Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Boondocks – Season 4

And so The Boondocks came to an end. I was glad there was a little more of the show, that I could watch the last episodes knowing that no more would be to come, and there were a couple of good episodes here. But this was definitely more whimper than bang. Firstly, Aaron McGruder wasn’t on board, and what he brought to the show – what this season lacked – was very obvious. He is clearly a good bit smarter than any of the remaining writing team, and knows that there needed to be an intelligent undercurrent subverting everything all the characters said for the show to work. It wasn’t there.

Secondly, the animation – which was never top-notch – has been given over to Studio Mir. Now, I suspect Studio Mir and Studio Moi have a fair bit of cross-over, but it is downright strange having Legend of Korra and the last season of The Boondocks very obviously animated by the same people. When Korra starts pulling Grandpa faces and all the comedy has the same not-quite-beat-perfect rhythm to it, and you know that the same people are animating the epic story of flying bisons and world-changing defenders of civilisation one day and intentionally offensive gay stereotypes the next, it’s a little unsettling. Plus I’m guessing Nickelodeon pay a fair bit more than Cartoon Network, because The Boondocks looks a fair bit cheaper and more rushed.

But technicalities aside, it’s important to judge The Boondocks on its writing. Some of the previous episodes of this show have been so perfectly-done that I would genuinely rate them as comedy classics. McGruder’s cutting, all-encompassing mockery of modern culture puts the show’s highlights up there with the best South Park episodes. But he’s not on-board any more, and instead the season is masterminded by a woman who wrote for Scrubs and McGruder’s former writing partner on the previous series. There’s an edge missing here – the satirical links don’t quite close, and mostly the set-up is great but the idea doesn’t get developed and stagnates. I think the writers felt like a good idea for an episode was enough to sustain the full 20 minutes. Instead, we end up with some good opening scenes leading to very boring mis-fires.

Old ideas are rehashed. Stinkmeaner comes back yet again to antagonise Robert. There’s an all-out Breaking Bad parody that raises the questions of why that show needs parodying at all. There’s a full episode tediously following Robert inadvertently joining the Freedom Riders that despite a lot of action goes nowhere and makes no point. When two of the better episodes are about Robert having an abusive relationship with Siri, and about him becoming a ‘male escort’, you know a show is on its last legs. Though the inevitable old-lady-pimp scenes were funny.

Still, of just ten episodes, three stood out as genuinely good. One was about a hair product that does wonders for afro-American hair, but is derived from Huey’s attempts to make home explosives. It unfolds in a by-the-numbers way, but its jabs at the beauty industry and the fact that even when it’s revealed the stuff is dangerous people still love it make for a clever and entertaining episode. Better than that is the very last episode, though it didn’t have the heft of a season finale. When Riley finally gets called out on saying everything is ‘gay’, it leads to a twisted sequence of events where he is extorted by a series of oppressed groups until finally he becomes ‘the poster boy for retardation’. 

It was an irreverent mix of political incorrectness and social commentary, which raised some good points: in condemning using ‘gay’ to mean ‘bad’, do we also end up censoring observations that something is an action associated with gay culture? Are the groups who garner attention and funding defending minorities actually out for the best interests of the group, or do they just use them and extort others who they can bully? Is there a kind of one-upmanship in different underprivileged groups? Sure, the South Park episode on the Special Olympics did much of this better, and the final stinger uncomfortably fell back on the ‘looking retarded is inherently funny’ concept, but with side-references to Of Mice and Men, a non-mainstream representation of the whole ‘check your privilege’ movement and some genuinely funny moments, it was a good episode.

But my favourite was ‘Freedomland’, in which the Freemans willingly sign a contract to work as entertainers in a slavery-themed amusement park. Now, it may seem like a cheap shot, The Boondocks doing modern-day slavery with the white guy using corporations instead of brute force to get exactly the same results, but it’s more subtle than that. Tom sleepwalks into the same position because he imagines it’s noble. Only Huey wants to upset the corporate system that put them in this position, at least until things escalate. Sure, it all ends in a silly kung-fu scrap, but it’s a clever bit of observational political comedy. And that’s what The Boondocks is supposed to be doing, not just ‘Hurr Grandpa is a shallow idiot and Uncle Ruckus is racist’.

The Boondocks was worth the ride. The last hoorah may have ended up being muted and unconvincing, but there were enough flashes of brilliance to remind me how good this show very nearly was.  

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