Peter Saji (‘Black-ish’ producer) on writing highly-buzzed Prince and colorism episodes [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Peter Saji has been a valued member of the “Black-ish” team from the start, and this season he had the opportunity to write the show’s landmark 100th episode. Saji, who is now an executive producer on the ABC sitcom, was “incredibly honored” to be given the opportunity of penning the script for Episode 100, especially given its subject matter: teaching Jack and Diane the legacy of Prince. “That was probably the only person that I haven’t met that I was genuinely sad when they passed,” Saji reveals. “To be honored with the ability to write the 100th episode and then to be honored with the honor of honoring Prince, it was multi-layers of being super flattered.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.

The Prince Estate granted the show access to the legendary musician’s full library, which Saji and company used to their advantage. The episode features performances of seven tracks from well-known hits to deeper cuts, with the show’s cast members recreating Prince’s memorable music videos. It was a big undertaking to try to encapsulate Prince’s legacy in a 22-minute episode, but Saji didn’t feel any sort of pressure from fans to get it right, because, considering his own fandom, “I felt enough pressure from myself.” He was able to get his own favorite Prince song, “Sexy MF,” into the episode, through a performance by Junior which is cut off by his parents before things got too racy.

Saji wrote another high-profile episode this season on “Black-ish” called “Black Like Us,” which features an examination of colorism in society. Colorism, which is a form of discrimination that disproportionately affects dark-skinned people of color over light-skinned, is a topic Saji and his fellow writers were nervous about tackling until they were sure they got it right. The episode centers on the revelation that Diane was not properly lit in her class photo, which opens up the discussion of how she is treated differently as the darkest-skinned member of her family. Saji admits they had been talking about doing an episode on colorism for five seasons, and their procrastination was due to it being “so heavy with feelings from everyone.” Saji says there was a sense that, “If we do not do this correctly, this could sink the ship.” Again, it was a matter of trying to encapsulate a huge idea into 22 minutes, which was not easy to do because as he puts it, “this is hundreds of years of pain.

Speaking more broadly about Season 5 of “Black-ish,” Saji says he and his fellow writers wanted to reward the fans after going through Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross)’s very emotional and dramatic separation arc at the end of Season 4. The Johnsons did get back together in the end, so Season 5 was all about “letting everyone know that the Johnsons are back, they’re stronger than ever, and figuring out new stories and places to go.” One of the biggest conflicts of the show from the start has been between Dre and Junior, which has felt even more pronounced this season. Saji credits Marcus Scribner, who plays Junior, for coming into his own and making them realize that he now has the ability to resist his father in ways he hasn’t before. “As he actually now is able to give voice to, ‘This is what you’re doing,’ it’s great for both characters. It makes them both grow and makes their relationship change in Season 5.”

As Saji reflects on where “Black-ish” was when it began in 2014, in the middle of President Barack Obama‘s second term, and where they are now, halfway into the Donald Trump era, he does notice a change in the writer’s room. “There was a hopefulness, probably, in our stories that we had previously that now there’s a little bit of desperation,” Saji says. Now he feels that the stories they tell have a bit more urgency, a sense of, “Please listen to us. We need you to listen to us.” Awards voters have certainly listened over the past few years as “Black-ish” has been showered with nominations and wins from every major awards organization. Yet, this sort of attention doesn’t necessarily impact what Saji and the rest of the show’s writers are trying to do on a week to week basis, flattering as it may be. For them, it’s all about telling the most honest story. “When you’re being that honest about the storytelling, the commitment to that is always gonna be so much bigger than a trophy.”

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