Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Atlanta season 1's sweetest move was an old 30 Rock move: it never tried to sell Paper Boi as God's gift to the trap scene

This is the first of 12 or 13 blog posts that will be posted on a monthly basis from now until this blog's final post in December 2017.

I was skeptical about Donald Glover's Atlanta when FX first announced in 2014 that it picked up Glover's creation, his first TV series since his departure from Community, the offbeat cult favorite where he continually killed it each week as Troy Barnes, a high-school football star trying (and failing) to suppress his nerdy side (like that time when Troy, in what has to be my favorite acting moment from Glover on Community, was so excited to be in the presence of his childhood hero LeVar Burton that he turned catatonic). A half-hour comedy about a trap rapper and his manager cousin trying to get by in the rap game? Disquieting visions of "Entourage for the Atlanta trap scene" danced in my head when FX first hyped Atlanta. The world doesn't need another half-hour piece of boring lifestyle porn where the lead characters constantly bang anything that breathes in the most opulent of settings and the storyline with the biggest stakes would be "Is Vince Paper Boi doing or not doing the movie A3C?"

Another disquieting vision I had was that Atlanta was going to be a weekly half-hour ad for Glover's musical career as Childish Gambino. Glover is a good example of an actor/rapper whose beats, frequently provided by Community and Creed score composer Ludwig Göransson, are solid, but his bars leave a lot to be desired. I was never a fan of Gambino's corny verses about his Asian fetish.

I caught up on Atlanta season 1 on FX on demand, about a few weeks after the season concluded, during a couple of breaks between chapters for a manuscript I've been working on since August (chapters that I, by the way, ended up having to delete from the manuscript because I found myself thinking, "This material isn't gonna work as a YA novel anymore. A Jim Rockford-type Pinoy should be the audience surrogate, not a precocious Richie Brockelman-type Pinoy," so I got rid of all the teenage characters). Atlanta, which took home the Best Comedy Series and Best Actor in a Comedy trophies at the Golden Globes earlier this month, exceeded my expectations. As a half-hour single-camera comedy about the rap game, thankfully, it's more Taxi than Entourage.

Sure, Atlanta is frequently funny (three words: secret revolving wall), but Glover and his writing staff's brand of humor is tinged with Taxi-style melancholy, particularly about how working-class adult life often feels like you're running in circles. That melancholy reflects Glover's belief, as he once said during a 2016 Television Critics Association press tour panel, that "you watch Master of None and it's a very optimistic look at millennialism, [but] I'm pessimistic about it. I feel like we kind of fucked up."

There's nothing lifestyle-porny about Atlanta. Neither are there any moments of blatant product placement for Awaken, My Love!, the surprise Gambino album Glover dropped one month after the Atlanta season finale, save for a cameo by the Awaken, My Love! cover artwork on a bookshelf in the "Juneteenth" episode. The non-rap Awaken, My Love! is also the first-ever Gambino release I've genuinely liked from start to finish, aside from whatever the fuck Bino was doing with his voice during "California."

The show is an exploration of, as Joshua Rivera put it in GQ, "the stress and pain of being broke," particularly when that broke-ass person is both a creative and a POC, like Earn Marks, Glover's Ivy League dropout character, and, to a lesser extent, his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), a.k.a. the trap rapper known as Paper Boi (not to be confused with Paperboy, who recorded the 1992 one-hit wonder "Ditty"), who's more economically stable than Earn, thanks to income from drug dealing, but he's not exactly on the level of Future/Gucci Mane-type wealth yet. "Ballin," singer/songwriter Bibi Bourelly's current ode to finding ways to "treat yo'self" when your savings account is empty, could be an unofficial theme song for the daily hustle of either Earn, who becomes Alfred's manager, or teaching assistant Van (Zazie Beetz), Earn's ex and the mother of his baby daughter (I wouldn't be surprised if Bourelly's extremely relatable song surfaces on Atlanta during its second season, which is currently scheduled to air in 2018, partly due to Glover's upcoming gig as young Lando Calrissian).

