Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Problem With the 'Early Bird Special': Poor Writing, Misogyny, and Season Four of 'The Boondocks'

I am an unapologetic fan of Aaron McGruder's TV show The Boondocks. I have written about his genius and sharp insights about race and politics on several occasions. Along with David Chappelle, I include McGruder among the great philosophers of the politics of the color line in post civil rights era America.

Smart political and social satire/comedy involves making the viewer uncomfortable as a way of creating a space for some type of catharsis and intellectual awakening through laughter.

In that way, pain can be healing.

The best comics understand their role as the psychologist truth-teller who embraces parrhesia. There is a cost to telling the truth: the great comics stand naked before the world which is why they so often destroy themselves by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, committing suicide, or dying early deaths because they have ravaged their bodies and minds in an act of self-sacrifice for the public.

Pain can also hurt. 

The new season of The Boondocks has been very uneven in terms of the quality of the writing and how the show uses a contemporary social issue (the "new" poverty of the black middle class and the elderly) as a plot device to animate--pardon the pun--the narrative. 

Aaron McGruder is no longer involved with The Boondocks: this is apparent as the show has embraced obvious sources of pain and conflict as thematic devices but has not offered, so far, any smart or subtle payoffs for the setup. In all, something is now just "off" with The Boondocks; its comedy is a crude, heavy, sledge hammer that is mining hurt and (black) pain, while denying the viewers any redemption through comedic insight or wisdom.

Several years ago, David Chappelle quit his show on Comedy Central because he felt that white audience members were now laughing at him and not with him as he struggled through his art to offer up insightful commentary about the realities of race and racism in post civil rights America. 

I wonder if Aaron McGruder read the scripts for this season of The Boondocks and decided to walk away from the show because they were not up to his standards?

A great editor is a creative worker's best friend. Good friends and colleagues who get your vision, and who can reign you in, are also great allies too. At present, The Boondocks lacks both of those restraints, as this season plays like a cover band which can hit the high notes, but lacks the subtlety and authenticity of its predecessors.

Season 4 of The Boondocks has featured stories where the Freemans sell themselves into slavery, in an homage to Breaking Bad develop explosive hair straightening cream, and in the most recent episode "Early Bird Special", Grandpa Freeman becomes a male prostitute who caters to desperate, young, attractive black women who are so lonely that they mortgage their homes for his companionship...and this companionship does not even involve mind-blowing sex and many, many exhausting orgasms for said "clients".

I do not think that The Boondocks TV show is now "anti-black". Nor, is it "anti-black woman" or "misogynist". Those rhetorical bricks are overused in contemporary American discourse. But, The Boondocks is grappling with some very important conversations about race, class, and gender--and failing to execute and follow through on them properly.

The plot of the "Early Bird Special" was driven by the supposed loneliness and lack of desirability as experienced by black women (and the desperate yearning of "unattractive" white women for anything "black" and "male"). 

I would suggest that these are rough ideas for a pitch meeting.

I will even go so far as to say that I have personally witnessed the race and gender dynamics to which The Boondocks' "Early Bird Special" is alluding. 

I am also transparent in my belief that much of the supposed controversy about marriage markets and the hair salon wisdom about how "black men are leaving black women for women of other races", and thus black women are made lonely and to feel undesirable because of that fact, is much malarkey. 

Unfortunately, those dynamics became the beginning and end of "Early Bird Special", as opposed to the scaffolding upon which the writers of The Boondocks could have done something really smart and insightful.

[Some examples. Grandpa has joked that he is horrible in bed. What about making him the greatest lover to ever walk the Earth...despite his lack of self-confidence? What if his "clients" are all young guilty white liberals or ultra-conservatives who are having sex with him as an act of penance or racial self-flagellation? 

How about having Grandpa be the central attraction in a Mandingo party or involved in interracial cuckolding with a prominent white man from Woodcrest? What if The Boondocks did a take on Pretty Woman? The Mack? American Pimp? Pimps Up Hoes Down? Grandpa could be titillated by the idea of being used as a human sex toy and ends up in therapy. So many possibilities.]

The Boondocks is now reaching for easy jokes based on the idea that talking about race in an "honest" way is somehow "smart" or "edgy". Unfortunately, bad writing and lazy thinking often hides behind the deflector shield and camouflage of "honesty".


Learning IS Eternal said...

Yeah, me and my team were discussing this weeks ago and everything you said was our sentiments exact.

Ever since McGruder "blues'd" Tyler Perry & Debra Lee it seems the show had trouble. Season 3 was 'posed to be the last. I thought McGruder wrote the script so him leaving because it wasn't up to standard... It's more like he left and the show took a nose dive.

I like a good conspiracy theory. I love facts even more.

I think Tyler Perry & Debra or some other powers that be deemed McGruder unfit, got CPS (cartoon protection...) and took "his baby."

I really don't care why Solange put Jay-Z in a blender. I do want to know why McGruder parted ways w/Boondocks.

That show was prophetic. From R.Kelly singing his way out the courthouse, to jokers wearing skirts; Gangstalicious/gay rappers, Huey was the voice of reason.

Courtney H said...

Here is a YouTube video about the Human Torch being played by a Black actor in the new "Fantastic Four" movie. Near the end, the narrator makes comments about "Boondocks" that kind of shocked me. What do you think?


lioness said...

Are there any good editors left? I can't count all the recent works that somehow got out into the wild without the benefit of one. (Yes, Rowling, I'm looking at you.)

Buddy H said...

