As I watched season two of "The Boondocks," I felt the same way I do when I'm driving the speed limit but still looking in the rear view mirror to make sure there are no cops. This Cartoon Network Adult Swim show is such a send-up of black culture that I kept having to remind myself, yes, creator Aaron McGruder is black. And hip hop and rap culture gets so thoroughly lampooned, I kept having to check the box credits to really believe that McGruder got people like Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Xzibit, Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, Katt Williams, Lil' Wayne, and Sway to lend their voices to the animated characters.
Then I remembered the flaps over some of McGruder's "Boondocks" comic strips that inspired this show. When a guy takes on the Secretary of State in a strip titled "Condi Needs a Man" and describes Rice as "a female Darth Vader type that seeks loving mate to torture," you know that nothing (and nobody) is going to be off-limits--though that strip didn't cause nearly the controversy as his "Can a Nigga Get a Job?" spoof of the Donald Trump reality show, in which all the black contestants vying for a job had more attitude than ambition. When it comes to controversial social issues, none of the episodes in season two go that far out on a limb. The closest McGruder comes is in three episodes lampooning hip-hop egos, music videos, and entourages, along with one that tackles the "we can say it but you can't" use of the word "Nigga," and another that involves home invasion. Not coincidentally, those are also the strongest episodes. And of course McGruder's frequent target, BET, gets lambasted in a few episodes as well.
The popular series has as many ways of putting off viewers as it does attracting them, so it won't be for all tastes. For one thing, y'all better be comfortable watching a show where people say "mutherfucka" and "nigga" as often as they use verbs. For another, McGruder was heavily influenced by anime, and so several of the characters are drawn in traditional anime style. And the humor is more satirical than it is clever lines (though there certainly are some). Mostly, though, not everyone is going to warm to the Freeman family. Lovable, they're not.
Robert (Granddad) Freeman packed up his family and moved from South Chicago to an idyllic (and wholly invented) suburb of Woodcrest. Needless to say, they don't exactly fit in. Granddad is irascible and cantankerous as can be, but what's worse is that he's a principled man whose principles are suspect. Then there's his grandson Huey, named for Huey Newton, who's a left-leaning 10-year-old intellectual-rebel, and grandson Riley, an eight year old who's been mesmerized by hip-hop and rap culture and aspires to be a part of it. Not exactly the soccer-playing types you usually find in the burbs. But they're not the only blacks in Woodcrest. So is their neighbor, Tom Dubois (Cedric Yarbrough), an affluent lawyer who lives with his Caucasian wife Sarah (Jill Talley) and their biracial daughter Jazmine (Gabby Soleil). Rounding out the cast of regulars is Uncle Ruckus (Gary Anthony Williams), a status-quo minded African-American who can't relate to any of them. Of the bunch, Huey is the only likeable one, really, because he's the would-be conscience of the family, neighborhood, and culture.
Here's a rundown on the 15 episodes, which were transferred to three discs and housed in three thin plastic keep cases, with a cardboard slipcase:
1) ". . . Or Die Trying." Granddad insists on sneaking into a movie, and he takes Huey, Riley and their friend, timid little Jazmine, with him.
2) "Tom, Sarah and Usher." When Sarah meets the R&B star in a restaurant and gushes all over him (and herself), it becomes an issue for Tom.
3) "Thank You for Not Snitching." Granddad and Riley refuse to discuss a string of home invasions with police, but there are consequences to pay.
4) "Stinkmeaner Strikes Back." The ghost of Stinkmeaner inhabits Tom's body and goes on a rampage, looking for Granddad.
5) "The Story of Thugnificent." When a famous rapper and his entourage move across the street, it starts a feud with granddad that spills over onto music videos and Internet postings. Carl Jones guest stars as Thugnificent, whose video to get back at the old man inspires people to commit hate crimes against old people. A real thought-provoking show about celebrities and their influence.
6) "The Hunger Strike." Huey decides to protest BET because he's convinced that the all-black entertainment network promotes the destruction of black people.
7) "Attack of the Killer Kung-Fu Wolf-Bitch." Granddad is online again, and this time it lands him a woman who turns out to be a card-carrying psycho. Aisha Tyler guests as Luna.
