HBO Takes A Radical Leap Forward With ‘Random Acts of Flyness’
What would a more liberated vision of TV look like? Atlanta, Pose, and Killing Eve have certainly helped inch us toward an equitable television democracy, one that doesn’t so easily submit to the status quo. They’re visionary experiments that reject the neat parameters of yore—narratively, thematically, representationally. But there’s still a sizable amount of ground to cover before boundaries aren’t just pushed, but broken.
One novel addition helping to expedite this artistic re-centering is HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness, a variety series developed by Dallas-born creative polyglot Terence Nance (he writes, directs, and acts in the six-episode series) that explores race, politics, and the dimensions of selfhood with a critical and curious eye. In the lead up to the show’s release last week, the New York Times wondered “Is America Ready for the Mind of Terence Nance?”; via Twitter, the show responded: “We think not.” Whether or not America is ready is irrelevant; historically, Hollywood’s embrace of the black avant-garde has registered with marginal strides at best. Regardless, Random Acts is here, having landed with a jolt of wonder and relief, and now joins a spate of projects—Sorry to Bother You, Get Out, Black Panther—that attempt to situate, and wrestle with, black futurity. Per the show’s tagline, it aims to “shift consciousness.” But just what is Nance trying to teach us?
In one of the pilot’s most unsettling bits—a game show with the texture of a 1980s public-access program, titled Everybody Dies!—viewers meet Ripa The Reaper (played with knife-edged sparkle by Tonya Pinkins), an ominous, cloaked overseer who shuttles black youth into the afterlife. “You can squeal or whine or pray, everybody dies someday,” she sings to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” shoving a procession of children into a door marked “Death.” As the segment draws to a haunting and disorienting close, Ripa is shown hollow-eyed and delirious, the toll of black death having extracted even her last tendrils of sanity.
The parallels leap to mind: Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Nia Wilson. Only in Nance’s playhouse, no one is immune—a fact made resoundingly clear from the episode’s opening, when Nance, as narrator, finds himself in the middle of a near-fatal police encounter that he captures via his cell phone. As one mid-episode sequence later reminds: there are “97 quadrillion problems and the police are only one.” (I found this to be the show’s one weak point; choosing its first entry point into blackness through a window of police brutality.)
Openly seeking to overcome stasis, Random Acts plays out in dreamlike sequences, cutting from segment to segment, from documentary to claymation to bilingual musical, oscillating between dark farce and fantasia. The ever-shifting tropes destabilize the viewer; there’s no enlightenment to be mined from comfort alone. The series is not so much a dive into the mind of black identity as much as it is an exodus out of the mind, dissonant and connected vignettes rendering the internal external, and in the process deciphering what Nance describes in the show’s introduction as the “beauty and ugliness of contemporary American life.” They are experiences and encounters granted the same deft elasticity we face in our daily lives—and to see them on screen can at times feel like a revelation, even if the poetry is not instantly clear.
Episode 2, which airs tomorrow, flickers with less physical violence and existential burden, honing its focus instead on the mutations, projections and outcomes of our gendered existences, inverting the image of rigged masculinity into a fluid and tender thing. One of the episode’s most affecting scenes, which slinks with the discursive whimsy of a hood fairy tale, unfolds from the streets of New York City, following a young boy as he chases a shadow, into the heat of a swarming apartment where he affectionately tussles with another boy, and later finds himself in a flowered wonderland. It’s a musical about homophobia in Latin culture with flourishes of Peter Pan. But it’s also a meditation on love—love in action and intent, love that does not need to correlate with desire or lust, love that has fled the claws of heteronormative life.
The series is not so much a dive into the mind of black identity as much as it is an exodus out of the mind, deciphering what Nance describes in the show’s introduction as the “beauty and ugliness of contemporary American life.”
Nance has an appreciation for atmosphere and collage, stitching together people, ideologies, Afrosurrealism, and metafiction into a rhapsodic distillation of art. It’s hard not to suspect that he and his collaborators—four or five directors are credited in each episode—would be just as daring if the show was not on HBO. These are artists who thrive on voyages into, and out of, the self.
The series has already drawn comparisons to Atlanta, but, really, it’s only resemblance to that or other “elevated black shit” (as Jordan Peele once categorized the genre to which Glover’s FX hit belongs) is its insistence on unpeeling its humanness, the endless layers of trauma and racism and microaggressions black people routinely bump up against. The difference is, Atlanta doesn’t care if viewers recognize its strata; Random Acts gives the feeling that it wants viewers to be conscious of how intricate the labyrinth is. If the show does have an antecedent for its succulent totality, it’s George C. Wolfe’s 1986 masterwork The Colored Museum, which humorously and sometimes gravely engaged the rainbow of identities, and the psychological warfare waged within those identities, that constitute black life.
So, what can a more liberated vision of TV look like? It can look like Random Acts of Flyness, a show without a destination that finds joy instead in the rigor of exploration. At the end of one segment, in which Jon Hamm advertises topical cream that rids “victims of whiteness” of casually racist thoughts, a note from the show’s assistant director appears on Nance’s computer screen, where he is editing the clip we’ve just watched. “It seems to me that as ARTISTS we should be addressing whiteness less,” she writes, “and affirming Blackness more.” The message is unblinking in its urgency to unhook whiteness from work by black creators, but it also reads as a mission statement of sorts. How Nance and his collaborators will continue to go about affirming blackness, in all its brilliant ambiguity, is half the fun of tuning in.
(Disclosure: Nance and I have met in the past, and share a number of mutual friends.)