I’ve been regularly watching the 4th season of the Boondocks and it hasn’t been a pleasant experience. I know that the show has always had problems, but watching the 4th season made me really think further about these problems for a few reasons. First, just before it premiered, it was revealed that series creator Aaron McGruder did not participate in the making of this season. Second, few characters from the previous seasons have returned. Ed Wuncler Sr. Ed Wuncler III, Jazmine, Sarah, Thugnificent and Gin Rummy have been almost completely absent, rarely having any lines and even more rarely appearing on screen. Lastly, the episodes have been strangely focused on the concerns of Robert Freeman, rather than oscillating between the members of the Freeman family.
None of these new developments are particularly unusual in the abstract. Many tv shows have lived on in the absence of their original creators; many shows have abolished characters; and many shows have altered their main character. These things happen. But in the case of the 4th season of The Boondocks, these developments have really amplified two of the show’s more chronic problems: the show’s treatment of women and it’s intelligibility as satire. Keeping in mind that these problems really are chronic – so they can’t be solely scapegoated to McGruder’s absence – I’m going to survey some choice moments from this season and previous seasons, exploring not only how this season has veered off course, but also how the steering wheel was already shaky.
I: New Characters, Old Tactics
The Boondocks notably has no central female characters. That’s just a fact. Secondary characters Sarah, Jazmine and Cynthia, are the show’s only female characters that have speaking roles in 3 or more episodes (out of 53 in total so far).* Beyond those three, guest female characters and unnamed female characters are typically one-dimensional. Ebony Brown from “The Lovely Ebony Brown,” Luna from “Attack of the Killer Kung-Fu Wolf Bitch” and Deborah LeVil from “The Hunger Strike” are exceptions, but even they aren’t the most flattering examples. Otherwise, the show is unrelentingly troubling when it comes to women characters.
Crystal from “Guess Ho’s Coming to Dinner” is probably the worst example. She is a hoe by design, legitimating the idea that hoes actually exist (they don’t; there simply is no nonjudgmental or empirical way to categorize people by their sex lives) and that there is something wrong with them for following their sexual urges. Of course, the show is satirical, so characterizations are always subordinated to the target of the satire, which was intended to be gold diggers (they even play “Gold Digger” during the episode) in Crystal’s case , but I don’t see any reason why a satirical goal has to be accomplished at the expense of all women or some lame caricature of women. At one point Huey, confidently says that “at least 20% of women are hoes” and he’s not joking. That is some straight up lazy writing.
Unsurprisingly, this season has also been plagued by lazy writing of women characters, which is somewhat sad since Angela Nissel has written more than half of the episodes ,and there have been more women characters introduced in this season than any other because the show has largely focused on the exploits of Granddad. Two episodes stand out: “Breaking Granddad” and “Early Bird Special.” The former takes a jab at the black hair care industry and the latter aims at the black relationship advice industry. In the real world black women are deeply invested in both of these subjects, but in the episode, they simply appear as punchlines to jokes.
For instance, in “Breaking Granddad,” Huey develops an explosive chemical compound that he wants to use to commit a murder, which strangely turns out to also cause miraculous hair growth and make hair straight and infinitely malleable. When Granddad finds out, he forces Huey to allow him to sell the dangerous compound to a profiteering hair company called “Right Like White” that is ran by a no-nonsense black woman named Boss Wilona, who, despite being a black woman herself, has no qualms selling a dangerous product to other black women. Wilona’s big moment is when she delivers this spiel justifying her actions: “Explosive? You think them bitches out there care about a little fire? This here will turn your brain green, this stuff has plutonium, this one is acid… just acid. Don’t you get it? These bitches would put napalm on their hair if it would make it straight!”
When I first heard these lines, I laughed because I thought they were the setup for a more nuanced take on why black women would risk their health for certain kinds of hair, but that didn’t happen. This was just a punchline to a very familiar and stale ComicView style observation that masquerades as a joke: black women invest a lot into their hair. Once Wilona and Robert make their agreement, we’re treated to a montage of black women lining up to buy the product and then putting it to use. The montage features outrageous hairstyles and self-deprecating one-off comments from unnamed black women. I don’t expect satire to do intellectual work for me or for anybody else, but this episode really did nothing more than make fun of black women, effectively calling them stupid for caring about their hair, as if black hair is “just hair.” It’s actually kind of stupefying how diminishing this episode is. We’re living in the age of the Natural Hair Movement, after all.
