TV: Exploring The Boondocks

Controversial cartoon comes to TV

Josh Bell

Based on the sometimes controversial comic strip by Aaron McGruder, The Boondocks (Cartoon Network, Sundays, 11 p.m.) arrives on the air after a long and torturous history that goes back to a failed development for Fox. Although Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" block of late-night programming (which is now being pushed as if it's its own autonomous network) has been around for a few years now, this is easily its most high-profile launch, a show that was not only originally developed for network TV but is also based on one of the most popular comic strips running today.

As such, the cartoon has a lot to live up to, but it doesn't quite make it. Cable is clearly a better home for the show than Fox would have been, though, and McGruder's boundary-pushing sense of humor is left intact. You're not likely to hear the N-word this many times on any other basic cable show, and 10-year-old protagonist Huey (voiced by Regina King) has retained his left-wing, radical philosophy. The only concession to sensitivity the show's made is excising Rosa Parks jokes in light of the civil rights legend's recent passing.

The show's problem, as with most translations of comic strips to the screen, is that it loses focus in the expansion from three panels to a 22-minute narrative. Although McGruder's strip features characters and plot, it also often functions more like a political cartoon, with Huey, his little brother Riley and their grandfather simply riffing back and forth on current issues. The show loses that simplicity and is overburdened by the need to tell a complete, often sitcom-level story in each episode.

The animation, while retaining McGruder's design sense, is sometimes jerky and crude, but it's still more sophisticated than much of Adult Swim's original programming. The occasional lapse in production values would be forgivable if the show were more consistently engaging, but it never feels like more than a watered-down version of McGruder's strip. Without the concise punch of a three-panel gag, the show meanders all over the place and beats its jokes into the ground. There are moments when the strip's humor shines through, and the show is clearly a bold step in the right direction for "Adult Swim," but it loses too much in the translation to be a complete success.

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With the movie industry tightening its grip as box office receipts decline, it's no surprise that filmmakers are turning increasingly to TV—and cable in particular—for the kind of artistic freedom they crave. The latest example of this phenomenon is the new anthology series Masters of Horror (Showtime, Fridays, 10 p.m.), which is a Twilight Zone-style show that allows a different veteran horror filmmaker free reign in each episode to craft what is essentially a 50-minute mini-movie. Names including horror legends (John Carpenter, Dario Argento), relative newcomers (Lucky McKee, Bill Malone) and mainstream directors (John Landis, Joe Dante) contribute to the 13-episode season, many directing their own original stories.

Last week's debut episode, directed by Don Coscarelli (the Phantasm series) and adapted from a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, demonstrated the show's commitment to high production values, visceral terror and uncompromising artistry. Future installments are set to run the gamut of horror subgenres, and the different directors will naturally bring varying sensibilities to their episodes. But the opener indicates that, whatever their proclivities, each filmmaker will be given the support and resources necessary to bring their visions to the screen, and that bodes well for the future of the series.

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