TV Review: 'The Boondocks' returns to Adult Swim
Aaron McGruder has his bark, but a lack of timeliness takes away some of his bite
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On an intellectual level, I understand that Aaron McGruder doesn't owe me anything.
On an emotional level, though, it's hard not to feel like McGruder is the deadbeat dad of political cartooning. Since McGruder abruptly concluded the funny pages run of "The Boondocks" in 2006, scarcely a week has gone by when something didn't hit the news that caused me to say, "Damn. 'Boodocks' would have had some righteous fun with this s***."
Arizona immigration reform.
Dez Bryant being asked if his mom was a prostitute.
And then I flip to the comics and I've only got "Marmaduke" staring back and me and lemme assure you that Marmaduke doesn't have anything to say about anything.
I keep hoping that one day "The Boondocks" will return to the comics and it'll be just like McGruder really *did* only step out to buy a pack of cigarettes, rather than abandoning us entirely.
But, like I said, that's an emotional reaction and not an intellectual one.
I don't have the same visceral need for the TV animated incarnation of "The Boondocks," but it too has been long absent. After more than two years away, the "Boondocks" series returns to Cartoon Network on Sunday (May 2) night with an episode that seems to attack my neediness head-on.
[More on "The Boondocks" after the break...]
Titled "It's a Black President, Huey Freeman," the return of "The Boondocks" to Adult Swim is all about the fact that the United States elected Barack Obama president in 2008 and McGruder didn't have a bully pulpit at the time. Plus when McGruder attempted to address his feelings about Obama in occasional speaking appearances, he seemed to confuse people with his skepticism, with his lack of irrational exuberance (see the very minor kerfuffle stemming from a speech at Earlham College for an example).
The premiere picks up in October of 2008. Obama is on the verge of election, but his opponents are getting increasingly desperate to tie him to militant radicals in an effort to scare white folks. When Obama's associations with Jeremiah Wright fail to get sufficient traction, the hatemongers point to 10-year-old Huey Freeman, one of Obama's MySpace friends.
A PBS documentary crew, led by a filmmaker who looks and sounds an awful lot like Werner Herzog (it's not a coincidence) shows up at the Freeman's suburban home and demands Huey's opinion on Obama, demand that he speak essentially on the behalf of the entire African-American population.
Since Huey has always been assumed to be a pint-sized alter ego for McGruder, it's hard not to read this as the author's frustration at being approached by the media for his own all-encompassing opinions during the election cycle, peppered with inane questions like, "As a black, African-American Negro, are you merely excited or are you extremely excited that everything is going to change forever."
The Herzog figure wants to know what Huey thinks because, by extension, he wants to know what he's supposed to think. The problem is that Huey's reaction is an unequivocal, "Eh."
It's not the answer Herzog wants from Huey and it wouldn't have been the answer that most reporters or audiences wanted from McGruder.
"What is wrong with letting people be happy? Can too much hope possibly be a bad thing?" Herzog inquires.
"Hope is irrational," Huey explains, but goes no further.
In turn, without the answer he actually craves, Herzog goes and interviews the rest of the series' cast of less progressive characters. Grandpa sees Obama's rise as a validation of his own peripheral role in the Civil Rights movement. Huey's brother sees the rise of "Obeezy" as a personal license to ill. And other reactions, particularly those of Uncle Ruckus are even worse.
Huey is scapegoated as insufficiently on the bandwagon, as racist and regressive by extension, much to his chagrin.
In interviews and statements before and after the election, McGruder tried to make it clear that his fear and reservations were with the soiled office of the American Presidency, that he wasn't pessimistic about Obama as a potential leader, but about the chance that any leader would be able to prevent the continued decline of the American Empire. Instead, the media reported that McGruder was claiming that Obama wasn't black, that he didn't believe in the man America was electing on his behalf. In the "Boondocks" premiere, McGruder isn't so much clarifying his position as mocking the mainstream media's treatment of his own ambivalence and the people they turned to in his absence.
And at times, the result is hilarious. The lampooning of opportunistic rappers and guilty middle class white voters is merciless and, in moments, spot-on.
More often, though, you sense that McGruder is at least a year too late to this particular party. He's even too late to the backlash. When he was doing his daily strip, McGruder wasn't just saying what his readers were thinking, he was giving many of them permission to have those thoughts, cementing arguments and laying out a diverse and spot-on agenda.
One of my greatest reservations with the TV "Boondocks" has always been its failure provide the immediacy the comic strip delivered. I don't begrudge McGruder's key decision, which was to opt for a visually stunning anime-flavored visual style, fully aware that that choice would also require extra animation time. By the time episodes made it to the air for the first two seasons, stories would go back and forth between satisfyingly fresh "I can't believe he just said that!" installments and full half-hours of hollow riffs on well-trod targets like hip-hop or BET, with no finger on the pulse of anything new or specific. Without timeliness, the show's writers have occasionally settled for coarseness and broad parody.
"It's a Black President, Huey Freeman" isn't as coarse or broad as lesser "Boondocks" episodes, but there's nothing in the episode that couldn't have been said a year ago when it might have been audacious, rather than familiar. The episode can take the piss out of voters who supported Obama without any awareness of his political positions -- Grandpa expects Obama to lower taxes and get us out of Afghanistan -- but the production schedule has prevented McGruder from being able to anticipate and of the things that Obama actually did (or, more damningly, wasn't able to do) in his first year in office. The characters' present-day disenchantment is generic and toothless.
[The passage of time hasn't necessarily been 100 percent damaging to "The Boondocks." In a Season One episode, a Rosa Parks joke was pulled because the episode aired too soon after the Civil Rights icon's death. In Sunday's premiere? Rosa Parks jokes are definitely fair-play again.]
I still love the way "The Boondocks" looks, with its mixture of artistic polish and ugliness. For the premiere, the addition of the Herzog character, with his unnervingly accurate appearance and loopy voice-over is inspired, though I'm tempted to wonder exactly how many viewers in the "Boondocks" demo will have seen a single Herzog documentary. [A similar percentage of viewers will also get giggles out of some good natured tweaking of Shepard Fairey (or perhaps just what I've chosen to interpret as tweaking of Shepard Fairey).]
Like I've said, Aaron McGruder doesn't really owe me anything and I guess that if he doesn't want to do "The Boondocks" as a regular strip (or take on any other kind of daily, current platform), I'll watch and often enjoy "The Boondocks" on Adult Swim. I'll accept the moderate laughter and try not to be too disappointed that McGruder's rapier wit is too often blunted in this medium.
And yes, my available blurb is "'The Boondocks' on Adult Swim... It sure beats having no 'Boondocks' at all!"
"The Boondocks" kicks off its third season on Sunday, May 2 at 11:30 p.m. on "Adult Swim."