Suburban Jungle Boogie
Aaron McGruder's comic strip The Boondocks has long been the Kryptonite of the cartoon world, a three-panel force that newspapers run for its hilarious mix of politics, race and the thug life but quickly drop when it inevitably offends readers. Tired of dealing with anger heaped on him from both the left (for, among other sins, including a self-hating black man named Uncle Ruckus) and right (for running a series of strips in which main characters Huey and Riley Freeman try to find Condi Rice a husband), McGruder fled for the safer environs of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block. The animated Boondocks,stylistically spare and based on the minimalist qualities of anime (like the original cartoon), promptly earned some of the highest ratings in Cartoon Network's history—and also featured Martin Luther King Jr. addressing a hip-hop crowd as a bunch of "ignorant niggers."
Moments like this make it easy to dismiss McGruder's series as little more than crude lunges at the racial jugular—really, did he have to show a black man's three-foot penis? But The Boondocks' first season—recently released on DVD—showed that it holds the potential to transform into one of television's most important programs: an unapologetic and funny critique of Bush, racism and post-9/11 America.
All this from a series with a seemingly simple, clichd premise: Robert Freeman (voiced by veteran actor John Witherspoon) takes custody of his two grandsons and moves them from Chicago's ghetto-y South Side to the quiet, white suburb of Woodcrest. Both children constantly rebel against their environs, but for different reasons: Huey, a 10-year-old Black Panther in training, can't stand his new neighbors' complacent lifestyles; 8-year-old poseur gangsta brother Riley wants to know where all the thugs at.
The wealthy, older man taking in poor kids is a classic television trope (see: Diff'rent Strokes, Webster, The Simpsons episode in which Homer becomes a big brother to a poor Latino kid just to spite Bart), but McGruder turns it on its head by making Huey the show's moral center, Riley a full-blown sociopath and Grandpa an embittered curmudgeon who isn't above killing a blind man because he got his ass whupped by him.
The episodes veer between commenting on current events (Iraq, the popularity of reality improvement shows like Pimp My Rideand Extreme Makeover), parables of capitalism, or sheer flights of juvenile fantasy (Grandpa dating a hooker named Cristal, or an entire episode devoted to prison rape). Blacks are either rappers or loud; the few white people in the show are exaggerated WASPs, ruthless capitalists (resident tycoon Ed Wuncler, for instance, forces a young girl to work at a lemonade stand 24 hours a day lest he kill her pony), or hip-hop lovin' Iraq War veterans who justify their hold-ups of liquor stores by quoting Donald Rumsfeld.
It's all consistently funny in a cheap Howard Stern way, but McGruder manages to occasionally combine all three elements to stunning, awesome success. In "The Return of the King," for instance, McGruder imagines what would've happened if Martin Luther King Jr. had survived his assassination attempt and woke up from his coma in 2000 (quick preview: Grandpa makes prank calls to Rosa Parks for stealing his thunder, King's peaceful tactics get him branded a traitor by President Bush, Ruckus throws bricks at him and dismisses the good reverend as a "boycottin' baboon," and the long-rumored Revolution finally ensues. Oh, and a blond Oprah becomes president).
There's not much in the way of DVD extras—some commentaries (including two from Uncle Ruckus), unaired promos and a behind-the-scenes with McGruder. But they're not really necessary—you'll watch The Boondocks again and again, trying to find the bigger meaning of MLK seeing his face selling iPods.
THE BOONDOCKS: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON; SONY PICTURES. DVD, 323 MINUTES, $49.95.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.