Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees returns to the halcyon days when the Fly Girls were the epitome of cool and Jim Carrey had not yet been contracted to star in 87% of Hollywood's annual output.
Our reviews of In Living Color: The Complete First Season (published August 4th, 2004), In Living Color: Season Four (published February 1st, 2006), and In Living Color: Season Five (published May 10th, 2006) are also available.
"Nobody was safe—and that's what true comedy is."—Rosie Perez, choreographer
The success of Season One of this breakthrough sketch comedy meant that Season Two of In Living Color hit the airwaves with higher expectations. Having raised the bar on sketch comedy, the talented cast and writers would now have to top themselves. Could they do it? If you have any doubts on this point, you must have sadly wasted your TV viewing hours in 1990-91.
Facts of the Case
Season Two brings the return of Keenen Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson, "James" Carrey, Kim Wayans, Kelly Coffield, and T'Keyah "Crystal" Keymah—not to mention SW1 and the supercool Fly Girls—in sketches featuring such beloved (or, in a few cases, fascinatingly repellent) characters as Homey the Clown, the Head Detective, Fire Marshall Bill, the Hedley family ("Hey, Mon!"), gossipy Benita Butrell, flamboyant Blaine and Antoine, the aptly named Buttmans, the Brothers Brothers, the B.S. Brothers, and countless others. We're also introduced to new characters, like film noir refugee Velma Mulholland and blues singer Calhoun Tubbs, composer of thousands of songs, none of them over three seconds long. The Season Two collection includes all 26 episodes (some of which feature repeats of sketches from earlier in the season) and a nice batch of extras on four discs in individual slim cases.
For better or worse, In Living Color stands out as some of the most memorable television of my youth. Blaine and Antoine trading risqué double entendres and modeling a succession of outrageous costumes; never-was (as opposed to has-been) '70s actress Magenta Thompson sucking in nicotine to get her through her cable-access show; glittering musical (?) duo Cephus and Reesie singing highlights from their show "Get Off the Lord's Bus if You Ain't Got Correct Change"; even grotesque "female" bodybuilder Vera De Milo giving her horsy laugh—these are characters that have stayed with me over the years. (So, unfortunately, has the homeless wino character, Anton Jackson, with his portable, uh, convenience.)
One of the main reasons that ILC was so successful is that its comedy truly didn't discriminate. Everyone was fair game—black, white, male, female, young, old, gay, straight, even handicapped (the Handi Man sketches are instances of equal-opportunity mockery that would certainly never be seen today). Keenen Ivory Wayans made sure the writers knew that laughs took priority over any other agenda, and that decision pays off richly. Although the topical nature of some of the sketches and caricatures dates them and makes their comedy a bit obscure today—such as the parodies of Mike Tyson, Grace Jones, and Andrew "Dice" Clay—a lot of it still stands up beautifully, for the reason that human nature doesn't change that much from decade to decade. Season Two also benefits from some delicious self-mockery along with the skewering of every other possible target: In the first episode of the season, the Wayans family reassures the audience that their first-season success hasn't changed them, but each one sports a Michael Jackson nose sculpt. (Also keep an eye out for the clever Emmy-themed sketch in which Keenen plays himself as a godfather-type tyrant.) This season also showcases the sharp, clever writing that gave each sketch its bite and made ILC so quotable. The nimble dialogue sets this apart from other sketch comedy shows.
