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

The Boondocks: “The New Black”

Illustration for article titled The Boondocks: “The New Black”

Almost 10 years ago, I discovered A Right To Be Hostile, the third collection of The Boondocks comic strip at my public library. I fell in love with it—I was a ridiculously partisan, lefty kid in the middle of the Bush administration and was overjoyed to have my own outlet to make fun of the president (I had a lot of friends, obviously). A few weeks later, I found the fourth collection, Public Enemy #2, and read and reread it until I knew the infamous “Huey and Caesar try to find Condoleeza Rice a boyfriend” arc inside and out. When I found out that there was going to be a cartoon on Adult Swim (which I had only recently discovered by accident and still felt guilty about watching), I got ridiculously excited and stayed up until midnight to watch the premiere. It was the day after my bar mitzah. Those first few seasons, and especially “The Return Of The King,” which I must have watched and rewatched 20 times over the course of a few months, were supremely important to the development of a lot of my political attitudes. In particular, Huey was a role model for my 13 year-old self, even though he was younger than I was—cool, brilliant, politically involved, unafraid of the people in power. It’s weird to say about a character in a daily comic strip, but I looked up to him. Which is why it’s so, so disappointing that it all had to end like this.

When Aaron McGruder announced that the final season of The Boondocks would go ahead without him, I was skeptical of the finished product. After all, McGruder had created the strip, written it for years, created the series, and written almost every episode. This season has, oddly, proved me wrong, if only because it’s easy to see how almost every episode could have been good had pretty much anyone involved cared even the slightest bit about making a show at the same quality level as those first few seasons. Instead, season four of The Boondocks has been scattered, throwing out ideas that would have made for great episodes of the show had they been fully developed with consistent characterizations and an attention to detail. The Boondocks has the benefit of being formulaic to the extent that visualizing an improved version of, say, “Early Bird Special” isn’t so hard. Even the concept for this one could have fit into the earlier version of the show, if the writers had treated the underlying issues with anything resembling nuance.

And the underlying issues in “The New Black” could really have used a light touch. Everything in this episode radiates outward from Riley insulting a student at school by calling him gay, which is pretty par for the course for Riley. Riley’s homophobia has always been one of the character’s most distinct attributes (particularly in the show), to the point where insulting people by calling them gay was literally his catchphrase early in the show’s run. But, for the most part, “Nigga, you gay” was used sparingly, and the joke was almost always about, first, how offensive only three words could be so tightly packed together, and second Riley’s own ignorance and willingness to react to everything by calling it gay—the same worldview that allowed him to carry a purse and forget that Gangstalicious was gay meant that he reacted with ignorance. (I think there was some discussion of this in the comments a few weeks ago.) Over the course of this season, the joke has just become… that whomever Riley is calling gay is gay? It’s the same here, where Riley just keeps calling everything gay and we’re supposed to find it hilarious, I guess, which is pretty frustrating and unfunny.

It’s also a little unclear what we’re supposed to be laughing at over the course of the episode. The pro-gay characters are mocked as opportunists and generally slightly menacing, suggesting that maybe the writers aren’t quite as on board with gay rights as you might expect from such a liberal show (though there’s longer-term precedent for this). There’s even a gay panic joke when it seems like Sweetlove of Yes Homo (which I alternated between finding kind of funny and terrible) is going to “take” Riley as payment for his comments, some healthy mocking the term “LGBT,” and other characters besides Riley that get in on the homophobia train (Robert especially). See, the title “The New Black,” and some of the speechifying from throughout the episode, suggest that the satirical thrust of the episode is meant to be about the way that gay rights are being treated as the “next frontier” for activism, in a (theoretically) comparable fashion to the Civil Rights Movement. But the episodes loses interest in that dumb idea when it moves on to mock the mentally handicapped as Robert accidentally claims that Riley shouldn’t be accountable for his comments. These “jokes” exist for no real reason, other than to get the episode to become a bizarre parody of The Ringer. And the production schedule works against the writers again as an unfortunately timed remark about Michael Clarke Duncan makes its way into the script (yeah, it’s about his Green Mile character, but it’s also Ruckus making the comment and this season has no good will left).

