He may be so white that he's occasionally mistaken for an albino, but that doesn't mean that Judge Geoffrey Miller can't review this show examining the state of modern black culture in America.
"Excuse me everyone, I have a brief announcement to make. Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil, and the government is lying about 9/11. Thank you for your time and good night."—Huey Freeman
Adult Swim is no stranger to pushing the envelope, but The Boondocks courted more controversy before its first episode even aired than the programming block has received in its entire short history. Rife with foul language and provocative themes, the show has been criticized by both conservative and liberal commentators. But it's more than merely a lightning rod for attention; The Boondocks is an often hilarious, proudly un-PC, and fiercely intelligent take on race and politics in America.
Facts of the Case
Ten-year-old Huey Freeman lives with his 8-year-old brother Riley and grandfather, Robert "Granddad" Freeman, who moved them to the suburbs away from the mean streets of Chicago. Huey's a wise-beyond-his-years political radical with a billowing afro who hides a sensitive side behind his pessimistic demeanor; Riley's a joker who's obsessed with gangsta and thug culture; and Granddad is a cantankerous yet good-naturedly pragmatic guardian to them both. Together (with a gang of colorful supporting characters, of course) they navigate the bumpy waters of being a black family in white suburbia.
The Boondocks: The Complete First Season contains 15 episodes on three discs.
Other than the massively successful Peanuts specials and movies, it's been a rough road for comic strips trying to make the transition into animation. Hardly anyone remembers Tales From The Far Side, the surprisingly dark and macabre adaptation of Gary Larson's surreal one-panel The Far Side. The TV version of Dilbert, while true to the spirit of the comic and occasionally amusing, has drifted into obscurity outside of a small cult fanbase. Garfield is probably the only comic other than Peanuts to find commercial success, but Garfield has always sucked in comic and animated form.
Even with odds against him, it should come as no surprise that Aaron McGruder, the creator of The Boondocks comic strip, wanted to move his characters into the lucrative world of television; what does come as a surprise is the extent of his involvement in The Boondocks TV series. He's the executive producer and has writing or co-writing credit on every single episode on this set. The Boondocks is entirely McGruder's baby without a doubt, and it is the way these characters represent the many, contradictory sides of his personalities that makes it exciting. He is a leftist revolutionary rebel, hip-hop fan, hip-hop critic, self-avowed "nerd" with a love of anime and manga, a pop culture junkie with a disdain for the shallowness of pop culture…and he somehow makes sense of all of this within his work. Barely in his 30s, he's already grown into a sharp social critic with a talent for cutting satire—the type that continues in the long American tradition of Twain and Vonnegut; the type that makes us laugh at the how horrible the world really is.
Unlike the comic strip, which is able to comment on recent events as they happen, The Boondocks TV show, with its longer production cycle, focuses on bigger, less ephemeral issues. It may seem a little late to do an episode about R. Kelly going on trial for sex with underage girls. After all, most of America has moved on from making fun of R. Kelly for peeing on a 16-year-old girl to making fun of him for "Trapped In The Closet." But the episode is less about R. Kelly and more about the intersection of race, celebrity, and justice in America. Prosecutor Tom DuBois, a black neighbor of the Freemans who's comfortably bourgeoisie with a white wife, is portrayed as a race traitor by the white defending attorney. R. Kelly's fans, including Riley, clamor that he's being unfairly persecuted, even though there are piles of irrefutable evidence against him.
The climax of "The Trial of R. Kelly" is a passionate speech by Huey arguing that, while many black men have been charged with crimes they're innocent of, R. Kelly isn't one of them. It's an example of how The Boondocks weaves serious commentary in with its jokes. Unlike South Park, another highly topical show, The Boondocks doesn't feel contrived or heavy-handed when making a point. It's closer in tone to less politically charged shows, like The Simpsons or Arrested Development, that have pulled off the similar trick of turning on a dime from snarky sarcasm to heartfelt emotion. This also ties into the characters, who are all surprisingly deep. As the de facto protagonist, Huey breaks through his misanthropic exterior, through eloquent narration and the occasional outburst, just often enough to make you forgive him for his mean-spirited comments, self-righteousness, and nutjob conspiracy theories. Like the rest of the flawed yet likable cast, he'll grow on you.
