Maybe that handful of little squares each day are enough. The Boondocks — Aaron McGruder’s sometimes scorching, often controversial (and by some papers, outright canceled) comic strip about two young African-American brothers transplanted to the suburbs — gains much of its power from the bluntness required by such limited space. There’s something inherently shocking about a still image of 10-year-old militant Huey Freeman muttering a single line succinctly slamming President Bush’s politics or uttering oaths against the white power structure.
It takes more to sustain 20 minutes of animated story, and so far The Boondocks — part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup — isn’t holding up. The manga-style animation is true to the strip, as is the setup: Huey and his 8-year-old brother, Riley (both voiced by Ray’s Regina King), live in a lily white Chicago suburb with their cranky granddad, Robert (voiced by Friday’s John Witherspoon), resenting every second. Unfortunately, the series’ first two episodes are missing the pointy observations so thick in McGruder’s strip. Instead, they feel airless, settling for obvious laughs, none of which seem particularly surprising: Granddad, Huey, and Riley are invited to a garden party by a neighboring banker, Ed Wuncler, who looks just like Ed Asner — Asner also supplies the voice — but are initially denied entrance because they’re black. Huey is told several times by patronizing white people that he ”speaks so well.” We’ve seen this stuff many times before — McGruder can do better. (Although his more absurdist humor, like having Granddad swear that he can calm a white man by offering him gourmet cheese, hits the mark.)
Episode 2, in which Granddad deludes himself that hot new girlfriend Cristal isn’t really a hooker, has a few more laughs but is further from the spirit of the Boondocks strip. It has, in fact, an adult, Three’s Company vibe, with a mistaken identity, scandalized, clued-in loved ones, and obvious omens overlooked, like when a waiter turns to Granddad’s date and queries, ”Doggie bag?” To which Cristal (”like the champagne,” she says, in a joke straight from Showgirls, which can’t be good) quotes a price.
In the end, The Boondocks simply feels off — Kanye West’s ”Gold Digger” kicks off a montage scene, only to be followed by piano tinkling reminiscent of the Peanuts cartoons. Mediocre jokes are zapped by liberal use of the N-word — McGruder, like the South Park creators, gleefully exploits cable’s broader allowances. But maybe not enough. Despite its wish to be incendiary, Boondocks seems hesitant — the one thing McGruder’s never been.