Atlanta's lived-in portrayal of the hip-hop capital of the Dirty South emphasizes both the beauty and the shabbier side of the ATL at the same time. It's closer in tone and atmosphere to the ordinary, sun-kissed North Carolina town from David Gordon Green's 2000 indie flick George Washington than either the opulence of Empire or the "devastating," "crime-infested" hellholes President Fuckface Von Clownstick portrays predominantly black neighborhoods as, every time he and his toadies condescend to black America.

As part of this lived-in portrayal of black millennials in Atlanta, the show presents images that are rarely seen on a half-hour comedy, let alone scripted TV. Examples include the sight of Van in bed with a headscarf on instead of rocking immaculate-looking, made-for-TV black lady hair during bedtime and, in what has to be the weirdest image for me, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Alfred's constantly-thinking-outside-the-box best friend (and partner in pushing weight), stanning for the downbeat, anti-war (and three-hour-plus) Steve McQueen flick The Sand Pebbles instead of a more action-heavy McQueen flick like Bullitt. It makes me wonder about Darius' tastes in Keanu Reeves movies. Instead of watching Keanu armbarring motherfuckers and pumping them full of lead in John Wick, I bet Darius would prefer to watch Keanu in Little Buddha.

This is where Glover's decision to surround himself with writers and directors of color who had never done episodic TV before really pays off. Had Atlanta's writing staff been predominantly white like so many black sitcom writing staffs used to be (a largely vanilla writers' room was the same reason why the '90s Margaret Cho vehicle All-American Girl sucked so much), you wouldn't be reading about black viewers praising Atlanta for showing Van going to bed in a headscarf and removing her braids in the morning. Also, the dialogue between Van and Earn and the interplay between Earn, Alfred and Darius would be so goddamn trite, as in the "being able to anticipate when a punchline goes here and when a black slang term the white writer from Harvard just learned about five minutes ago goes there" kind of trite you're subjected to whenever you pay attention to the quip delivery rhythms of something like 2 Broke Girls, the annoyingly retrograde show that constantly causes Asian-bashing so-called comedians to cream their cargo shorts.

"It wasn't a conscious decision, really," said Glover about his all-black and all-new-to-TV writing staff in a Wired profile. "I knew I wanted people with similar experiences who understood the language and the mindset of the characters and their environment."

The only veteran writer on Atlanta's writing staff is Glover himself, while on the directing side for the first season, Glover frequently turned to Hiro Murai, whose prior directorial credits are all music videos, including a bunch of Gambino videos and the video for Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar's "Never Catch Me," my personal favorite Murai video. Murai carried over from his music video work a knack for deadpan surrealism. Many of those surreal touches (two words: invisible car), combined with the ways that Glover, his younger brother Stephen Glover, a.k.a. Steve G. Lover, and the other young writers veer away from predictable single-camera comedy storytelling rhythms (dig how they're allergic to cutaway gags), are key to why Atlanta is so refreshing and effective as a half-hour comedy.

All the stories of Steve pulling from the unlikeliest of writing influences ("There's this movie called The Counselor that we talked about a lot," said Steve to Vulture about the tone he was trying to nail for the amusing Black Justin Bieber episode, which he wrote) and Glover defying things like FX's suggestion that he should give his writing staff a formal office (the office setting he chose instead was a laid-back house in the Hollywood Hills; part of me wishes that Glover would tell the press that he chose the men's room at Arnold's) have reminded me of what Kool Keith said to journalist Brian Coleman in Check the Technique Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. When he recalled to Coleman the experiences of recording Dr. Octagonecologyst with producer Dan the Automator, Kool Keith said, "It was like we was at a house party and we was making a punch out of lemonade, Pepsi and Welch's grape soda. We was putting everything inside the container: apples, greens, peanuts, cabbage. We blended it all together and we knew people were going to bug out when they tasted it." I wouldn't be surprised if the Atlanta crew's approach to the show is similar to Dr. Octagon's.

