When it was first announced that the long-awaited Season 4 of The Boondocks would not involve the show’s creator, Aaron McGruder, it was natural to worry that the new episodes would be as disappointing as Community’s Season 4, which lacked showrunner Dan Harmon. Like the NBC sitcom, The Boondocks would still have its great original cast in place — including Regina King, the voice of young brothers Huey and Riley, and John Witherspoon, who plays their grandfather — but absent the man who invented it, would the beloved animated series, based on McGruder’s satirical comic strip, lose its knack for biting one-liners and smart cultural commentary?
It’s probably too early to say. This week’s premiere, Pretty Boy Flizzy, has the sort of premise that fans have come to expect from The Boondocks: R&B star Pretty Boy Flizzy (guest star Michael B. Jordan) is a thinly veiled stand-in for Chris Brown, who stands accused of a string of violent crimes, including robbing a convenience store at gunpoint and beating up his pop star girlfriend Christianna live on stage during the Grammys. During a press conference, Flizzy offers an “apology” and thanks his admirers: “I let my fans down. Without you, I wouldn’t even have an R&B girlfriend to beat.”
Like McGruder’s takedowns of R. Kelly and Tyler Perry in two of the show’s best earlier episodes (The Trial of R. Kelly and Pause) Pretty Boy Flizzy features an impressive supply of such zingers, along with an unrelenting indictment of both the performer and a culture that seems to condone and perhaps even foster his behavior. But only a few of the jokes really land, while the rest sound familiar — at this point, a parody of Brown needs to be uncommonly clever and thoughtful not to feel warmed over. It doesn’t help that the show’s three main characters are relegated to the background in favor of lawyer and frequent punching bag Tom, who takes on Flizzy as a client.
But then, the third season of McGruder’s series was also uneven, including the uninspired A Date With the Booty Warrior episode, in which Tom’s fear of prison rape is turned into a 20-minute long running gag, and the soft-hitting take on the flu epidemic and KFC, The Fried Chicken Flu. Would a fourth season from McGruder all these years later have lived up to our expectations? It’s impossible to say.
The Boondocks has rarely bothered with ongoing storylines, so the new creative team is not bound by love triangles or cliffhangers, and they can take the characters in any direction they wish. Their only real requirement is staying true to the show’s focus on social commentary — and living up, one hopes, to the high quality of McGruder’s best critiques. That’s a tall order, and no one’s voice will sound quite like McGruder’s. But Pretty Boy Flizzy isn’t so underwhelming as to suggest that the ship is sunk just yet.
So I’ll keep watching — for now. And fans, like me, who remain hungry for McGruder’s own artistic vision, can look forward to the delightfully titled live-action series Black Jesus, which the writer is expected to bring to Adult Swim later this year.
Aisha Harris is a Slate culture blogger.