Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Boondocks, seasons 1-3

The fourth season of The Boondocks has been announced now, but it really did seem for a long while that three seasons would be all the show would get. Even the fact that it’s struggling now and not a pop culture staple is, in my opinion, a great shame. The Boondocks fills a void left by The Simpsons starting to really limp painfully and South Park losing its satirical edge to become successful primarily with character-driven comedy. It certainly wipes the floor with Family Guy and even when it first aired at the tail end of 2005, I thought it was a shame Fox passed on it.

Based on a comic strip by Aaron McGruder, and primarily written by him, it is nonetheless a very different beast. The strip is neat, glib and sarcastic. Punchlines are often just a withering look from main character Huey Freeman, and work all the better for it. The animation tends to develop plotlines ad absurdum, which quite often makes for brilliance, but risks making a dull one-note episode. But when The Boondocks gets it right, it’s the best animated comedy around.

The Boondocks is about some black kids living in a (predominantly) white US suburb, commenting on what’s in the news and generally bemoaning the state of life for black people. Most of the strips are character-driven: Huey is politically active, always thinks life is unfair, and promotes black rights. His best friend, cut from the series, usually agrees with him, but takes an easy-going attitude to life. His little brother, by contrast, wants nothing more than to imitate his MTV gangsta idols and takes very little interest in the world around him. Then there’s the typical grumpy grandpa.

McGruder isn’t promoting separatism; he’s only showing the life that’s familiar to him, the way he perceives things. Black culture is, of course, different from white culture, in America more than ever. Whether or not that’s positive is a tricky point, certainly not to be decided by a commentator in the UK with oodles of white privilege, but that’s how life is. And Huey isn’t supposed to be a prophet. We don’t have to believe him unconditionally. He simply represents one viewpoint – and if the comic is read with that in mind, it no longer seems the hate-spewing polemical anti-white platform that some make it out to be. I found reports of McGruder snobbishly insulting campaigners for equality by saying they were useless for not insulting those who deserve insulting to their faces - as though that’s the way progress will happen - objectionable, but he’s a firebrand and an expert with publicity – and certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to black nationalism, even if he isn’t above mocking it and its most vocal exponents. He explores issues from different angles rather than preaching.

This is the point I made, interestingly enough, just before watching episode one: Huey isn’t supposed to be a prophet, I wrote. And the episode opens with him saying ‘I am not a prophet’. My impressions after that first episode show how strong the characterisation is, for the scene was set for the rest: as I wrote on 9.11.05, the series ‘started naturalistically, establishing the central characters’ different attitudes to whites - Grandpa wants to fit in, Huey resents the perceived “white supremacist hierarchy” and Riley just wants to be himself - through a visit from the wealthy local landowner. The family go to a garden party, and the idea of rich people’s apathy is suddenly presented in a very exaggerated way: Huey goes around telling what he believes to be incendiary truths: Jesus was black, Reagan was the devil because each of his names had six letters, etc. Riley, meanwhile, goes off with a caricatured idiot rich kid. Nearby, Uncle Ruckus, a black man who hates all black men, can only resent that Grandpa and the rich host get on so well. The lurch between naturalism and satire didn’t sit too well, but once accepted, it was immersive stuff, and by the sound of some future storylines (Martin Luther King comes back from the dead, and his teachings clash with the American mindset that has supported the ongoing war in Iraq so badly that he becomes a figure of national hate) sound like they could have come straight from South Park; satire’s undoubtedly here to stay. Like Stone and Parker, after all, McGruder is a Monty Python fan. While the animation lacks somewhat, the art is beautiful. Plus Riley is just so cute!’

Through three seasons of controversy, cleverness and brilliant celebrity performances, these observations have remained largely true. The Boondocks is something quite special, and has some of the best writing on TV. I just sense that the US is resistant to it, and White America feels it is not meant for them. But the humour is universal, and the strongest episodes are easily understood, most of them satirising black media culture rather than complex politics. I’m very glad more’s coming.

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