I never expected to parse out the ethics of Tyler Perry in an Atlanta review during my writing career, but that’s because I didn’t know I would get the chance to recap this show. (Like really, I get paid for this? Life’s wild.) An examination of Supporting All Black Art is right in Atlanta’s wheelhouse as a show that points out the intricacies and eccentricities of being Black in America (and being a Black American touring Europe). With “Work Ethic!” Donald Glover produced another self-contained psychological horror starring Van as she enters the world of the mysterious Mr. Chocolate.
First off, let’s set the record straight for non-Black people reading this: Kirkwood Chocolate is a spoof of Tyler Perry. There could be arguments that the character is more based in fiction or takes inspiration from many other reclusive geniuses, but once you have the connected office reams of scripts and Glover’s imitation of Madea’s “Hell-er,” it’s clear to see who forms the center of this parable. You also can’t deny that Perry is a major player in Atlanta and Black Hollywood—a resident can confirm this, but I’m pretty sure he does own “most of College Park”—and that his enterprise brings up a lot of conflicting meanings for anyone who grew up on his plays and movies and whose parents are still regular watchers of at least one of his shows. A Tyler Perry episode of Atlanta could have come much earlier in the show’s tenure, and I’m so glad the writers’ room took their time with it.
Director Glover deftly builds up Chocolate Land as a domain ruled by an omnipresent force, from Van and Lottie arriving at dawn and walking through the lot in the morning light to the switch from multi-camera sitcom to a single-camera realism when the god speaks through the machine. (The lighting also gets dimmer outside of sitcom world like in Kevin Can F**k Himself.) I also appreciated the crew becoming more pro-Chocolate the more involved they are in the production, leaving Van feeling more out of sync with everyone around her the longer she was there. Beyond the growing cultish feeling, it’s also a great show of how power functions: the more someone puts you on, the more you support them. (The “Even O.J.” was perfectly a bit too much, as was the guard getting shot while holding a fake M16.)
Another very solid narrative choice made in “Work Ethic!” is presenting Van as the actor before Mr. Chocolate chooses Lottie. There’s a quick psych-out with the other child actors in the waiting room, but Van was never the stage mom type. Her determination to protect Lottie is very sweet, with writer Janine Nabers’ dialogue showing the strength of their relationship. Van also has a very cynical distance from the other workers and visitors on the set since she’s very much presented as there for a bag rather than any deferred acting dreams (which would have been a very weird addition to her character). This is the first time we’re seeing her as Lottie’s mom since her solo adventures last season, and no matter her fears back then, she’s a very dedicated and good mom to Lottie this episode.
Also, I must note, mostly because I recently read Jennette McCurdy’s excellent memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died: Van is the type of mom I would have wanted as a potential child star. She let Lottie explore that world and have her fun up until it was clear that Mr. Chocolate wanted complete control (and in case it wasn’t clear, that “tell me how to raise my child” line was wild.) That type of environment was rife with exploration; Van wasn’t about to let her daughter be pulled around without supervision, and I appreciated it. Besides, there were too many Security Guards/Interns for Chocolate Land to be in compliance with labor laws.
At first I was hoping that they wouldn’t show Mr. Chocolate at all, but it was worth it for the final exchange where Van’s presented as a Kirkwood Chocolate woman. Even before the reveal, Glover’s performance and the reams of scripts coming out of the piano-typewriter were hilarious. (If the music coming out was trash, imagine the quality of the scripts.) There’s also an excellent conversation to have on whether Van just fell into the role that the magnate was setting up for her, or if she is just a few degrees removed from the typical Chocolate character. I can’t deny that Tyler Perry writes (someone’s) real life, just like I can’t deny his cultural impact or the fact that he gives Black people the opportunities (and checks) they deserve. In that same spirit, I can also argue that his representations of Black life can enforce some of the very stereotypes and tropes that have plagued Hollywood for years. “Work Ethic!” uses comedy to illuminate all the contradictions and the massive gray areas of a cultural phenomenon, setting up a conversation for fans and recappers to mull over.
The main reservation I have with this episode is that so much of Van’s standalone is dedicated to the extended Mr. Chocolate metaphor. Over the past four seasons, Van has gotten the least screen time of the main quartet, and though Zazie Beetz has had some excellent moments, I can’t help but want an entire show with her as the lead. This whole episode can be heavily compared to “Teddy Perkins,” with the pseudo-horror scenario in a contained and Glover-in-disguise playing a menacing figure. But looking at Van’s other standalone episodes, this one didn’t leave me feeling as if I’ve fully caught up with the character, especially when you consider the close to her storyline in “Tarrare.” The lovely scene with Candice by the river showed why Van was off playing cannibal-Amélie in one anecdote that explained both the size of her depression and how it affected Lottie. The mother and daughter have since reunited and have a deep connection, which is great, but I would love to see how it got to that point. Atlanta has some great episodes where a cultural conversation and character growth are balanced (see “Value”), but this one was firmly in Mr. Chocolate’s world. I hope the rest of season four can spare Van more of the spotlight.
- Lottie got so big.
- For anyone who wasn’t paid to go through the episode with a fine-tooth comb, here’s all of the Chocolate Land productions: Nobody Can Tell Me What To Do 2, Broken Home, One Small Happy Family, Unmoved, The Family That Stays, Jealouseuque (I think this is supposed to be pronounced “Jealous-esque,” which ha), Ain’t Crazy, The Shook, Single Father, Year Of God, Captain Kerrnel, Still Ain’t Crazy, Draymond & Keith, and Love After Diagnosis
- Also a tally of all the Perry references where I screamed: Van telling Lottie “That’s the [movie] you saw with Grandma,” that stiff-ass conrow wig, the fine maintenance worker, the crack sandwich, 14 more scenes(!), the John Witherspoon stage, the woman directing two pilots and starring in another, Lottie getting a BET Award, the mean husband being credited as “dark skinned man” in the credits, the grits.
- The other stages were named after Tommy Lister and Mario Van Peebles.
- I’m surprised my eyes didn’t roll to the back of my sockets during the husband and wife’s conversation from the first Chocolate Land show.
- “The post department has been begging us to fix it in pre.” A reminder to check in with the VFX workers and editors you know (and maybe buy them dinner).
- Mr. Chocolate’s private offices make for a Chekhov’s gun of a set, and I love the bit with the guard getting shot in the foot.
- Continuing my obsession with Earn, Al, Darius, and Van’s living situations, the place where Van and Lottie live now is very cute.
- For anyone (especially my family members) who think the episode was too hard on Perry, I raise a question: Y’all saw Acrimony, right? How did she get on the boat?