The long-awaited second season premiere of The Boondocks indulges in all of the show’s worst tendencies—shrill, pandering satire; too-obvious pop culture jokes; an anime-inspired fight scene that, while an interesting diversion, doesn’t fit with anything that has come before. If you’re introduced to the series via tonight’s episode (airing in Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim bloc), you might be tempted to write the show off as just another tone-deaf satirical cartoon with pretensions to political relevance (many of sprung up in the wake of South Park and the success of the Jon Stewart-hosted Daily Show). But to do that would be a mistake. The Boondocks, uneven as it is, is audacious and ambitious enough to be essential viewing.
Some of creator Aaron McGruder’s gambits fall so flat that you cringe, even as you admire the show for attempting them at all. But as South Park’s political ear grows increasingly tin—the show, while still funny, often seems to be trying to outguess the audience as to what position it will take—The Boondocks observes life among African-Americans both through close, observational humor and broad satire. It often succeeds at the former—making it sort of an African-American answer to King of the Hill—and succeeds at the latter surprisingly often.
One of the more notable aspects of McGruder’s series is its fresh viewpoint. It has a predominantly African-American voice cast and centers on a specific predicament: the experience of blacks living among middle-to-upper classes while trying to maintain attachments to a more “authentic” city experience. Contemporary TV series rarely attempt such specificity; most of them don’t even try. Multiracial dramatic ensembles are almost de riguer now (thanks to pioneering work by the likes of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere), but few have nonwhite characters at their center. Even HBO’s The Wire, remarkable for featuring characters from all cultural backgrounds and social standings, had a white detective as its ostensible main character for its first three seasons. The Boondocks’ approach is preferable to trying to to shoehorn a nonwhite character to a show that clearly isn’t calling for one and give that character just one distinguishing trait, non-whiteness; this can just lead to rank tokenism (witness how The West Wing used Dule Hill’s Charlie—still one of that show’s greatest failings). The Sopranos wouldn’t have have been nearly as effective if it had tried to insert a subplot about nonwhite gangsters. Even Showtime’s Weeds, a pretty good show, often falls apart when puts its central white characters into wacky situations involving African-Americans. “Oh those white people!” the series seems to say. “They’ll never figure it out, will they? At least they mean well!”
This awkwardness is especially frustrating considering that TV has long been a medium where shows with predominantly African-American and white casts could co-exist. The Cosby Show could lead into Family Ties and Cheers, and largely the same audience would watch all three. While debates raged around whether or not The Cosby Show was at all authentic to the African-American experience, its entirely black cast didn’t hurt it in the ratings; indeed, it was the number one show on television for five of its eight seasons and in the top 10 for seven of them. And Cosby’s hit was preceded and followed by other successful sitcoms with predominantly black casts, from Sanford and Son to The Jeffersons to Family Matters. Not all of these shows were wholly successful (indeed, quite a few of them were pretty bad), and the number of dramas with predominantly African-American casts that ran for more than one season can almost be counted on one hand, but NBC didn’t worry about who would watch Cosby. It just assumed, correctly, that everyone would.
The medium changed for the worse in the 1990s, according to Jeffrey Stepakoff’s Billion-Dollar Kiss, an account of the network TV’s evolution from the mid-80s to the early 2000s, written by a man whose career spanned everything from Simon and Simon to The Wonder Years to Dawson’s Creek. In the chapter “Vertical Integration and Segregation,” Stepakoff blames the slow segregation of network TV on laws passed by Congress in the 1990s that made it possible for networks to own greater stakes in the shows they aired—a change that sparked the networks’ decision to chase younger, richer, and yes, whiter viewers. Stepakoff asserts that even though African-Americans watch more TV than whites (in fact, whites watch less TV than almost every other racial group), whites (especially young whites) are more valuable to advertisers because they tend to have more disposable income. At the same time, the rise of network-owned production companies has led to the death of independent production companies that pursued voices outside of the usual television mainstream (Carsey-Werner being a good example). While I wouldn’t make the argument that this rises to the level of institutionalized racism (since another Cosby Show would certainly send the networks chasing other sitcoms with minority leads—television has always been about doing what everyone else is doing), it has resulted in a TV grid where the act of airing a series centered on nonwhite characters—whatever its artistic ambitions—is viewed as a bold move.
