Returning 'Boondocks' opens lens on era of hope and change. Meh.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
During the campaign and election that put President Obama in office, Aaron McGruder and his crew of cartoon characters were notably and sometimes regrettably silent. "The Boondocks," McGruder's obsessively provocative daily comic strip, departed in 2006; the second season of an animated "Boondocks" TV show ended in 2007.
Now "The Boondocks" is back for a third season, either far too late and half-hearted or perhaps right on time, given that the Obama afterglow has faded. It is wedged into Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" package late on Sunday night, where it is seemingly more safe for tossing around racial epithets and euphemisms for male genitalia and easier to lure upset viewers into an outrage sometimes barely worth having.
McGruder and company try to make up for lost satirical opportunities with an opening episode that retraces the final days and pop-culture frenzy of the Obama campaign, election and inauguration.
The result is vintage McGruder and vintage "Boondocks," in which the message can be exactly right and totally wrong from one joke to the next; McGruder scintillates a hard truth in one brilliant moment and then immolates the joke's value in the next moment with his own ample dousing of lighter fluid.
The new episode is narrated by a somber Werner Herzog-type documentarian character (holy moly, it actually is Werner Herzog!), who seeks understanding among black Americans about what the election has meant to them and the rest of the country. It's no surprise that McGruder's Boondockians convey themes of national delusion and post-inaugural letdown -- McGruder's fans would expect nothing less, and clearly he's disgusted by the notion of a "post-racial" America and by the dreamy, preening confidence of black culture (especially black celebrities) during the campaign's heyday.
Working from a 2010 perspective, "The Boondocks" disdains the 2008 election hype, which already seems a long time ago: Huey Freeman, the sullen boy who channels "The Boondocks" worldview, has been labeled as one of Obama's leftist radical friends by the McCain campaign.
"Look," Obama says at a news conference, "I have many, many friends on MySpace. I pretty much add anybody. I don't know who this Huey Freeman is. I denounce [him]. I repudiate. I condemn him. Basically [expletive] him."
Herzog visits Huey in the suburban Chicago neighborhood where he lives with his grandfather, Robert Jebediah Freeman (a self-anointed civil rights hero), and little brother Riley, who embraces (symbolizes, really) hip-hop thug life. "So now that it looks like Obama is going to win," the thickly accented Herzog asks Huey, "as black, African American Negro, are you merely excited or are you extremely excited that everything is going to change forever?"
"Meh," Huey says.
Herzog is stunned at Huey's indifference. "The kid just likes to be miserable!" Huey's grandfather declares. "All he wants to talk about is . . . the federal reserve and all that BS. He didn't get it from me! I believe in hope and change."
Each "Boondocks" character is revived to exaggerate the fractures in the Obama-era racial landscape: Riley sees the election as a pathway to deserved delinquency and black anarchy, spray-painting "Obeezy" on walls and threatening to call the White House if the cops try to arrest him. Uncle Ruckus -- "perhaps the biggest Uncle Tom to have ever lived," Herzog observes -- vehemently opposes Obama's candidacy and says Michelle Obama "should be in the WNBA shootin' foul shots." Celebrity rapper Thugnificence turns his political ignorance into overnight opportunity, recording a hit single called "[Male member]-riding Obama."
After the election victory, Huey vows to leave the country. At the inauguration, Grandpa Freeman and other dignitaries wave their "VIP" tickets at an indifferent phalanx of National Guardsmen at the security gates to the Mall. (Does it have to be a "Don't tase me, bro!" joke? All these years later?)
It's difficult to tell whether "The Boondocks" is coming along for the ride into this new decade. What McGruder was trying to say in the 2000s, which generated so much debate and hand-wringing (newspaper cancellations, prefabricated controversy, heaps of "Boondocks"-related essays written by cultural critics), feels like it's been said.
And yet it's refreshing to see McGruder pull back the curtain of hagiography and hysteria surrounding the Obama moment -- even if he's late to the job.
(30 minutes) returns at 11:30 p.m. Sunday on Cartoon Network.