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"Boondocks" Brings All The Flaws of Primetime TV To Adult Swim

by on November 3, 2005

It’s a Cinderella story for Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks, the near-aborted animated comic strip adaption. After Fox passed it up, Cartoon Network rode in on a horse powered by rainbows and happy clams, and saved this misunderstood gem from demolition. Adult Swim played it up big time. They were excited to get the bad boy of newspapers in the ring, ready to take on the government, white culture, black culture, and everything between. Guess what, Adult Swim?

You’ve been had.

Boondocks is a total fake out. It’s not about any of those things! In fact, it doesn’t really know what it’s about, except that it’s a generic animated sitcom. Though it’s a good fake out, it’s also a very underwhelming start, to be sure.

The Boondocks animated series seems to take place back at the beginning of its canon, with the focus on the family’s general fish-out-of-water presence in an upper-class society. Not that this leads to any significant conflict; everything is handled daintily with conversations and events that are far too awkward to be real, even in that “it’s funny cause it’s true” way. Probably the only moment in the entire series that feels true to reality is the rich white son who returns from Iraq and acts like a gangsta, even going so far as to shout, “I’m rich, b*itch!”

The other characters don’t feel like real people, generated only to deliver the sitcom writer’s version of stand-up comedy. “Rich white people are always applauding politely at everything!” If a stand-up comedian told that joke, no one would laugh. I mean, who cares about rich white people? Regular white people don’t care about rich white people! Jokes at their expense aren’t offensive or hilarious.

Can TV really outmatch Thurston Howell III’s over-the-top satirical performance in Gilligan’s Island? So far, as of the two episodes I watched, The Boondocks is only picking safe targets to attack. Nobody likes rich white people, so let’s go after them. Nobody likes prostitutes, so let’s go after them. Nobody likes young white adults trying pathetically to imitate black culture. Contrary to expectations, I don’t think anyone is going to say “I can’t believe they got away with that!”

Edgy, “controversial” shows should be tackling issues that really affect all of us. South Park handles current events, Boondocks should theoretically, according to its advertising, handle the cultural and political conflicts that are present in the world today. But it doesn’t. Rather than make us uncomfortable, or make us think, or make us laugh for that matter, it just plays it safe, like a primetime show generally does.

But this isn’t primetime. This is 11 p.m. on a cable network. Yet the plots are typical sitcom fare: “The kids try to ruin a dinner party,” and, “The kids try to get Granddad’s new lover out of the house.” In fact, there are moments during the second episode that recall a similar episode of The Powerpuff Girls, of all shows. Right up to the faux crying, deceived father figure, and the lover’s evil smirk.

Even though the show is rated TV-MA, don’t think that this rating means much. You are going to hear the n-word dropped a million times and a “god damn” once or twice, but most of the content you see in other network’s MAs are still off-limits here. Without the n-word the show is a strong TV-PG. There is no sexual content, there are mosaics of things that used to be allowed in TV-PG programming on AND off Adult Swim, there are bleeps, and jokes are done in a tasteful “7 PM on FOX” way. You will hear a few double entendres and innuendos, but in terms of actual content you will not see a lot. A flashback to the days when civil rights activists were hit with fire hoses has an unbelievably cheesy raincoat joke. Is Aaron McGruder writing this or Bill Cosby?

The sense of humor of The Boondocks is more cinematic in nature. Jokes are more situational than conversational, so instead of amusing one-liners expect amusing “concepts.” One scene has child protagonist Huey sneaking around pointing a scope on a toy gun at a rich white visitor seated at the dinner table. This kind of situation comedy you would see in a movie or perhaps accompanied by a laughtrack. Granddad quickly pushes the man out of the house in one of those overdone “well it’s been nice seeing you but I gotta run” sort of speeches.

A completely laughless montage shows a prostitute leeching thousands of dollars off of Granddad. The shots add nothing to the plot or to the humor. Despite its avowed demographic, 18-34 year olds, these jokes feel written for families, especially because the series’ main characters try to play it straight as real kids, rather than mouthpieces like in the comic strip. And so everything has to be overexplained. Fewer jokes, more exposition. In the post-Family Guy era, people want the opposite. Hopefully the show can begin to punch up its scripts soon.

If the show does decide to pursue the direction of a dramedy, it’s going to need characters with more than one dimension. Granddad wants romance. So Granddad has a 22-minute relationship that neatly wraps up. Smarter writing would have made more of this change, both prior to and after the episode in question. The kids aren’t much better. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between Huey and Riley except that Riley likes weaponry a lot and Huey has an empty misconceived view of white people. (Though with Huey targeting Ed Wunsler at the dinner table with a BB gun, the characters blur together even more). The fact that they are voiced by the same woman does not help. I wouldn’t be surprised if people got the two confused.

One way to save the show, if it chooses the dramatic route, could be to bring in more characters from the comic strip. Some of these characters would create better chemistry and expose deeper flaws within the Freeman family. Uncle Ruckus, a gatekeeper who figures heavily in the first episode, is not one of those characters. To the contrary, he is the most obnoxious character in recent memory. Obnoxious characters don’t make you laugh or think, they just make you want to hit the mute button. Trying to create a dynamic with him is like trying to put a drunk Adam Sandler on CNN. You’re not going to sympathize with him or care about what he has to say because he’s just so damn annoying. And one-dimensional.

But ultimately the show has to decide what it wants to be. It’s not political or edgy; it has a character (Huey Freeman) that has deep hatred for the white man, but he is clearly not taken seriously, making him less Black Panther and more Stewie from Family Guy. It’s not a deep cultural exploration; it gives up possible morals in favor of more predictable conclusions. It’s not about character, because these characters are not fully formed enough to be believable or sympathetic for 22 minutes. What is this show about? What is it trying to accomplish?

The Boondocks does bring the intriguing manga style of the comic strip to the animated world. But on a network that airs more Japanese and Japanese-wannabe animation than American cartoons, it looks uninspiring. Though there are some shots with good composition and excellent detail (one shot of the prostitute at the supermarket is hilariously, er, detailed), more often the animation lacks nuance and features American-style timing. In fact, it looks closer to Totally Spies to legitimate anime. Some mistakes in poses and facial expressions don’t help matters.

Visual jokes are also near-nonexistant. No wacky takes, no funny drawings, no extreme emotions. Some people may like that, but I’m disappointed at how uncartoony this cartoon is. Its designs have the simplicity that should allow for much more free-form animation. Instead faces are frozen in scowls. Faithful to the comic strip, but its almost impossible to read characters’ emotions.

Maybe the lesson is that comic strips just can’t be properly adapted to television. Dilbert, which widely diverged from its source material, had minor success, but it appears to have been an exception. Comic strips are ultimately too wordy and too predictable to work in TV in straight translation. They feature readily recognizable archetypes so that new readers will understand them immediately. They repeat the same jokes over and over again and the punchline is often predictable.

Boondocks is an especially wordy comic strip and thus so is the show. Its first episodes are just boring. It may not be as bad as some of Adult Swim’s other programs, but if it wants to attract its intended audience it needs to find an identity better suited to the television medium.

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

See also Toon Zone’s other reviews of the show:
Tienshin: “The Boondocks” Begins its Assault on Adult Swim
Karl Olson: “The Boondocks”: Brash, Honest And Excellent

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