“Early Bird Special” follows suit, featuring another profiteering black woman named Geraldine who hires Robert as a prostitute specifically for black women who are emotionally needy. In other words, Geraldine is a straight-up pimp. Eric Thurm at A.V. Club noted that Geraldine and Wilona are very similar and he’s quite right. They even have the same voice actor, Jennifer Lewis. Geraldine’s big spiel is also a justification of her participation in an industry: “Women don’t pay for dangle…What you’re doing for our women is bigger than that. You’re boosting their self-esteem, making them feel loved, desirable. [Vanessa] found our ad in the back of that book ‘Think Like a Dude Cause Your Lonely Black Ass Ain’t Never Gonna Get One Anyway.’…You’re making these lonely black women feel loved and that feeling is the most powerful fucking drug in the world.”
Although the episode references Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and the toxic industry it represents, it goes on to focus on a woman, Vanessa, who is so desperate to find love from a man that she sells her house to have Robert be her full-time escort. Because Robert isn’t comfortable with fulfilling Vanessa’s needs in a way that will clearly never fix her issues, she convinces him that they should have an actual romantic relationship, not just a commercial one that is designed to be romantic. He agrees, but the plan is inhibited by Robert’s inability to get out of his escort contract due to Geraldine’s violent tactics. She is a pimp, after all.
When Robert returns home after failed and violent “negotiations,” Vanessa greets him and introduces him to her two unnamed friends, who are literally introduced as “lonely and bitter.” Seriously, these traits are their names. The three women then begin to praise Robert, contrasting him with the trifling men that they’re used to. For a moment, it seems like the episode may be headed in a smart direction; these women are lonely and bitter for a reason, I’d imagine. But nope, when Uncle Ruckus enters with a fawning white woman, Vanessa and her friends feel instantly betrayed, as if the mere presence of a white woman is lethal to a black relationship. They then angrily leave, bitterly condemning black men.
Again, like the women in “Breaking Granddad,” these women are just punchlines. They are presented as bitter and lonely because that’s just what they are, as if these are innate traits rather than reactions to sordid pasts or a sprawling media landscape that constantly judges black women as failures and then uses that judgment as an opportunity to take those same women’s money. Even the fawning white women is a lame punchline, the “joke” being, “White women and black men sometimes date.” As I said earlier, I don’t expect satire to do my intellectual work for me, but this entire episode works by throwing women under the bus, running them over, then claiming that they were already in the street. This kind of unapologetic plot progression is quite common in The Boondocks catalog and is very important to keep in mind when thinking about what makes the show intelligible as satire.
II: The Boondocks is Satire, Right?
Is The Boondocks a satire or is it just a cartoon about ( or mocking?) black people? I’m not being a contrarian. The show is not always clear on this point. I think that the ambiguity of the show is both a function of satire as a genre and a product of the show’s approach to that genre. In my view, good satire has an intimate relationship with what it targets. After all, if the goal of satire is to shift how that target is perceived, in order to intervene in that perception, one must know how it is currently perceived and why it is perceived that way, then strike at those vulnerabilities, subsequently producing laughter and/or new perspectives. Heck, the comedian in me would argue that laughter itself can be a new perspective. The way The Boondocks approaches satire is very detailed, but frankly I think this detail primarily stems from one point: the sheer particularity of the subject matter.
Alongside the Proud Family, the Cleveland Show, Static Shock, The PJs, Waynehead and Little Bill, The Boondocks is one of the few animated television shows in the past 15 years to be about black people. In that sense, the sheer existence of The Boondocks demonstrates an intimacy with its subject matter. Beyond its ontology, The Boondocks actively focuses on black life through its cast, its plots, its animation, its music and its production, which are all demonstrably immersed in black people’s lives. Even further, The Boondocks often focuses on real-world events and people, demonstrating an interest in black life in particular instances, not just in general. Even among the shows listed at the beginning of this paragraph, this focus is unique.
The liability of this focus is that its intelligibility as satire hinges on previous knowledge of these real-world events and characters. This is the liability of all satire, but for The Boondocks this liability is heightened because it is 1) a cartoon 2) airing on Adult Swim, 3) which is apart of 4) Cartoon Network, a channel that is mostly for kids, and 5) it references and represents black lives, which aren’t really represented in the current media landscape. Given these circumstances, especially the latter, The Boondocks is in a precarious position. In order to depict and discuss black life without alienating black people, the show has to assume that black life is intelligible to the viewer despite the fact that anyone could rightfully stumble upon this cartoon on a cartoon station and think that it’s “just a cartoon.” What I appreciate about the show is that at its best, it overcomes this precarity with style and wit.
“The Invasion of The Katrinians” is probably the best example. Though it’s damn near unimaginable that anyone didn’t know about Katrina, the episode has a brief preface that sets the episode up for even the most uninformed viewer, allowing all of the show’s humor to emanate from that context. In many other cases, the show is not always clearly satirical. For instance, beyond his first appearance, which targeted men’s fragile egos and senseless love of violence, I can’t say that the character Stinkmeaner ever really offered anything other than an excuse for fight scenes.
