Friday, May 9, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Boondocks, "Breaking Granddad"

The biggest difference between Bryan Cranston and John Witherspoon is that Witherspoon would never have trouble saying 'badonkadonk.'
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

You can tell it's been a mediocre week for animated TV shows when the strongest piece of animated TV is an episode of The Boondocks' fourth and final season, the only season that was completed without Aaron McGruder's involvement. For those who forgot that The Boondocks is still on the air, McGruder exited his own creation under circumstances that still remain mysterious, even after he posted on his Facebook account in March an unusually benign message of thanks to Sony Pictures Television and Adult Swim for the show's first three seasons. A writer from The Root compared hearing the news of McGruder's departure to "buying tickets to a Public Enemy show only to find out that Chuck D is no longer with the group." Sony claims McGruder exited because he and the studio couldn't come to an agreement over the fourth season's production schedule.

Getting the full story behind the tight-lipped McGruder's departure is about as likely as Dr. Dre dropping Detox. I bet we won't know the full story, perhaps due to legal reasons, until a few years from now (which would be much longer than the amount of time it took for Dave Chappelle to address his fans after he quit Chappelle's Show because he was dissatisfied with sketches that he felt were making white people laugh for the wrong reasons, the same issue that's currently fueling the debate over whether or not Leslie Jones' controversial SNL monologue about slavery is "coonery").

For now, what McGruder's departure has left us with are episodes that mysteriously don't contain any writing credits (the "Created by Aaron McGruder" credit has also been erased from the opening titles, just like when Matt Groening took his name off a Simpsons/Critic crossover episode he despised) and have so far been mostly limp rehashes of earlier Boondocks episodes, with very little of the effective social commentary that distinguished past McGruder-scripted gems like the Peabody-winning "Return of the King." The Boondocks is the latest show that's stumbled creatively after the creator who was so essential to crafting most of the show's greatest hits went ahead and bounced (exhibit A: the departures of Gene L. Coon and Gene Roddenberry from the original Star Trek; exhibit B: Dan Harmon's Sony-related absence during what's come to be known as the "gas leak year" of Community).

Tom looks like Tim Meadows as Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner.
Though "Breaking Granddad" is another example of how much the gas leak year of The Boondocks pales in comparison to the seasons when McGruder was involved and was proud to leave his name on the product (the episode is another one this season that doesn't contain a writing credit), it's easily the funniest of the three fourth-season episodes that have aired so far. That's not due to the Breaking Bad gags, which mostly fall flat and are riffs on just the events in the Breaking Bad pilot episode and no other episode in Breaking Bad's history (spoofs of network or cable dramas have never been The Boondocks' strong suit; the third-season finale, which aired 120 years ago, was an underwhelming 24 spoof that showed signs that maybe it wasn't a good idea for McGruder to agree to a fourth season). What redeems "Breaking Granddad" is all the genuinely funny satirical material about hair-care products for black people, a subject that's never really been satirized on an animated show before (the plot has the Freemans inventing and selling a gel that both relaxes and lengthens hair). Even though "Breaking Granddad" is watered-down Boondocks, it's still more daring than late-period Simpsons, even when the latter experiments with CG animation for one episode (which it did this week with the okay-but-still-not-up-to-classic-Simpsons-level "Brick Like Me," a story set mostly in a Lego world fantasized by Homer).

This whole fourth-season arc, in which Robert Freeman (John Witherspoon) winds up so broke that, like pre-cancer-diagnosis Walter White, he's taken a job at a car wash owned by Uncle Ruckus (Gary Anthony Williams), is straight-up character assassination. Sure, Robert's always been a loser, but he's never been as dumb as Riley (Regina King). It's hard to buy that Robert would be so clueless that he'd lose ownership of his house and be forced to sell both himself and his grandsons into slavery. I'm getting the feeling that McGruder left because the storyline wasn't his idea and even he thinks it's inane.

Or maybe it was McGruder's idea and he felt burnt out from both the show and dealing with Sony (he's since moved on to creating a live-action Adult Swim show called Black Jesus), and leaving The Boondocks was the only thing that would make him happy. McGruder has a history of sometimes appearing to be bored with his own creation, especially back when it was a comic strip. Too many of the strip's post-9/11 weekday installments were lazily drawn rehashes of the same scenario--Huey sits and watches some idiotic soundbite on TV--and towards the end of the strip's run, McGruder stopped drawing it and left the illustrating duties to an uncredited artist.

Fortunately, "Breaking Granddad" doesn't rehash material like how the strip would recycle that same damn pose of Huey parked in front of the TV or how the season premiere (with special guest star Michael B. Jordan as a Chris Brown-esque celebrity) laughlessly recycled the much more hilarious "Tom, Sarah and Usher." This week's episode is the first (and judging from King's comments to the press about behind-the-scenes infighting over the direction of her show's writing, most likely to be the only) time I've ever felt like The Boondocks' fourth season wasn't a complete mistake.

Memorable quotes:
* "Well, you see, I'm a little short on cash. [Sound FX of the woman on the other end of the phone line hanging up.]"

* "Oh, thank you, Jesus! Always knew if I pretended to believe in you, it would pay off someday!"

* Boss Willona (special guest star Jenifer Lewis): "Don't you get it? These bitches would put napalm on their hair if it would make it straight. Put a warning label on it!"

* "The ironically named hair gel is the hottest-selling on the market, but experts claim a single jar contains enough high explosives to destroy a small plane or a Prius."

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