The Atlanta crew has also accomplished something I, as a hip-hop head, especially appreciate: they've resisted the narrative of making Paper Boi out to be a musical genius who deserves to conquer the local trap scene and do guest features with the Migos and Future because lyrics-wise, he's got the biggest bozack. It's a narrative that's simply tired. A lot of shows and movies about fictional people who make art tend to suffer from what I call "Studio 60 Syndrome."

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is, of course, the famously misguided 2006 Aaron Sorkin drama series that was basically about the making of SNL, and Sorkin constantly believed that the sketch comics from his alternate-universe SNL were curing cancer with their comedy. So many of Sorkin's characters during Studio 60 would bring up how brilliant, edgy, uproarious and life-changing the Studio 60 sketches were. But then when you finally saw those sketches in their entirety, like a Gilbert and Sullivan-style cold open that makes the Sunset Strip studio audience wile out, you'd be like, "That's it? That's all? That shit wouldn't even cause a regular viewer of The Amanda Show to smile, dawg."

Part of Sorkin's problem with the underwhelming fake sketches on Studio 60 was that Sorkin's ideas about sketch comedy were 28 years behind the TV comedy zeitgeist at the time. When he wrote Studio 60, the live sketches portion of SNL was no longer the countercultural comedy powerhouse it used to be. SNL was in a weird and shaky transitional period at the time: Tina Fey, SNL's most acclaimed head writer ever, left the show and was busy with both writing and starring in 30 Rock, and the only part of post-Fey SNL that was making as much of a countercultural impact as the live sketches used to do in the show's classic years was the pre-recorded Digital Shorts by Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island (also, this was years before Fey would return to Studio 8H and make the live sketches temporarily relevant again with her Sarah Palin impression).

Lonely Island viral videos aside, SNL wasn't the satirical franchise everyone was laughing about and being dazzled by in 2006. That spot belonged to The Daily Show, which was at the height of its anti-Bush Administration satire, and had Sorkin made his fictional show-within-the-show a Daily Show counterpart instead of an SNL counterpart, Sorkin's notion that Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley and Nate Corddry were contributing to social change would have made a lot more sense (Studio 60 is so inessential I can't even remember the names of the characters who were played by Perry, Whitford, Paulson, Hughley and Corddry).

Studio 60 wasn't the first show or movie to feature characters who talk and talk and talk about how this fictional writer or that fictional performer is a genius (that A.V. Club article I referred to on Twitter in 2012 also goes off on the Brady Bunch kids' unconvincing singing career and the Janet Jackson character in Poetic Justice, as well as more recent shows like Californication, Smash and, of course, Entourage). But it's the most off-the-rails example of a screenwriter or showrunner's overinflated perceptions of his or her artistic characters' talents.

Glover used to write for 30 Rock, the show where folks who, unlike Sorkin, actually worked for SNL--for example, Fey and writer Robert Carlock--would often poke holes in Sorkin's over-exaggeration of SNL's relevancy as an anti-establishment voice by making most of Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney's sketches genuinely lame. The fake sketch where Tracy played a chef who vomits during his cooking show was every single old SNL sketch that would resort to fake puke as a visual punchline whenever the writers ran out of ideas. The intentional crappiness of Tracy and Jenna's fake sketches was Fey's way of basically saying, "You know a lot of those sketches we used to rush into dress in the hours leading up to 11:30? They don't hold up today. We often relied on puke and sloppy makeout scenes. I'm not sure which sketch comedy show Sorkin was watching." The main thing Glover clearly took along with him from his years with 30 Rock and brought over to Atlanta was, fortunately, not 30 Rock's sped-up, rat-a-tat-tat gag delivery rhythms, which Atlanta has wisely avoided while almost every single-camera network comedy has co-opted them. What I feel like Glover absorbed the most from 30 Rock was to never pretend that what his artistic characters are doing with their art is important with a capital I.

The Atlanta writers' avoidance of Studio 60 Syndrome--sure, Alfred runs into fans of his breakout single throughout the first season, but the show never unconvincingly crams down your throat a bunch of exposition about the brilliance of Paper Boi's sound--resulted in a lot of sublime acting moments from Brian Tyree Henry during the season. Henry's portrayal of Alfred is a rarity: it's one of scripted TV's few portrayals of a fictional rapper who's neither a gangsta rapper nor some weirdly sanitized version of a conscious rapper who occasionally does "The Ghetto"-type tracks about inner-city life (*cough*Lucious Lyon*cough*).

