The Johnsons as a Social Experiment of the Nigerian Family
Nollywood in recent times has proven to be a major source of joy to its audience, with viral videos of Charles Inojie’s #nademdeyrushus to Francis Odega’s #gerraheremehn, it is apparent we’re experiencing comedy in the way it was intended – absolute entertainment. The Johnsons is a show that is essentially the Fuji House of Commotion of our time and pulls together interesting themes on the highs and lows of a Nigerian family. In a humorous way, it reassures its audience that despite the madness that engraves its society – it is fun, inspiring and mostly human.
The Johnsons despite its classification as comedy, which is a commonly dismissed genre from critical discourse, remains Nollywood’s strongest signature. Nigerian comedy delves into topical issues in a way that compels the audience to pay attention in a humorous way as the viewer dissects the subject matter. At its core, this genre requires a sophisticated level of critical thinking that no other has access to, which is perhaps an indicator to pay attention to the intrinsic relationship comedy has with social commentary. “Humour is a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” – Mary Hirsch
The Johnsons is a TV series that focuses on a typical Nigerian family and its navigation within society. It stars some of Nollywood’s veteran actors; Kunle Bamtefa as Pablo, Charles Inojie as Mr Lucky, Ada Ameh as Emu, Chinedu Ikedieze as Efe, Olumide Oworu as Tari, Susan Pwajok as Blessing, Seun Adebanjo Osigbesan as Jennifer and Samuel Ajibola as Spiff.
In an earlier episode, we encounter them as a low-income family who suffer an eviction due to financial limitations that coerce them to live out of their ‘vintage’ Mercedes; possibly an intentional symbol of a family struggling to meet up. Of course it wouldn’t be Nollywood if they didn’t achieve their happy ending. Now in its current season, the Johnsons have balanced out their finances as they presently maintain a Toyota Sienna, a more appropriate alternative for future evictions, which isn’t too farfetched in the present economic climate. Despite the show’s ongoing plot, it doesn’t at any point deviate from its core: an avenue for escapism through momentary bursts of laughter.
The show has exhibited some important themes besides the economic anxiety hovering around every Nigerian, perhaps the most endearing plot is the show’s depiction of unintended pregnancies from an extremely traditional sense. The first daughter of the family, Jennifer gets knocked up by a family friend Goodluck. We do not suspect they are coitus with each other. Throughout the show, Jennifer suffers her fair share of disappointments; from being the last of her mates to get into university; failing to reach the cut-off mark for law which led her to study Igbo and subsequently falling pregnant outside marriage. The showrunners have managed to engage their viewership with a character that doesn’t typically fit into the societal expectations of a traditional family but one we care about as human beings.
The most heart-wrenching moment is witnessing Jennifer’s exceptional bond with her mother deteriorate. Throughout the season we are hurt by the pettiness behind Emu’s maltreatment of Jennifer, it upsets us to a point we are left to sympathise with her. Emu’s reaction of course being justified isn’t a surprising trait based on Nollywood’s black and white portrayal of ‘unwanted pregnancies’. The climax of this storyline is Lucky Johnson’s intervention on his daughter’s behalf which reveals Emu’s concealed empathy.
The idea that Lucky, who is the stereotypical conservative Nigerian father is the same one who reaches for an olive branch, is an impressive role reversal because the weight is usually on the wife: she will be mad but not for too long as she tries to mediate her home at the same time. We later discover that the real reason behind Emu’s frustration isn’t due to just the pregnancy but the betrayal of keeping such information from her. The Johnsons advocate a strongly relevant duty in showcasing its characterisation with heavy human elements without ever deviating from its comical components. At every interval while Efe (the most successful child) thrives and Jennifer struggles, the show never portrays her character as the Other, on this show they are both the same; at their core, not wavelengths.
With sharp and vibrant female characters, the show sometimes raises a question mark on side-lining women. Why is Emu written as a rib-tickling illiterate whose stuttering English is far from fluent? Why is Jennifer always the unfortunate child who gets tossed into a marriage she doesn’t look prepared for? What will be the fate of young and extremely ambitious Blessing?
Particularly, Jennifer’s marriage to Goodluck isn’t the most interesting plot for obvious reasons. It was clear that the show would shy away from the liberal pro-choice debate due to censorship and the target audience. It also didn’t seem to care about the alternative of being a single mom and certainly wasn’t ready to delve into the unrealistic expectations of first-born daughters. In its usual fashion that is both substantial and detrimental, it raised an important issue but watered it down for comical relief. The danger with such tactics is that they encourage normalcy by offering only a passing mention of critical issues instead of engaging them.
Despite the reproach of Emu’s characterisation as an illiterate, it will be contemptuous to ignore the demographic of Nigerian women who identify as her. Emu is an accurate depiction of a generation of women who never received an education due to societal restrictions guised in ‘tradition’. The real gem behind this character is her riveting, bold and big-headed personality that actress, Ada Ameh perfectly brings to life. Emu Johnson’s English may be uncouth but she’s proficient in her broken tongue, never for once depicted as one that succumbs to silence. In every episode, whilst delivering her humorous dialogue she remains the helm of her household, the fabric that ties it all in place. However, for the youngest daughter Blessing, it would be refreshing to see her approach life from a different perspective that the women on this show aren’t usually given.
A major component of The Johnsons is also its representation of autism by the character Spiff, Lucky’s adopted son whom Samuel Ajibola plays and won an AMVCA for. The show’s depiction is problematic as Spiff is grounded the most stupid character. It makes comical sense and is supported by the unpopular claim surrounding comedy which is its offensiveness and crudity regarding sensitive issues. Autism is regarded as a taboo in Nigeria, as anything that cannot be easily understood, always has other-worldly implications. The show tries to mediate this abnormality by infusing a ridiculously over-performative character who the audience weirdly fixates as high-end comedy. It’s easy to forgive the flaw this show upholds with autism because despite its setbacks, it doesn’t fail to show our emotional attachment to Spiff. He is an overgrown baby who is funny, animated, empathetic and unapologetically human. “We laugh at terrible things because comedy is often the sarcastic realisation of inescapable tragedy.” – Bryant H. McGill
However, a proper case study on autism can be utilised as a relevant tool in reducing the ignorance Nigerians associate with such ‘taboos’. “Cinema is an empathy machine; we need that now more than ever. The more your work captures that unique ability to help us walk in another shoes, the more it is going to resonate with the audiences.” – Ted Hope
With our hectic lives comedy isn’t a category we take for granted in this part of the world based on the grey area it provides: a safe space to dump the demons we’re constantly anxious about. It is a show that bridges humour and pain, joy and tragedy, in a way that is appealing to the audience. We might never have recaps of Fuji House of Commotion on television anymore, nevertheless, The Johnsons does a fantastic job as a replacement and should be taken seriously.
January 14, 2021
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