Watching “The Boondocks”
I tend to be way behind the curve when it comes to TV, and I recently decided to check out the first season of “The Boondocks.”
Based on one of my favorite comic strips ever, “The Boondocks” is an animated TV show that runs on the Cartoon Network’s late night Adult Swim block of programming. (I thought the show had ended, but the Internet informs me that season four is set to air this April.) Anyway, “The Boondocks” tells the story of two African-American brothers, Huey and Riley Freeman, who move from the South Side of Chicago to the mostly white suburb of Woodcrest with their grandfather. Huey, 10, is an activist, while Riley, 8, imagines that he’s a fearsome gangster. Other characters include Huey’s biracial friend Jasmine, her attorney father and a wealthy Realtor named Ed Rothschild Wuncler, Sr.
As newspaper comics go, “The Boondocks” was pretty controversial during its all-too-brief run, right up there with “Doonesbury.” Unabashedly left-wing, it poked fun at black culture, white people, the Bush administration (Aaron McGruder, the comic’s creator, devoted countless ink to attacking the post-9/11 surge in patriotism and the U.S. war in Iraq, among other things), suburbia and numerous black celebrities. (The television network UPN is a frequent target.)
Bold, brash and polarizing, “The Boondocks” was something different, offering a welcome (for me, anyway) alternative to a comics section filled with strips about middle-class parents and the cute antics of children and pets. Of course, the strip rubbed many people the wrong way, and some newspapers pulled it, or moved it to the editorial section. Over time, “The Boondocks” became more overtly political, and I sometimes missed the knowing satire of racial and cultural mores that marked its earlier days.
The TV sitcom format allows McGruder to open up the world of “The Boondocks” and take his characters and settings to new, sometimes even surreal places. The animation, clearly influenced by Japanese animation and comic books, is quite beautiful. The soundtrack is heavy on hip-hop, and the voice work (Regina King voices Huey, stars such as Samuel L. Jackson make cameos) is distinctive and terrific. And the action sequences are fluid and crisp, and often feel inspired by martial arts movies. Where the comic strip was PG, the TV show is sometimes an R-rated affair.
“The Boondocks” can be a hit or miss, and I definitely liked certain episodes more than others. But when it’s working, it really feels bracing and fresh, and it made me laugh out loud more than once. The season I just watched premiered in 2005, and the episode about R. Kelly’s rape trial still seems relevant and fresh. I also felt that season one got stronger as it progressed — perhaps McGruder just needed time to adapt to a new format and find his footing. Toward the end of the season, he’s able to swing nimbly between humorous-yet-ludicrous scenarios, such as kidnapping Oprah, and more poignant stories, such as the boys’ return to Chicago to attend a funeral for an old friend of their grandfather. This episode, titled “Wingmen,” becomes a surprisingly moving meditation on friendship and forgiveness, demonstrating that McGruder can juggle emotional themes as well as political ones.
“The Boondocks” won’t be to all tastes, but if it’s the sort of thing that interests you, it’s worth checking out. After watching season one, I’m eager to see what McGruder has planned for the show’s return. The last episode of “The Boondocks” aired in 2010, but I suspect that the last four years have given him plenty of new and interesting material.
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