Of course, without such a talented cast, the finest writing and satire in the world would only go so far, and the cast of ILC proves again, as it did in the first season, how strong and diverse its talents are. In singing the praises of the cast I must start with my personal favorite among them, David Alan Grier. Ever since he won my heart as Don "No Soul" Williams in 1987's Amazon Women on the Moon, Grier can do no wrong where I'm concerned. Creator of Calhoun Tubbs and thick-headed high school despot Al MacAfee, Grier is equally adept at playing soft-spoken Antoine and pushy stage momma to Lil' Magic, and he brings the same complete commitment to each role. He's a joy to watch. That's not to slight the rest of this terrific ensemble, though—all of the actors are equally talented and versatile, shining when given their turn to star in a sketch but also putting in excellent supporting work when part of a crowd. In the wildly popular Homey the Clown sketches, for example, Damon Wayans's indelible performance as the angriest clown in the entertainment industry definitely steals the show, but seeing the rest of the actors play little children is also a large part of the fun. By Season Two even the token white folks have started to establish their individual personae and play to their unique abilities: Future superstar Jim Carrey, of course, showcases the no-holds-barred physical comedy that would make him one of the most unavoidable faces in film, and Kelly Coffield, who has since fallen into relative obscurity, turns in such terrific performances as bitter Magenta Thompson and anachronistic Velma Mulholland that it's hard to understand why she didn't end up in high-profile gigs like Carrey's. Kim Wayans also stands out for the exceptional energy and commitment she brings to her wide array of personae. Again, though, it's the way these talented individuals work together that makes the ensemble of ILC such a strong team.
Of the extras, the 37-minute Season Two Overview is the meatiest: Along with the usual assortment of clips, it features interviews with the writers, co-producers, director, actors, music coordinator, and choreographer. From general impressions to specific anecdotes about the actors, this featurette provides good background for a season in which, as one of the survivors recalls, "the process was hell, but the result was great." A frequent refrain is the surprising edginess of the show—an edginess that had to work around the ever-intrusive specter of censorship, but which most agree would never be permitted on today's politically correct television. We also get background information on the creation of some sketches and characters, and we also learn of the network pressure on the show to foster (that is, flog) the franchisable characters that emerged in this season.
The "Appreciating In Living Color" featurette includes comments by Dr. Todd Boyd of USC's School of Cinema and TV that place the show in the context of its times and examine its cultural impact. Don't worry—this isn't as dry as it sounds, and it clocks in at under 12 minutes. The even shorter (10:40) featurette "Notorious ILC: Characters" focuses particularly on the characters of Homey the Clown, Fire Marshall Bill ("maybe the single most horrifying thing that's ever been on TV"), and Blaine and Antoine, while glancing more briefly at Velma Mulholland and Calhoun Tubbs. This isn't a very illuminating featurette, but there are some morsels of behind-the-scenes dirt to be gleaned here.
The commentaries on various sketches by head writer Buddy Sheffield and staff writer Kim Bass are a nice extra. These appear mainly on the first disc, but all four discs feature commentary on at least one sketch. Starting with their self-introduction, these two men show the same kind of irreverent, audacious approach—especially to issues of race—that characterized ILC's writing. When I tell you that Bass refers to himself as the writing team's "Negrometer," that'll give you an idea of the un-PC tendencies of these commentaries. Sometimes Sheffield and Bass describe the onscreen action to a tiresome extent, but they do offer some interesting insights and behind-the-scenes tidbits that are worth waiting for.
Audiovisual quality is good, especially considering the TV origins of the material. Colors are true, and the visual transfer looks clean and free of defects. The stereo audio mix is quite nice, rendering the music in the Fly Girls' dance interludes with respectable oomph, and dialogue is clear and well balanced with the studio audience's applause. The only disappointment here is that some of the dialogue that got obliterated by the censors at the time of original broadcast hasn't been restored. (Some of these dropped bits of dialogue would seem tame these days—as when the word "soap" is deleted from a drop-the-soap joke.)
The popularity of the show and its characters encouraged the writers to end this season with two cliffhangers: Homey has apparently sold out to The Man, and Antoine's adored Blaine has been conked on the head and apparently turned straight. Even after all these years, these sketches make me eager for the release of Season Three so I can see the resolutions of these plot twists. That's classic comedy.
Blaine and Antoine said it best: Two snaps up, a twist, and a kiss. The defendant is free to go!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary on Selected Sketches by Writers Kim Bass and Buddy Sheffield
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