Race-baiting Fox News and its audience of 91-year-olds think all rappers are gangsta rappers.

Meanwhile, Empire tries to pass off Lucious as a brilliant, insightful and extremely ambitious lyricist who changed hip-hop long ago. That kind of impact on hip-hop may be feasible in Empire's telenovela-style universe, but in our universe, Lucious' drab-sounding delivery wouldn't be able to push more than 10 copies from the trunk of a hooptie (Terrence Howard is more to blame for that than Timbaland, who produces Empire's original songs). A lot of MCs aren't in the game to change the world or conquer it. Neither are they often the villainous nihilists Fox News, the uptight right and the respectability politics crowd make them out to be.

A lot of them are E-40 types who just want to have fun or record music that knocks. If they become interested in social commentary and deeper lyrics, that occurs later in their careers. Henry plays Alfred as a guy who got into the game just to have fun and spark a blunt or two while cutting a mixtape or a single that he hopes will get everyone in the club turnt up--his ambitions don't seem to be more than that--but he's already becoming ambivalent about the level of ATL fame he's attained and the crazies and parasites his fame attracts. The lightly comedic, almost James Garner-like frustration that constantly plays out on Henry's face is an interesting far cry from the one-note "Yo, E, who'da thought we'd make it outta Queens? Isn't all this bling wonderful?" bullshit of Entourage.

Henry manages to pull off Paper Boi's ambivalence with very little dialogue and a lot of sublime eye acting. His side-eye game is on fleek. You see that ambivalence when a black police officer awkwardly wants to snap a bunch of selfies with Alfred while he visits a jailed Earn, and Alfred just wants to be treated like a regular human being who simply wants to see his relative instead of being treated like a superstar or, at worst, like a criminal. Or when Alfred realizes the ridiculousness of tiny Paper Boi fans who are way too young to be exposed to the details of his life in the news or anything having to do with Paper Boi. Or when, in my favorite lengthy example of Henry's side-eye game, Alfred can't stand being forced to play nice with an insufferable and douchey celebrity like Black Bieber.

Thanks to Henry's non-verbal acting, you also get the impression that even Alfred himself doesn't think his "Paper Boi" single is a masterpiece, and he's surprised by its popularity. Produced by a beatmaker named Chemist and written and performed off-screen by Steve G. Lover ("We didn't want to have to force Brian to rap," said Steve to The Fader), the brief excerpts from "Paper Boi" are definitely catchy, so it's plausible that "Paper Boi" would become an Atlanta radio hit, but the show also doesn't try to pretend that this trap anthem is as life-changing as a Shins song.

In regards to the sounds of the fake breakout track he wrote for Paper Boi, Steve said to The Fader, "When we first started the show... we didn't want to make it where it's so good that it becomes a major point of the story... It strikes a balance, where the audience is like 'this is good, but it doesn't feel cheesy, and it doesn't feel like it's trying too hard, either.' It's because it was written by a person who's a rapper who understands that it's about having fun--this is a fun song." Studio 60 Syndrome is all about unconvincingly establishing the high quality of the content some fictional creative puts out. In the 1997 indie flick Henry Fool, the story of an obscene poem that both angers and satisfies the public and becomes the 1997 version of viral, director Hal Hartley cleverly kept himself from becoming another perpetrator of Studio 60 Syndrome by never showing the poem at all (Hartley didn't need to show it; the camera's tight focus on the readers' varied reactions effectively conveyed the poem's divisiveness).

On Atlanta, Steve similarly saves himself and the show from Studio 60 Syndrome by establishing that in Atlanta's universe, the "Paper Boi" single has nothing more on its mind than Migos-type pleasure.

Now that's more real than a 2006 Sunset Strip crowd enthusiastically reacting to warmed-over Gilbert and Sullivan as if it's George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" routine.

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