Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Key & Peele: "Season Three, Episode Four"

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Pour one out for Metta, y’all, at least for this week. Instead of the usual absurd wordplay to wind down, Key & Peele closes out this episode with some absurd visuals. It’s a note-perfect Miami Vice parody courtesy of director Peter Atencio (and showrunners Ian Roberts and Jay Martel, naturally), more the TV show than the film, despite the widescreen frame. Key gets to don Johnson’s iconic T-shirt and light jacket ensemble, but the real standout of his personal look is this windswept sandy Crockett wig. Peele is Tubbs, complete with a Jheri curl. They’ve just cuffed a criminal at some dam-looking area, this empty cement plaza with high curved walls maybe on the L.A. River. Everything is burning up in the sunlight, especially the Crayola-red Ferrari, and the sky is ablaze with pastels. As Tubbs marches the perp across the way to his car, the camera gets creative: a medium shot of the handcuffs walking away, a wide reverse of Crockett strutting alongside his ride, a tight close-up on keys and a lucky rabbit’s foot. The suspense builds as Crockett tries to put his finger on what’s wrong, the sequence constantly veering between the keys in the door or Tubbs’ smiling face and Crockett in some dramatic state, until finally Crockett shouts, “Nooo!” and the car explodes. Cops show up and ask a question, Crockett demurs, and the guy’s head explodes. Suddenly, Crockett realizes what all this (this sketch, that is) is about: “Oh, I get it. When I say, ‘No,’ stuff blows up. Cool.” End of sketch. Michael Mann has been accused of style over substance (as if the two were mutually exclusive) for decades, but has he ever pressed so much excess into the service of a single joke?

That’s what I mean when I say Key & Peele is the most cinematic sketch show in years (since SCTV?). Each sketch has its own look, and the camera isn’t merely a recording device but an expressive one, drawing out comedy and adding to it. Even the reheated airport sketch that Saturday Night Live did a week-and-a-half ago ends in a dramatically un-SNL move: an extravagant tracking crane shot of the wreckage featuring a number of extras, huge set pieces, and the punchline image of Key strapped to his seat that’s now dislodged from the plane as the rescue crews worry only about passenger Jason Schwartzman. Let’s not excuse the something in the water that led to two sketch comedies to do the same basic joke—a passenger in Boarding Group 1 ends up boarding last because of all the ridiculous special interest groups and personal flight attendant preferences—but not only is the ending wildly different, but even the meat of the sketch demonstrates the cinematic personality of Key & Peele next to its stagey counterpart: I’m thinking of the precision of the close-up war between Peele, almost smirking, and Key, vibrating with rage, or the wide shot where some drunk guy gets himself tangled in Key’s computer bag and Peele, in a short dirty blonde wig I hate to say is working for me, takes a long moment just to sigh into space behind them.

All of the sketches are stylized in their own ways. The opening is a multi-cam talk show. Then comes a break-dancing sketch, presented in widescreen with extremely vivid colors. There’s this delirious moment when Peele is retreating from his one-on-one with Key, who is not only copying his thing (“Noice!”) but running it into the ground, and as Peele backs up, Key’s face makes this arc across the screen and gets lost in the crowd. It beautifully demonstrates the immediate sense of loss that refuses to be drowned out by the crowd’s vitality, and all this is about two guys saying, “Noice!” at each other.

Then there’s the faux analogue pre-fight press conference on Key & Peele’s version of ESPN Classic, a fuzzy, boxy look with a limited number of camera set-ups (until the “Four Years Later” ending, that is). I say it every time Key & Peele goes 4:3 on us, but it’s amazing how well that sets the mood and orients us in time (a ridiculously aloof Don King lookalike helps, too, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the costumes once again, here all wide lapels and flashy ties). Last except for “California Vice” is the “gritty” desaturated scene of some thugs pouring one out for their lost homeys. The ultra-serious look—you could almost confuse it with an AMC drama if it weren’t five black men—makes it all the funnier to see Key’s wacky attempts not to waste a single drop of his beer. That sudden overhead shot of Key’s goofy face poking into frame to lap up the spilling beer isn’t just an expression of style. That shot is the substance.

Stray observations:

  • Standout episode for Key. I haven’t even mentioned his take on Adversity Johnson, a personification of Peele’s hardship who dresses flamboyantly, gives the camera the double bird, and shouts, “Deal with me, dawg!”
  • I also enjoyed the stage banter setting up the airport sketch. “No, sir, you are perpendicular to the line.” “We goin’ that way.”
  • Non-Miami-Vice sketch of the week: the pre-fight smack talk. “This is what’s gonna happen. I’m gonna take you to a nice, high, fancy, highfalutin restaurant. I’m gonna wine and dine you. And we’re gonna find some things that we have in common, and they’re gonna become inside jokes to us. And then we’re just gonna laugh about them in the taxi all the way to your house, where I’m gonna fuck you in the ass.”
  • Key argues that he’s too thrifty to pour one out: “If we do a drive-by shooting, I will go back for the shell casings not to hide the evidence but because you can recycle those.”
  • All that blather about “California Vice,” and I couldn’t find room for the part that cracked me up the most. The last line Tubbs says, right before he walks the criminal over to his car, is, “I’m gonna keep you alive, Chico.” And then he puts on a bit of an accent and finishes, “Comprende?” Both Crockett and Tubbs chuckle at their obvious awesomeness, and it gets me, too, albeit for different reasons.
  • “Drunk people. We will now be boarding any drunk people.”