The “Gas Leak Year” of ‘The Boondocks’
For its first three seasons, The Boondocks, which followed inner-city siblings Huey and Riley Freeman’s adjustment to life in the predominantly white Illinois suburb of Woodcrest, was a genuinely funny and remarkable achievement on TV. It was the first successful TV-MA-rated animated sitcom spearheaded by an African-American comedic mind, as well as the first animated show that the hip-hop generation can be proud to call its own.
Cartoonist Aaron McGruder’s adaptation of his own popular 1996-2006 comic strip took no prisoners in its satirical potshots at the likes of gangsta rappers, the Republican Party, Tyler Perry, and the network execs behind BET’s lowest-common-denominator programming. The original strip took no prisoners as well, back when it entertainingly shook up the newspaper comics section – the domain of “70-year-old white men,” as McGruder dismissively said in a 2004 New Yorker profile – and outraged two of its later TV incarnation’s aforementioned targets (Republicans and BET).
I’m speaking of The Boondocks in the past tense, as if it’s dead, even though it’s currently in the middle of its long-delayed fourth (and final) season on Adult Swim. That’s because ever since McGruder exited The Boondocks and took his name off the show, reportedly due to disagreements with Sony Pictures Television over production deadlines (the same problem that McGruder cited as his greatest weakness as a cartoonist, without, amazingly, cracking a single Colored People’s Time joke during the New Yorker interview), it hasn’t been the same sharply written show it used to be.
Sure, nearly all the show’s terrific voice actors –- Regina King (who does double duty as Huey and Riley), John Witherspoon as Robert “Granddad” Freeman, Gary Anthony Williams as Uncle Ruckus, Cedric Yarbrough, and Mr. Show‘s Jill Talley –- are still around and are still being directed to give their all by Andrea Romano, the same voice director who made the voice work on Batman: The Animated Series such a highlight of that show. But The Boondocks has become yet another animated show that’s faltered without the strong creative voice of its former showrunner. Its fourth-season decline brings back memories of when creator John Kricfalusi’s departure from The Ren & Stimpy Show (due to a feud with Nickelodeon network execs) sank that show, or when writer and story editor J. Michael Straczynski’s exit from The Real Ghostbusters resulted in much of the smartness of that show’s writing escaping with him like the ghosts that were freed after Walter Peck shut down the ghost containment unit.
The Boondocks is experiencing a “gas leak year,” to borrow the phrase Dan Harmon and his writing staff came up with to joke about the poorly received Harmon-less fourth season of Community. Ruckus’ tuba theme, which was the Star Wars-loving McGruder’s homage to John Williams’ Jabba the Hutt theme from Return of the Jedi, used to signal that Ruckus – a breakout character who served as McGruder’s jab at both black conservatives and ’70s right-wing viewers who thought of Archie Bunker as a heroic figure – was about to steal the show with his brain-damaged, self-hating black man antics. But Ruckus’ antics have become tiresome this season, so now the arrival of that tuba theme means bad news. (Last year, McGruder attempted to crowdfund a live-action film that would have starred Williams as Ruckus, a film that would have quickly worn out its welcome.)
Without McGruder’s voice, The Boondocks is missing a lot of the personal moments McGruder lifted from his own life to bring some texture to the Freemans and make them more than just mere mouthpieces for his complicated politics (the New Yorker profile noted that instead of always channeling militant Huey like most Boondocks fans would expect, McGruder shifted between being Huey, Granddad, and anarchic, mayhem-loving Riley; “I’m not the guy that wants to spend my life being some kind of closet intellectual. I want to play Vice City. I just want to drive around and shoot innocent people. I’m all about video games,” said McGruder to the interviewer). The sharpest running joke in the show’s very first episode, “The Garden Party,” had a perturbed Huey continually being met with applause and condescending responses like “He speaks so well” from rich white partygoers whenever he’d say something incendiary like “Ronald Reagan was the Devil.” It’s a moment that’s rarely been seen in an animated comedy, and it’s one that any viewer of color who’s been in a similar situation can greatly relate to.
Huey’s awkward experience at the titular party was McGruder’s way of addressing the discomfort he felt when he was a guest speaker at a party for the left-wing newspaper The Nation, and on-stage, he proceeded to troll the Nation party’s unamused and predominantly white crowd, an evening that’s recounted in great detail in the New Yorker profile (“I just got the uncomfortable feeling that this was a bunch of people who were feeling a little too good about themselves. These are the big, rich white leftists who are going to carry the fight to George Bush, and the best they can do is blame Nader?,” said McGruder to the New Yorker). That kind of insight into McGruder’s unique point of view is the element that’s missed the most during this McGruder-less, generic-feeling season.