This season has suffered very heavily from the show’s entrenched precarity and I think this suffering is a direct product of something I’ve already identified: lazy writing. However, while in the past this writing had primarily plagued the community of female characters and sometimes Uncle Ruckus, this season’s lazy writing hasn’t been so discriminating: everybody is affected.
Huey and Riley are the most palpable examples. According to this season’s portrayal, Huey is the voice of reason and Riley is the voice of base desires, effectively making them function as a devil/angel pair (often perched on Robert’s shoulders). To be fair, these portrayals aren’t ostensibly far from how Huey and Riley have always functioned within the series, but in this new season these functions have been notably automatized. In other words, when Huey and Riley speak, they say what they are programmed to say rather than something in response to their situation and their perspective [reword].
For instance, in “Breaking Granddad,” Boss Wilona’s right-hand man is an immaculately dressed gay man named Hot Chocolate. When Hot Chocolate points a gun at Riley during the episode’s climax , Riley complains, “I’mma get shot by a gay dude! How embarrassing!” Riley’s homophobia is nothing new, but in the past it was always explicitly tied to Riley’s fragile masculinity, which he is constantly asserting in order to remind everybody how allegedly hard he is (or rather how hard he wants to be). In this episode, there is no connection to fragile masculinity. Riley is homophobic because Riley is “supposed” to be homophobic. This is a problem. Once his homophobia is just another character trait, akin to his shoes or baggy pants, it doesn’t really have a satirical edge. It just sounds straight up homophobic.
Huey as a distilled voice of reason has similar problems. In the episode, “Freedomland,” which is the final act of a narrative arc in which the Freemans have actually sold themselves into slavery (this arc is very poorly explored throughout the season, which presented actual slavery as “being broke”), Huey delivers a speech about freedom that was clearly intended to be climactic and powerful. “For the moment, the little guy won. But for how long? How long before those at the top figure out another way how to make a buck off of those at the bottom? Then maybe, just maybe, those at the bottom will realize that some of the people they trust may not have their best interests at heart.”
This is Huey’s speech after a successful slave revolt. A slave revolt! Slavery is the most visceral and searing pain in African-American history, yet Huey, who is supposedly so radical that he is labeled a domestic terrorist, narrates the conclusion to a slave revolt as if he has diligently moved up the chain of command at his local Wal-Mart and finally gotten a refund for his one month-old-yet-faulty new television. Just a few episodes ago (“Breaking Granddad”) he was willing to murder someone to get his freedom back and now he’s satisfied with the destruction of a slavery-themed amusement park? (which was very poorly executed, by the way).
I guess that’s a reasonable level of satisfaction, but when has Huey ever been reasonable? In the first season, he attempted to use an elementary school Christmas play as a vehicle for black power. In the second season, he attempted to destroy a movie reel of “Soul Plane 2” because he believed that the movie was oppressive. In the third season, he was so dissatisfied with the reaction to Obama’s election that he contemplated allying with a known white supremacist. Of course, all of these actions were satirical, so they can’t be taken just at face value, but my point is that the extremism embedded in them has never just been to get a point across. As a character, Huey really is an extremist.
More importantly, beyond Huey, the recurring cast in general is extreme and this extremism is the lifeblood of the show. This season seems to have taken that extremism and mechanized it, reducing the cast in size and in complexity to predictable drones that strike as programmed, in any context, in any story. The result of this approach is a season that frequently lacks fangs and persistently misrecognizes its barks as its bites, its references as its commentaries. In short, this is a season that isn’t sure if it’s doing parody or satire.
All in all, when I say that this season has been characterized by lazy writing, what I’m really saying is that the writing has been overconfident. Characters, references, jokes and satirical objectives have all been presented as if they are immediately intelligible, without need for editorial intervention. The Boondocks’ track record with women has always been plagued by this overconfidence, but this season saw that flaw contaminate the series as a whole, tipping the show’s intelligibility firmly into the realm of parody rather than satire. In my view, the treatment of female characters indicates that the show has always sat at this tipping point. By formalizing a plot formula in which someone is always sacrificed for the greater satirical/comical/social goal, The Boondocks set itself up to eventually sacrifice itself. In the absence of its usual extensive cast, the show intensified its interest in the Freeman family, progressively routinizing their traits into odd,automated assemblages that were always familiar and never surprising.
In the end, I don’t think that the course that this season took was inevitable, but I do strongly feel that it was always already possible. Sure, Aaron McGruder probably kept things on course during his tenure, and that should be acknowledged (though we could never know for certain without understanding how exactly animated shows get made in terms of production methods and in terms of internal hierarchies), but the problems that I’ve explored have been in play since the first episode, so his absence doesn’t explain much. Furthermore, things were often kept on course at the expense of women and other groups, so the path this season went down is a clear legacy of previous paths. Never forget.
*Regina King voices Huey and Riley, but I’m talking about characters, not actors.