In an unusual move, The Boondocks' art style draws primarily from anime. At first, it's a little incongruous to see a show about an American black family with the sort of lush visuals more at home in a Gainax production, but it's surprisingly strong fit that complements the already manga-inspired character designs from the comic. There was certainly no expense that was spared either; with its picturesque scenes of Huey waxing philosophical in a field full of waving grass and fluid action sequences, The Boondocks might be the most beautiful animated show on the air right now. It's more than just a trendy stylistic choice: The opening sequence slyly nods to Samurai Champloo's, and the more exaggerated comic antics recall FLCL. References to Asian culture in general abound, including a direct homage to Zatoichi, the blind swordsman of countless samurai flicks, and a character that looks exactly like Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon.
The other main influence on The Boondocks is Peanuts, not only in its depiction of precocious children but in its idyllic suburban setting. Musically, as well, much of the soundtrack is like Vince Guaraldi backed by mellow hip-hop beats. "A Huey Freeman Christmas" pays special tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas in ways Charles Schulz couldn't have possibly imagined. Huey's voice morphs into the classic Peanuts teacher "wah-wah" while he explains the pagan origins of Christmas to Granddad, and the play Huey puts on, "The Adventures of Black Jesus," is a far cry from Charlie Brown's. While it's a parody in nature, it's still obvious how much respect McGruder and co. have for the original—and the core idea of finding the true meaning of Christmas outside of its commercial excess is shared by both.
A few episodes stumble, the Riley-heavy ones in particular. In "The Story of Gangstalicious," Riley visits his favorite rapper, Gangstalicious (voiced by Mos Def in a mush-mouthed parody of gangsta rappers), in the hospital after he's shot. The inevitable twist, of course, is that Gangstalicious isn't as tough as his reputation makes him out to be. The final revelation that his jilted gay ex-lover is the one trying to kill Gangstalicious is predictable and tired, even if the episode is smart enough to avoid falling into homophobia. Slightly better is "Let's Nab Oprah," in which Riley attempts just that with his friends Ed Wuncler III (Charlie Murphy) and Gin Rummy (the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson). Ed and Rummy are two wannabe gangsta white guys who met while fighting in the Iraq war. They're incompetent criminals only able to get off the hook because Wuncler's grandfather is a powerful businessman who practically owns the town. The pair, essentially a mocking parody of what George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld would be like as a pair of young men growing up in the 00s, are comically inept and the highlight of the episode.
Without a doubt, the pinnacle of The Boondocks' first season is "Return of the King," an imaginary tale in which Martin Luther King, instead of being killed, remains in a coma until awakening in 2000. King opposes the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, leading to him being labeled an "Al Qaeda Lover" and "commie bastard" by an O'Reilly-esque commentator. Shunned by the mainstream media, King tries to start his own left-wing political party with the help of Huey. (They meet at a book signing.) The episode honors King in a way that, while certainly not reverent, feels closer to the truth than his watered-down legacy. Huey's narration closes the episode—"It's fun to dream."
The transfer of the episodes themselves is superb, presented in widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (no 5.1, unfortunately). The menus, made to look like a comic book with animated panels, and general presentation are also excellent. The set is advertised as "Uncut and Uncensored," which basically adds up to more cursing and some nudity (oddly enough, mostly of the male variety). The only area where it comes up a bit short is extras, with only a short behind the scenes featurette, a scant selection of deleted scenes and animatics, printable storyboards, and commentary on a handful of episodes. The commentaries are the highlight: Several feature video in addition to audio, and a few alternate commentaries are done by Uncle Ruckus, a supporting character who plays the role of a stereotypical self-hating black man.
The Boondocks has made one of the most self-assured, fully formed television debuts in years. That it's working with an already established world certainly helps considerably, but it wouldn't mean anything if the show were merely the comic strip copied over to the screen. As a TV series, The Boondocks not only expands marvelously on the comic, it sets itself apart as a unique entity that can fully stand on its own. It's a show that can and should be appreciated by anyone—regardless of race. Not only is much of the humor universal, the show illuminates the sorry state of race relations in America like nothing else out there.
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