8) "Shinin'." Riley loses his prize chain to a bully, but the bright side is that he gets to join Thugnificent's Lethal Injection posse.
9) "Ballin'." Tom teaches Riley a lesson in sportsmanship on the roundball court.
10) "Invasion of the Katrinians." Hurricane Katrina refuges--distant relatives--show up at the Freeman's looking for a place to stay. But hospitality only goes so far. Cedric the Entertainer stars as cousin Jericho.
11) "The Uncle Ruckus Reality Show." Uncle Ruckus gets a reality series and a DNA test, and both of them have surprises.
12) "Home Alone." Granddad leaves the boys with Uncle Ruskus, but it's not clear who's in charge.
13) "The S Word." As in "sue," which Robert contemplates after a teacher calls riley the "N" word in class. Comedy veteran Fred Willard and Cee-Lo guest star.
14) "The Story of Catcher Freeman." The boys get different versions about an ancestor named Catcher Freeman.
15) "The Story of Gangstallicious, Part 2." Granddad worries that rapper Gangstalicious is having a bad influence on Riley, who's starting to emulate his hero and acting a little pinkalicious lately. But the hospital scene is also a spot-on satire of the violent culture.
"The Boondocks" is one of those shows that's going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. Listen to McGruder and his voice talents mix it up on select commentary tracks and you'll hear how often the scripts annoyed black people. And white people? It's tough to hear so many "niggas" thrown around and see some of the stereotypes lampooned without laughing . . . and then having that rear-view mirror sensation again, wondering if you're supposed to be, and whether you're a racist if you DO laugh or if you DON'T. I guess that's what makes this show a true satire. Everybody's ox gets gored.
"The Boondocks" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, meaning it fills the entire TV screen. Though the colors are muted, one suspects it's deliberately so, because I wouldn't call this a soft transfer. There's a good amount of detail for a DVD, and none of the blurring that we often get with TV-on-DVD. This doesn't say anything about being mastered in HD, but I suspect that it might have been. It looks very nice.
The audio is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, but since it's all dialogue except for the music we don't really need five to seven channels. In the episodes when the bass-thumping hummers roll into Woodcrest, you get a full sense of the noise pollution effect that McGruder was going for. No complaints here.
There's a brief but well done "Behinid 'The Boondocks'" making-of feature that has really strong production values and plenty of tight close-ups on the talking heads. It's also well edited, and almost spoofs such productions because of a James Earl Jones voice imitator acting as narrator, but saying such things as, "What should have taken nine months took two whole years," or summarizing "the sheer ignorance of 'The Boondocks,' Season Two." Though the values are the same, "Trouble in Woodcrest" just shows big ego voice talents doing their alpha male thing. Not much here. Same with "What Niggas?," which is nothing but an inundation of voice talents saying the word over and over again at their microphones. Therapy, anyone? There are cast features on Witherspoon, Yarbrough, King, Williams, Soleil, and Talley--click-ons that lead not just to written bios, but to real features with footage of them at work and McGruder and others talking about them. Good stuff. McGruder provides introductions to "The Hunger Strike" and "The Uncle Ruckus Reality Show," but the best are the audio commentaries, which include not just McGruder but a number of the voice talents as well. They have a fun time talking about the episodes and the ruckus each caused with one audience or another, plus they actually say things worth listening to. There are commentaries for "The Uncle Ruckus Reality Show," "The Hunger Strike," "The Story of Gangstalicious, Part 2," and "Stinkmeaner Strikes Back."
Rounding out the bonus features are two Minisodes: "Rock and Roll Girl" from "Married with Children" Season 4, and "The Party" from the 2003 "Spider-Man" TV series.
Watch "The Boondocks" and you'll find yourself thinking, I can't believe they just said (or did) that. Aaron McGruder's comic strip plays well on the screen, though this season doesn't have quite the edge of some of the edgiest of those strips. But it still has you laughing at something (like rapper Thugalicious's album title, "Rags to Bitches") and then thinking later how sad it is. That's the power of "The Boondocks," a provocative animated show if ever there was one.