The bland, non-controversial TMZ/reality TV culture parody scenes in the Chris Brown-inspired “Pretty Boy Flizzy” season premiere and “Granddad Dates a Kardashian” – material that’s been done to death on other comedy shows – are making Boondocks fans long for the days when the show was capable of satirical material that was so scathing it offended reverends, rival cable networks, and cross-dressing black movie stars and spurred each of those parties to consider threatening Adult Swim with legal action. Even more disappointingly, “Pretty Boy Flizzy” and “Granddad Dates a Kardashian” were written by Mixed: My Life in Black and White author Angela Nissel, the show’s most significant new hire and one of the best writers on Scrubs. Those two episodes are underwhelming in comparison to her previous work. However, Nissel fared slightly better with “Early Bird Special,” the episode in which Granddad becomes a male escort, but he doesn’t get to have sex with any women because they hire him only to listen to them cry and provide them with emotional support. As the A.V. Club noted, Nissel’s “Early Bird Special” is at its strongest when it’s taking aim at “the cottage industry of books and movies telling women they’ll never find a decent man and the monstrous insecurities that creates.”
Granddad’s excursions into escort servicing, car wash work, hair-care product manufacturing, and humiliating Civil War amusement park labor are all part of the most inane serialized arc in Boondocks history: Granddad’s unexpected lapse into debt, which causes him to lose both his house and his freedom to Eddie Wuncler (Sam McMurray), the oily criminal son of Woodcrest tycoon Ed Wuncler (Ed Asner, who’s been absent so far this season). “The Garden Party” established in one of its funniest scenes that Granddad is a self-absorbed loser who once showed up late to a civil rights demonstration where his activist friends got attacked with fire hoses, because he went looking for his raincoat. The raincoat mishap took place not out of dumbness but because the apolitical Robert always looks out for number one, which is why this season’s dumbing-down of Granddad is such a betrayal of his character. It’s like if NewsRadio took the similarly self-centered and image-conscious Bill McNeal, who was clueless about topics like rap music not because of dim-wittedness but because of his self-absorbedness and insulated life outside the studio, and it started dumbing Bill down to the point where he’d eat soap, to borrow Jon Stewart’s old line about George W. Bush (“He’s not stupid. Stupid is ‘Oh my God, I just ate soap!'”).
The strongest Boondocks episode so far this season is, of course, a standalone story that has nothing to do with the “Granddad in debt” nonsense. Set during a young, kung-fu-wielding Granddad’s accidental involvement with the Freedom Rider protests of 1961 (with a fake present-day documentary as a framing device), “Freedom Ride or Die” reverts to the show’s original, pre-dumbening conception of Granddad as a skeptical pragmatist who, unlike his militant grandson, doesn’t really have the stomach for civil rights activism, even though he labels himself a “civil rights legend” in episodes like “It’s a Black President, Huey Freeman.” Huey doesn’t appear in “Freedom Ride or Die” because of the period setting, so the Huey figure that young Robert is seen becoming frustrated with is a pacifist Freedom Riders leader amusingly voiced by special guest star Dennis Haysbert, who, between this guest shot and his appearances as snobby Marcia Gay Harden’s equally snobby boyfriend on the late, lamented Trophy Wife, ought to do more comedy on TV.
Penned by Rodney Barnes, McGruder’s former frequent Boondocks writing partner and an executive producer who’s been with the show since the beginning, “Freedom Ride or Die” is as close as this season has gotten to the effective social commentary of past series highlights like McGruder’s “The Return of the King,” which earned a Peabody Award (and infuriated Rev. Al Sharpton) for its irreverent and hilarious story of a still-alive Dr. Martin Luther King attempting to adjust to post-9/11, McRib-worshiping America. But otherwise, instead of going out in a blaze of glory like Al Pacino as Tony Montana, a character who’s idolized by Riley the wannabe thug, The Boondocks is wrapping up its run by being more like Al Pacino as Al Pacino in Jack and Jill: a sad-looking shell of itself that sometimes recaptures its past spark but has seen better days.
Jimmy J. Aquino is a writer trapped in San Jose, California.