: Charlie and Dre’s friendship is as important as any other on the show (save for Dre and Bow, of course), often offering Black-ish the rare opportunity to relax and just be funny, turning their workplace stories into an absurd little adaptation of The Odd Couple, with a more cathartic bent at the end. Unfortunately, it comes that the cost of having Charlie around as a regular presence at all, something I’m sure I’ll greatly miss moving forward.
[Photo credit: Adam Taylor/ABC]