I'm not sure why Aaron left the Boondocks. I know his new project is Black Jesus. His statement said something to the effect that it was business; nothing personal. I'm guessing he named a price, the network wouldn't meet his price, so he walked. I could be wrong.

We're financially challenged, so we don't have cable. My wife and I watched the first three seasons on youtube, and laughed our asses off (not much nowadays can really make me laugh, but I was astounded at the comedic brilliance of Aaron's scripts).

I watched one episode of season four, and it seemed to me like they'd jumped the shark. Outrageous situations just to be outrageous, without any poetic truth underneath. I don't think this is laziness on the writers' parts. I'm sure they're trying hard to make a good final season. They just lack Aaron's talent. From what I've seen, season four is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. A competent writer can put together a lively script full of jokes and crazy situations. A genius poet like McGruder can create something truly inspired. I expect Black Jesus will be something special.

And whatever happened to Uncle Ruckus's movie kickstarter? I saw his hilarious live-action appearance on Snoop Lion's show, but was secretly relieved when the movie didn't get made, for the same reason Chappelle became uncomfortable with all the rowdy white boys in his audience. I thought the wrong people would embrace Uncle Ruckus, and for all the wrong reasons. I love the the character of Uncle Ruckus, and all the subtle, delicate, humanistic, sad shadings McGruder gave his creation (I can relate to self-hatred, growing up in a culture where southern italians are portrayed as ignorant gangsters and/or vulgar new jersey shore suburbanites) but I knew if his movie became popular, it would become another weapon for ignorant supremacists.

Chauncey, have you seen or heard anything about Black Jesus, and do you have any thoughts to share?

Louis Dixon said...

Aaron walked and so did I. Haven't watched. Listening to Wolf waiting for Black Jesus. Or something else.

What'd you think of The Retrieval?

chauncey devega said...

i have heard about Black Jesus but nothing more than some general ideas. The episode about Uncle Ruckus' origins and families was a punch in the stomach sad and funny. Richard Pryor would have approved. No cable? There are lots of options out there besides Youtube and Hulu. Have you tried Project Free TV which basically has most TV from this country and around the world?

chauncey devega said...

Long story short. I didn't get to see it. I will be seeing it this week and then Godzilla.

chauncey devega said...

I don't now if prophetic is the word as it reflected the now. Damn smart. Absolutely. Hopefully McGruder will write a book one day and share some of his process and thoughts. He gave a talk at a local university and I knew some black students who met him. They felt like he didn't kiss their butts enough and was too matter of fact. Extra points from me for being real.

SabrinaBee said...

I didn't even know there was a new season of Boondocks. I had given up on looking for it after the loooong hiatus. But, if it is as you say, that the quality has gone down, (we can tell) then I may not be able to enjoy the show as before. That's too bad. If McGruder is no longer there, I can't even imagine what the show would be like. He and Chappelle have left a void, which is unfortunate because Madea is not really filling that. I wonder what the back story is for them. I bet there must have been pressure to conform to certain standards. There is such a thing as too much truth telling within establishments.

Buddy H said...

Not sure where this fits in, but I found this article on the sad realities of the writing life:


I almost got a novel published in the late 1970s, but the deal fell through. I sold some short stories and essays throughout the '80s, '90s and '00s, but never enough to live on, and always saw myself as a failure. For thirty years I worked fifty hour weeks, busting my balls in high-stress, heavy deadline jobs, and struggled to do my creative work after hours, always falling short. This article snapped everything into focus for me, and I don't feel as much like a failure as i used to.

Stephen Kearse said...

I agree that this season is pretty inferior, but some of the problems with this new season existed even when McGruder was at the helm, so I don't think his absence explains much. I don't think that the show is anti-black women, but it has a pretty bad track record. "Guess Hoe's Coming to Dinner," "Killer Kung-Fu Wolf Bitch" and the recurring portrayal of fat women as vapid are some good examples of the show being pretty reckless when it comes to black women. Even last week's Breaking Bad parody trivialized the hair care industry in a way that was pretty dismissive of women. Jasmine is also rarely portrayed with any depth.

That said, I think you hit the nail on the head when you describe this last episode as minutes at a pitch meeting. So many ideas this season have been underdeveloped. They sold themselves into slavery in the second episode - which was supposed to be apart of Ruckus' mayoral campaign - but the implications of being actual slaves have been reduced to just being broke. Plus Ruckus suddenly isn't running anymore. That's pretty lame. Whoever this Angela Nissel person is, she needs an editor, for sure. I've also noticed that Rodney Barnes and Yamara Taylor haven't been involved in awhile.

Lastly, what's with this new animation? It is much more cartoonish than anime-esque. The facial expressions in particular are uncannily excessive.

chauncey devega said...

I didn't even catch the facial expressions angle. I have not problem w. some tough talk about gender dynamics as long as there is a payoff. The episodes you mentioned are some of my favorites. The take on hair care products is a great idea--black women spend entirely too much money on that nonsense and are subsidizing whole communities other than black folks with that mess. Chris Rock's hair brings the light to that issue beautifully.

You are also correct on how whole story-lines just show up and are dropped. Bad writing and bad editing.

SabrinaBee said...

So I watched the four episodes and it is true there is a difference, a nuance. It seems to me to be missing balance. This was more like an agenda to parrot right-wing talking points rather than the "militant Huey" with his black liberation references, what happened to them? Riley was not his frustratingly hard-headed self, either. They've wiped out the personality in order to simply deliver an agenda.