On Tuesday night, the ABC series “black·ish” will celebrate its 100th episode, a milestone for any show but one of particular significance for the most successful situation comedy featuring an African American cast since the 1980s heyday of “The “Cosby Show.” For the occasion, “black·ish” has built an episode around the music and legacy of Prince, which is also rare because the estate of late pop star almost never allows his music to be used in film or television.
Called “Purple Rain,” the episode is about two successful African American parents who are horrified to learn that the affluent life they created for their children has come at a cultural cost: Their youngest kids, two privileged private school nerds, don’t relate to Prince at all and don’t care to know about him.
When the parents — wonderfully played by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross — take matters into their own hands, what follows is a joyful, hilarious and, at times, deeply moving take on how families pass on their values and stories to a younger generation. The episode is a reminder of how powerful television can be when writers and actors have something to say.
But this episode and this situation comedy are also a tributes to the powerful woman whose influence sustains “black·ish” in a prominent place in American television.
Channing Dungey is not a household name outside the entertainment industry because that’s the way she wants it. She’s not even a household name in her hometown of Sacramento, because that’s the way she wants it.
But the 49-year-old graduate of Rio Americano HIgh School is a historic figure and popular culture heavyweight nonetheless. The daughter of a former SMUD executive and a retired school teacher — one whose family had no previous ties to Hollywood or show business — is the first African American to be president of the entertainment division of a major network. Dungey, president of the ABC Entertainment Group, took over at the network in 2016, and within two years found herself in the heart of a cultural firestorm.
Earlier this year, when Roseanne Barr tweeted remarks about former Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett, Dungey faced a momentous decision. The reboot of Barr’s successful show “Roseanne” was generating big ratings for ABC. But Barr’s comparison of Jarrett to an ape had gone viral on Twitter.
Dungey acted swiftly and fired Barr, though her termination meant the abrupt end of a ratings powerhouse and sudden unemployment for more than 300 people working on the show.
Everyone wanted to talk Dungey, including me. But she has held off until now because Dungey is more interested in creating great television than great headlines.
“In the moment of making that decision, it was neither difficult or stressful,” said Dungey by phone last week. “It was a very unfortunate occurrence but it was clear at the outset that something needed to be done and that something needed to be a little drastic.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Dungey’s action to fire Barr created a cultural earthquake that transcended show business. President Donald Trump tweeted that Dungey’s boss — Robert A. Iger, chairman of Disney — never apologized to him for the “horrible statements” Trump said were made about him on ABC. Trump never condemned Barr’s tweet, but conservative media piled on ABC for yanking Barr, a conservative-leaning star.
“It wasn’t stressful making the decision, but afterward it was, even though it was clear it was the right thing to do,” Dungey said.
The “Roseanne” furor was also validation for Dungey’s ascendancy in television. Though she remained publicly quiet in the moment, entertainment industry titans sang her praises for dumping Barr. More than one famous admirer remarked how Dungey, as an African American woman, had swiftly dealt with racism spewed by a powerful person and proved that her authority was greater than a racist star’s cache.
Under a photo of Dungey sitting regally at an ABC event, director and producer Ava DuVernay tweeted: “For the record, this is Channing Dungey. Sitting on top of your world like a Queen in full judgment of your garbage and taking it out. #Roseanne.”
Producer Shonda Rhimes tweeted: “Thank you, Channing. #Justice.”
The accolades went on and on. Dungey said she underestimated the attention the Barr fiasco generated. But she said she was unmoved by the attention. She sees no upside in it because it only detracts from a mission she first embraced as an underclassman at UCLA. She found her calling in television storytelling. She found that she could read a script, identify its weaknesses and make it into a story that people would want to watch.
When she started at UCLA she had no idea about any of this. She didn’t know what a producer was. She didn’t know she could make a living working behind the scenes to translate stories into programming.
Dungey had graduated from Rio Americano in 1986 and attended UCLA thinking she would practice international law. She was initially a political science major. But she always loved television. As a teenager living in Citrus Heights, Dungey loved 1980s staples such as “Remington Steele” and “Hart to Hart.”
One screenwriting class at UCLA set her on her way. “I really enjoyed the process of workshopping scripts that my classmates had written,” she said. “We found ways to better articulate them and produce better and stronger drafts.”
When Dungey told her parents, Don and Judy Dungey, of her new career plans, they were a bit mystified but supportive.
“It was amazing,” said Judy Dungey, 76. “It was a surprise because we didn’t have anybody in our family in show business. But we were fine with it.”
Her parents remembered that one of young Channing’s favorite activities was going to movie theaters on Sunrise Boulevard to watch the latest film. They remembered the diligence Channing had shown as a child, practicing her violin constantly until she sat in the first chair of the Sacramento Youth Symphony.
“She has total persistence and drive, but she’s quiet,” said her father, Don Dungey. He retired from SMUD in 2003 as a manager in the General Services Department. He worked there for more than 30 years.
“She’s just always had a quiet perspective,” he said. “She works with people in a way that doesn’t cause them to be antagonistic.”
Out of college, Dungey worked for action star Steven Seagal. At Warner Bros., she helped develop successful films such as “The Bridges of Madison County” and “The Matrix.” At ABC, she helped develop popular shows such as “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder.”
She made history by taking over at ABC. Then she dealt with Barr, seeing the network through a tidal wave of publicity. And now, still shy of her 50th birthday, Dungey’s creative influence is fully realized with Tuesday’s episode of “black·ish.”
That show is consistently excellent and has earned a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. But in this episode, “black·ish” is at its best by translating the experience of parents raising their kids through the prism of Prince’s music and the influence he and his music had on this particular family.
Why is that significant? Because even though Prince’s music had universal appeal, it was created by a black artist who broke through the music industry limitations that had dogged black artists of previous generations. When the youngest children in “black·ish” spurn Prince’s influence, each family elder tells a story of what Prince meant to them.
Without giving too much away, it features hilarious recreations of Prince’s classic videos. The music and the spirit of the artist bring a family closer together. And an audience witnesses a family coming together in ways that are universal and transcend race.
The episode is confident and assured, just as the executive behind it was assured and confident while making news-making decisions.
“We are very proud of this show as a cultural touch point,” Dungey said.
Many people in Hollywood are proud of Dungey for her success and the grace she has shown since achieving it.
And it’s high time Sacramento became proud of a native daughter who left her hometown to do great things. In the last year, Greta Gerwig was celebrated for paying tribute to her Sacramento upbringing in the movie “Lady Bird.” Jessica Chastain left Sacramento to become a movie star. So did Molly Ringwald.
Channing Dungey left Sacramento to make history.