Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pilot Season '16: Atlanta

FX, Tuesdays @ 10

You know how shows like Fargo or Breaking Bad are big, meaty crime dramas with a seriously dark (and sometimes not-so-dark) streak of humour throughout?  They can be uproariously funny shows but they're also really, really intense.  Donald Glover's Atlanta is the flipside to that.  It's a 1/2 hour comedy foremost, but it's damn intense in its delivery.

Glover is a wunderkind, a gifted actor, stand-up comedian and rapper, but he cut his teeth with sketch (with the Derrick sketch troupe) and comedy writing on 30 Rock.  It should be no surprise to anyone that he can come out with such an assured first effort when creating his own show.

Atlanta is difficult to put into words.  It follows Glover's Earn, an underemployed college dropout (Princeton no less, a little mystery surrounding what went down there), in a stressed, uncommitted relationship with the mother of his baby.  Earn's cousin, the rapper Paper Boi, has put together a demo album that Earn thinks has real crossover promise, and Earn wants to become his manager.  Of course, navigating a cruddy, commission-based day job, his family commitments, patching his relationship with his girlfriend, and promoting his cousin while staying out of trouble, which seems all to easy to find in Atlanta is the crux of the show.

The first episode, written by Glover and gorgeously directed by Hiro Murai, opens with Earn and Paper Boi getting into a parking lot confrontation with a thug from around the way, and Paper Boi shooting the thug.  The confrontation is tense, and it casts a dark shadow as the rest of the episode jumps back and leads into the confrontation.  It's somewhat of a hindrance to the comedy, and yet the comedy does seep through the darkness.

The second episode finds Earn spending the night in holding, while Paper Boi gets released (since the guy he shot didn't stay on the scene).  It's a surreal experience for Earn, who doesn't revel in or champion the thug life, at one point seated uncomfortably between a man and his ex-lover, a trans man.  Their relationship only seems to make Earn uneasy because he's seated directly (and hilariously) between their flirtatious conversation, but he seems to be the only one in holding without any real problem with their relationship.  It's a commentary on how prejudiced segments of the black community can be about non-heteronormative culture, while also showing how out of place Earn is with that segment.  Likewise, there's also a sequence where a frequent visitor to holding starts causing a fuss, clearly in some form of psychological distress (as Earn points out), and yet the rest of the group, including the cops, find him cartoonishly amusing...until he's not, and then is beaten severely.  The system fails the people, constantly.  It's clear this is not a place where Earn can ever fit (and why would anyone want to).  Yet, having been deprived of sleep, Earn can barely muster up any fear or anxiety over his situation.  The stats are that 1 in 3 black men in America can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, and from Glover's poker face throughout, it's as if Earn has been conditioned to be here, even if he had no expectation to ever be.

Meanwhile, in this same episode, Paper Boi's single has exploded since his arrest.  People are playing his track on the radio, his name is all over the news.  Crime is good for a harcore rapper's career is the point.  Kind of fucked up.  The dream, as they say in one of the episodes, is to escape this life, to become famous so they don't have to put up with the reality that fuelled their creativity and got them famous.  Paper Boi, though, is confronted with a bit of the price of his fame.  He's exceptionally nervous that the crew of the guy he shot is out to get him.  The guy that came to his door, asking if this is where Paper Boi lives, was he just a fan, or a scout?  Paper Boi takes a walk and sees some kids shooting toy guns, one of them screaming "I shot you, just like Paper Boi."  There are pangs of regret, conflicted by the surreality of the boy's Mother, having just chided the child for his actions, wants to take a selfie with this newly minted local rap star.  There's no easy answers here, just stark juxtaposition.

The third episode takes things a little easier, as Earn, desperate to make it up to Vanessa for bailing him out, wants to take her to dinner, except he's just got paid and only has $96 in his account.  He catches wind of a budget, higher-end tapas restaurant, but learns too late their nighttime budget menu was phased out.  Meanwhile Paper Boi and his buddy Darius prepare for a drug deal that, let me tell you, takes some serious turns, some comedic and some not so much.

Atlanta is an incredibly well-shot show (the nighttime aerial tracking shot of Paper Boi and Dairus following their supplier down and long, winding, desolate highway is just gorgeous, accompanied by a chilling, downtempo hip hop thump is masterful mood setting), and an incredibly well-acted one too.  Glover, at this point, has shown his range in comedy, drama, and even genre pieces, so his restrained, nuanced performance here is no surprise.  Brian Tyree Henry as Paper Boi, though, is incredible.  You think from the opening sequence, seeing him angrily confront and seemingly so easily shoot a think you know him.  But he is a surprise scene after scene, the range of subtle expression he can deliver.  He's as intelligent as Earn, if not moreso, he just never went to Princeton.  He's not callous.  He's not reckless.  He's not a clown, or a buffoon, or a thug.  He does what he does to try and make himself better.  His seemingly everpresent partner, Darius, could have quite easily been the evergreen stoner cliche and provided very basic, very overt comic relief, but Darius, as written by Glover and played by Keith Stanfield, is the poetic stoner.  He's a truth teller, even if sometimes that truth is totally absurd or a non-sequitur.  Glover's restraint in creating any buffoon characters is beyond admirable.  Even Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) isn't a shrew, nagging girlfriend.  She quite clearly sees through bullshit and calls Earn on it at every opportunity.  She's a woman whose patience has run out, but isn't quite ready to give up.  Hell, Earns parents are more than willing to look after their grandchild, but they have no time for Earn beyond pleasantries (they won't even let him in the house), which is a parent-child dynamic we haven't seen.  It's not hostile, there's not a lot of ill will, just some bad experiences and tough love. 

Glover's not aping any specific formula with this show.  There's elements of Twin Peaks and Breaking Bad here.  Glover wants weird, surreal, and he wants that intensely consumable crime drama, but he also wants honesty, reality and, hell, even earnestness to creep out from the the 8 Mile/Straight Outta Compton/Hustle & Flow rapper origin story pastiche.  It's funny, but yeah, intense as hell.