'The Boondocks': Black-and-White TV Humor

An animated version of the popular newspaper comic strip The Boondocks premieres November 6 on Cartoon Network's sister station Adult Swim. NPR television critic Andrew Wallenstein reviews the new series, and talks about whether Aaron McGruder's award-winning humor translates from the newspaper comics section to the small screen.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

The syndicated cartoon strip The Boondocks is one of the controversial to emerge in recent years. Its creator, Aaron McGruder, has adapted his racially conscious strip for television in a series starting Sunday night on the Cartoon Network. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

It's hard to think of a famous person Aaron McGruder hasn't scandalized in The Boondocks cartoon. He's lambasted everyone from Condoleezza Rice to Spike Lee. In the confines of a static four-panel strip, Boondocks provides a quick blast of humor. But stretched to 30 minutes in motion, "The Boondocks" amounts to a surprising misfire. It's not that they drastically alter the original. Boondocks fans will still recognize their favorite characters. Pint-sized brothers Riley and Huey live with their granddad in suburbia, where they worry their African-American culture is being compromised every which way. In this scene, rabble-rouser Huey tries to provoke wealthy white party-goers with a little revisionist history but gets nowhere.

(Soundbite of "The Boondocks"

Ms. REGINA KING: (As Huey) And all I'm saying is Ronald Reagan was the devil.

Unidentified Man: You are such an articulate young man.

Ms. KING: (As Huey) I'm trying to explain to you that Ronald Reagan was the devil. Ronald Wilson Reagan. Each of his names has six letters. Six-six-six. Man, doesn't that offend you?

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: I love this kid.

Ms. KING: (As Huey) Stop that. What are you doing? Stop clapping.

WALLENSTEIN: I suppose I should find that funny in the way the animated series "South Park" has fun putting its own social commentary in the mouths of cheeky children. But on "The Boondocks," it falls flat for so many different reasons. First of all, McGruder seems to have forgotten about what he does best: take broadsides against public figures. And yet bizarrely, the first two episodes I sampled barely explore current events. Instead, the series tries to flesh out the family dynamic between Granddad and the two boys, which just isn't interesting. The boys also display an inordinate but unexplained fascination with guns, which probably isn't the best idea for a cartoon purportedly satirizing racial stereotypes.

But it should be said there's some terrific voice work here from actress Regina King, an inspired choice to handle the parts of both boys. And the great character actor John Witherspoon is in great shape here as Granddad. There's also a liberal sprinkling of the N-word, which isn't a bad thing, per se, given the subject matter, but it's used in such a way that it felt nakedly gratuitous. It's as if each utterance is intended to cry out, `Look how edgy we are!'

I had to ask myself as a reviewer of the Caucasian persuasion, was I so disappointed with "Boondocks" perhaps because it raised uncomfortable truths about my own race? I tend to doubt it. The late great "Chappelle's Show" hit the same themes with real brilliance, and the new sitcom "Everybody Hates Chris" does it much better, too. There's a certain kind of alchemy that occurs that turns righteous anger into cutting satire. But the transformation doesn't happen on "The Boondocks."

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein writes for the Hollywood Reporter and talks about TV here on DAY TO DAY.

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