TV Preview

'The Boondocks' Onscreen Is Still Quick on the Draw

Gangsta wannabe Riley debuts tomorrow in the cartoon series based on Aaron McGruder's comic strip.
Gangsta wannabe Riley debuts tomorrow in the cartoon series based on Aaron McGruder's comic strip. (Cartoon Network Via Associated Press)
By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 5, 2005

When a voluptuous young golddigger sinks her come-hither talons into your dear ol' lonely grandpa, Anna Nicole-style, what's a relative to do? Well if you're a blunt-tongued precocious grandson, you confront the sharpie with a stern: "Whoa. Whoa! Whoooooa!"

Except if you're rap-savvy 10-year-old Huey Freeman, that is -- in which case, you don't pronounce the "W."

That's right, blinged-out prostitutes and purple-suited pimps stumble into suburbia early on in the edgy animated series "The Boondocks." The show might be a cartoon, but make no mistake: These tricks aren't for kids.

But then, we shouldn't expect anything else -- or less -- from the irreverent mind of creator Aaron McGruder, the force behind the widely syndicated, perennially controversial comic strip centered on an African American family learning to navigate life in a predominantly white suburb. The comic's central characters now take up a second residence in the long-planned weekly series, which will premiere tomorrow night at 11 as part of the Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" lineup.

In what should be a relief to millions of the smart strip's fans, McGruder, 31 -- who began the comic in the mid-'90s for the University of Maryland's Diamondback newspaper -- hasn't softened his stance in satirizing hot-button political and social issues (including a Rosa Parks bit that was cut from the show after her death). If anything, the cartoonist exploits the looser forum of cable to ratchet up the intensity.

In the premiere episode, the series immediately signals its approach of verbal carpet-bombing, as Huey's brother Riley (both siblings are voiced by Regina King) says to white partygoers in a dream sequence: "Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the Devil and the government is lying about 9/11."

After that warning shot, McGruder and co-writer Reginald Hudlin proceed to milk every semi-sacred cow within range, in part for shock value, apparently. And it's not just the touchy trinity of race, religion and politics that's torched. The series soon turns to a certain N-word -- well, yes, there's also the N-word, which peppers the dialogue like a greeting, but here we refer to pixilated, senior-citizen Nudity. Yes, this series is not for the faint of . . . well, the faint of anything.

On that front, the series faces a hurdle that has been a boon to "The Boondocks" on the relatively staid comics page ("Doonesbury" and a few creative kin notwithstanding). The strip's would-be taboo content has stood out starkly since it was launched in more than 150 newspapers in 1999. But on a cartoon-TV landscape that has been populated by "Beavis and Butt-head," "South Park," "Family Guy" and "Drawn Together," the ability of "The Boondocks" to shock wanes markedly.

In that void rises the need to provide steady laughs, and how reliably the program can do that remains to be seen. In the premiere, the punch lines arrive at a sputtering pace. Part of the brilliance of "South Park" and that granddaddy of excellence, "The Simpsons," is how fast-and-furious the jokes come, and viewers conditioned to that might feel that the "Boondocks" debut drags.

Fortunately, the humor ramps up quickly by the second episode, "Guess Hoe's Coming to Dinner," in which the smitten Granddad (voiced by John Witherspoon) comes into fuller relief. As Granddad mixes old-school meanness ("I guess I just hate to see a child go unbeaten") and underlying sweetness, the jokes deepen and gain resonance.

One aspect of the strip that makes an especially impressive transition to screen is the art. The comic (now drawn by a Boston artist) can be graphically attractive yet rigid and visually "flat." Animated, though, the main characters achieve a rich dimension, with the brothers' beautifully huge anime eyes contrasting sharply with their utter lack of wide-eyed innocence, and the style in one action scene is reminiscent of the animation in the first "Kill Bill."

Inspired are other cultural references great and small. In one scene, 8-year-old Riley, who worships weaponry, mimics a classic line from "Scarface" that still sounds like Desi Arnaz gone bad. And tinkling jazz reminiscent of the Vince Guaraldi Trio's theme for the "Peanuts" TV specials seems both a respectful nod and an ironic counterpoint.

And then there's the knockout scene in which Granddad goes on a shopping spree with that shrewd streetwalker Kristal, all of it brilliantly set to Kanye West's hit "Gold Digger." If the series can more frequently reach such heights, then "Boondocks" the show could even eclipse "Boondocks" the strip.

If nothing else, McGruder -- by putting the "strip" in comic strip -- will delight much of "Adult Swim's" target demographic right out of the gate. Especially since it's the gentrified gate of suburbia that's being leveled.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company