All of which makes The Boondocks even more remarkable. It’s a show written and produced from a distinctly African-American perspective that nevertheless manages to be a broad-based hit (by cable standards). Developed for Fox, it bounced around the television netherworld before Cartoon Network took a chance on it and gave it a first season that garnered solid ratings and good DVD sales. Most of that is due to McGruder.
McGruder originally created The Boondocks as a newspaper comic. The strip, which ran from 1997 to 2006, centered on two black youths (Huey and Riley Freeman) who moved from inner-city Chicago to live with their grandfather in the suburbs. Huey, a cynical idealist (somehow it makes sense), and Riley, who idolized the violent aspects of the hip-hop subculture, stood out in the rather laid-back atmosphere they had moved to, and especially in comparison to their grandfather, Robert, a frequent voice of reason with a tangential connection to the Civil Rights movement. (The series has mocked his dressing in a raincoat in anticipation of getting hosed.) The series has basically the same setup as the strip; despite the suburban setting, most of the rest of the supporting cast is African-American, down to the white-idolizing Uncle Ruckus (probably the show’s most over-the-top and problematic character).
The comic strip was political to a fault; McGruder’s “Flagee and Ribbon” strips made The Boondocks one of the first pop culture platforms of any renown to treat the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism skeptically. The strip’s current-events commentary often tied its hands, though; McGruder’s fine characters were often reduced to mouthpieces for his political views. (Many strips featured the characters sitting and watching the news on television.) But the TV series’ long production lead time precludes Magruder from doing any direct political commentary, forcing Boondocks to examine political issues through the prism of time and the characters. It will occasionally wander way off-path or go too far over-the top; but when the show hits its target, it’s devastating.
McGruder’s politics lean left, but he’s enough of a realist to admit complexity. He uses the character of Huey to show that there’s room for idealism—for believing that the world should work a certain way and being disappointed when it doesn’t. In the first season, Huey worked to free a death-row prisoner and met a Martin Luther King, Jr. who survived his shooting and awakened from a coma after 40 years (in an episode that won a Peabody). The Christmas episode, in particular, was a gem, focusing on the ways that the Hollywood creative process sands off all personal proclivities that might make a work of art interesting (Huey’s voyage in this episode parallels McGruder’s efforts to turn the strip into a series). While Huey can be funny (in the second season premiere, he tells a gooey-sweet little girl friend, “This is going to be the worst day of your life. I’m bringing nunchucks”), his storylines often play as mini-tragedies—the story of someone who, in the process of maturing, realizes the world never matches up to what it could or should be. And yet, in the next episode, Huey has moved on to some other improbable cause. In many shows, this lack of character growth might be a detriment, but here it just deepens the sadness of Huey.
Riley’s solution to most problems involves violence (in the Christmas episode, he assaults Santa), though he’s possessed of a certain sweetness that gets him out of these scrapes. Robert, meanwhile, is usually the person who stands as a calm at the center of all of these storms (though he’s uncharacteristically the one who’s breaking the rules in the premiere). Robert is usually the sensible one, and the show often sets him up opposite Uncle Ruckus, its most ridiculous and cartoonish character. This central triangle of characters is so strong that the show can usually rebound from even its worst episodes—a good thing, too, because The Boondocks has its share of terrible moments. Uncle Ruckus briefly became a religious leader who preached of the pleasures of “white Heaven.” The show devoted an entire episode to a long, tone-deaf Iraq war satire set in a convenience store (through one of the few characters that’s a complete misstep—a young, trust-fund baby who went to Iraq for some reason and came back to appropriate hip-hop culture and scream racist remarks about Arabs). And the series often becomes so pleased with its own world view that it exudes something approaching smugness.
But when The Boondocks is on, it’s like nothing else on television. It has an unrivaled knack for portraying minorities’ uneasy integration into American suburbia (exemplified by Robert opening a soul food restaurant, or the boys returning to Chicago and visiting their old friends). And of all of the TV series to directly reference the events of the ’60s, The Boondocks is probably the best at displaying the sorrow that activists from that time feel when they realize how few of their goals were achieved. The Boondocks isn’t perfect, but it dares great things.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.