The introduction of the show’s bloated version of the outrage machine (complete with terrible Ellen parody) does mean the reappearance of one Reverend Rollo Goodlove, one of the show’s strongest recurring characters. His presence is a plague on the episode; the absence of original voice actor Cee-Lo Green serves to remind how many of the show’s great characters have been absent this season—Ed Wuncler Sr. (with one brief exception), Cindy McPhearson, Jazmine, Thugnificent, Gangstalicious. Gangstalicious. Where were all of these deep characters all season, and why couldn’t we have them instead of the Robert-focused crap we’ve gotten? (Yes, they’d probably be horribly mistreated if they appeared, but we’ll never know.) Goodlove, and the other –loves, spew cynical comments about extortion and the way that everyone in his line of work is just looking for a buck, but not only was it handled much better in “The S Word” (another episode centered on Riley getting into a conflict based on a viral video/media controversy), it’s way, way over the top in a manner that still doesn’t fit into the show’s universe comfortably. The cynical cycles that Goodlove feeds on bleed into the script’s treatment of anti-bullying campaigns, continuing this season’s trend of insulting the audience’s intelligence complete with a meta joke about censorship that would have been great if the script didn’t think the audience was too stupid to understand it without endless reptition. At this point, even Huey has given up, telling Riley to “Just read what’s on the damn page.”

The other message of the episode, based on the “outrage cycle” and its exploitation by Goodlove and large numbers of other people (all with “love” at the end of their last name), sounds like something out of a South Park episode. Everyone is wrong! Rodney Barnes’ script treats Riley’s continued declarations that “gay is gay” as standing up for free speech—his refusals to play into the outrage cycle by apologizing, or pretending to be disabled are the most heroic moments here. That message is pretty confusing though, drowned out as it is by homophobia, easy, lazy, gross jokes at the expense of the mentally handicapped (because oh, it’s so funny to mock them, right?), and the muddled political agendas of all of the flat characters, who have no real motivation other than escaping the storm of awful descending upon them and just going home (I can relate). The target of “The New Black” is primarily liberals unwilling to “tell it like it is,” which is all fine, except that there’s never a reason for Riley to actually call the dancing “gay,” or why people should use the word “retarded.” It’s a roughly admirable sentiment in the broadest possible strokes, but it’s not put into practice well at all. Barnes is punching at a level quite a bit below the Reagan and Jesus-targeting garden party that launched the series.


More than anything else, though, “The New Black” is just deeply, profoundly unfunny. There is nothing interesting here. At all. There’s nothing remotely worthy of a laugh (or anything that even sounds like it’s supposed to be a joke). It’s horribly boring, painful to watch, and again there’s no real ending, which means there’s also no conclusion to the Freeman’s money issues. Sticking the landing on that season-long story wouldn’t have retroactively saved all that time-wasting crap, but it would have made it feel like all of those earlier episodes were building to something, a payoff that might have actually made some of this season worth it. As it stands, there were a bunch of episodes about Robert losing all of his money, and then nothing. So the show’s experiment with seriality is also a definitive, unfunny failure.

I used to love this strip, and this show, and while I’ll always love the earlier material (nothing can change it, after all), it’s disappointing to get to the point where my default reaction to the phrase “The Boondocks” is a long, painful sigh. This season has had very little as far as actual social commentary, real satire, or any of the insights you’d normally expect from this show. The Boondocks used to be about a culture, or group of cultures, and the way different types of people try to navigate race in America, rather than an attempt to get a lot of people to watch as Ruckus made racist jokes. I feel a bit bad about dumping on so much this late in the season/this close to the end of the run of the show, but it’s hard to watch this, realizing along the way how far something that used to be so great has fallen. Maybe eventually we can all just forget that this season ever existed, and go back to when I snuck peeks at the Sunday color strips under the covers at night? Probably not, but… who knows. As an old friend once said, it’s fun to dream.


Stray observations:

  • The greatest thing about this episode, and one of two mildly redeeming factors: the reappearance of the Boondocks classic “Stop ‘Em In The Nuts.”
  • The other one: That’s “Tiny” Lister as the head of SAAAD, who I will love forever for his role in The Fifth Element, one of my favorite ridiculous movies.
  • Ruckus just hangs around the edges of this one, being racist.
  • So I promised I’d put a couple of sentences about the Siri episode here: Structurally, I think it was one of the stronger episodes of the season—it actually sort of has an ending, and tells a real story. But it’s also just another “Robert meets a crazy girl” story, forcing the Freemans’ house to be bombed as a way of resolving the plot, which is frustrating on top of how boring it is. The Apple jokes are unsurprisingly lazy and dated, but there are still one or two half-funny moments, which is maybe as much as I could have asked for at this point.
  • So… that’s that. Thanks for sticking with me through this really unpleasant season. I went a little easy on it at first I think, but these last two especially have just been insulting to what the show used to be. In the interest of not being a huge bummer, anyone want to talk about their favorite Boondocks moments in the comments?