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"The Boondocks": Brash, Honest And Excellent

Aaron McGruder has managed tick off a lot off people with his newspaper comic, The Boondocks. In a sense, that’s quite a feat because the format is probably one of the most constricted creative mediums. The strip has provoked angry letters, conservative media diatribues and have even been pulled from various papers (most notably from the Washington Post when McGruder did an arc on Huey trying to find Condoleezza Rice a boyfriend). McGruder should have the chance to tick off a lot more people as he takes on television, which isn’t nearly as constricted. Adult Swim in particular can be pretty out there, and boy is McGruder making use of that.

The first episode of the Boondocks animated series plays like a good pilot. Huey, Riley and Granddad Freeman have recently moved out to the suburbs where they are basically the only African-Americans in the neighborhood. Granddad’s happy as can be to be moving on up, Riley loves the upscaleness of it all (if only to fantasize about destroying it), but Huey hates the life of the bourgeoisie. He even has dreams about stirring up a riot at a caucasian garden party with the line, “Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil and the government is lying about 9/11.”

Natrually, that opportunity arises in this episode (thanks to Granddad sucking up to the bigoted banker who runs the neighborhood), and cuttingly enough, everyone Huey talks to isn’t fazed by his statements at all. Instead they politely applaud and comment on how eloquent he is.

Of course, before they can get into the party, they’ve got to get past the gate, which is manned by the hideous Uncle Ruckus No Relation. As a black servant of the household, he’s none too happy about the Freeman family’s new social status. He gives them a hard time throughout the episode, culminating in a hilarious improvised musical number entitled, “Don’t Trust Them New [N-word] Over There.” Not even this offends the partygoers, though. After someone says, “it’s ok when they say it, right?” the crowd again politely applauds.

Meanwhile, the banker’s grandson, a wanna-be gangsta who has freshly returned from Iraq, connects with Riley and shows him his collection of shotguns, sub-machine guns and other firearms of various sizes. The rich tough guy wannabe then dons a bulletproof vest, eventually ending up shot through a second story window, provoking yet more polite applause. After all, the kid isn’t hurt, just a little surprised. The banker doesn’t even take issue with it, noting himself that though his grandkid will be president in 30 years, he’ll still be an idiot.

The second episode gets right into the flow one would expect from a show that’s got its introductions done. After Granddad offers the distraught mother of a whiny kid a solution (“You ever tried beatin’ his ass?”) and his belt, a pretty but trashy-looking girl by the name of Crystal (“like the champagne”) starts hitting on him. The boys immediately peg her as a prostitute, but Granddad is too blinded by his feelings to notice.

Crystal Like the Champagne soon has Granddad wrapped around her little finger (cue shopping montage set to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”), and she starts hanging around the house, beating Riley at PlayStation and provoking a Sifl and Olly reference to “prostitute laundry.” Granddad’s illusion finally falls apart when Crystal’s pimp turns up, and Huey even feels a little bad for Granddad as this might have been his one shot at love.

The Boondocks may be one of the most traditional comedies Adult Swim has commissioned to date, an animated situation comedy in the tradition of early Simpsons, featuring fairly everyday people in somewhat more than everyday situations. It’s tightly directed, never feels excessive or slow, and doesn’t try to cram in so much that it loses focus. The humor is largely character-driven rather than referential or political, a wise move that gives the show more solid jokes and more rewatch value. The show does use the N-word a lot, but it’s easy to see the show uses it not for shock value but because the word is used a lot in real life, for better or worse.

Impressively, Boondocks keeps the characters intact in spite of the lack of topicality. Huey is still a conspiracy-theorist to the core, and his paranoia ultimately makes him more believable. His ridiculous politics are bearable because he’s obviously just a kid. An occasionally perceptive, honest, intelligent kid, but a kid nonetheless. Granddad comes through perhaps a bit clearer than he does in the comic strip because it’s not a question of him beating Riley off screen – he’ll even slap him around while driving (something that may actually catch the creators more crap than any of the show’s politics). Riley was the easiest to translate to the screen, though he’s also been fleshed beyond one-liner wanna-be gangsta to become a more realistic young character.

The animation is outstanding. The storyboarding is great (though given that some of the boarders are alumni of series like Samurai Champloo, that’s no surprise), the angles are very good, and the key and tweening work is very good as well. McGruder’s manga-like sytle translates to the screen well with high detail and a limited range of mouth movements, but with a fluidity that is rare in anime and even rarer on Adult Swim.

The backgrounds are very nice as well, and the overall palatte is very subtle. Some shots seem quite cinematic in contrast and shading while others have a more subued, Clerks: The Animated Series-like usage of color. The second episode features more fanservice than any American cartoon in recent memory, but when you’ve got a prostitute episode and your show is going to be MA anyway, you might as well have fanservice shots in there. Overall, it may be one of the best-looking animated series on Adult Swim to date.

The soundtrack is quite good as well. The music reflects the cultural dichotomy in the show, bouncing between somewhat commercial hiphop and more traditional soundtrack pieces, some even evocative of the Peanuts animated specials. The voice acting is top notch. Regina King comes through with great performances for Huey and Riley, though very occasionally her Riley sounds a little too close to her Huey. John Witherspoon’s performance as Granddad is excellent, capturing his character’s gruff, traditional attitude brilliantly.

I’m not going to lie. If you’re easily offended, forget it. This show has a brutal honesty about it that’ll tick you off if you’re more ideals than reality. However, if you’re tired of awkward, Kaufman-wannabe train wrecks, crass-for-the-sake-of-crass comedies and topic-of-the-moment satires, and instead want something with real character-driven humor, give The Boondocks a shot. My guess is that it’ll be the next big thing, so since you’ll probably have to check it out eventually, you might as well beat everyone else to the punch.

Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks premieres Sunday, November 6, at 11 p.m. on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

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