Random Acts of Flyness is the most interesting thing on TV right now, which is especially impressive because TV is very interesting right now.
The HBO series, created by artist/filmmaker Terence Nance, is a trippy, non-linear, gorgeous "stream-of-consciousness examination of contemporary American life," as HBO bills it. It's a late-night variety show that can only be described in lists because it's many things at once—but it's often blissful, occasionally devastating, and completely engrossing. It joins the recent film and TV projects addressing black futurity, like Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta—"elevated black shit," as Jordan Peele recently described Atlanta.
There's no doubt Random Acts of Flyness will be a cult favorite, but can it cross into the mainstream first? (Fingers—not optimistically—crossed.)
The premiere episode, which aired midnight on August 3, included a public-access television skit about black death, a claymation piece on bisexuality and open relationships, and an infomercial hawking a black cream for people afflicted with "white thoughts," among others. Last week's second episode, "two piece and a biscuit," included a documentary interview with Alok Vaid-Menon, a bilingual musical, and a sequence with men catcalling each other that ended in a massive group hug. This patchwork of themes and genres is hard to follow when written out, but watching it as a whole is like taking a really smooth bong rip.
Of all the excellent elevated black shit in the show's second episode, the musical acts are what I can't stop thinking about. Just watch:
"Nuncaland" is a pretty straightforward adaptation of J.M. Barrie's Neverland, with Pan (played by Kevin Alexis Rivera) whisking Wendy (Le'Asha Julius) off to Nuncaland to avoid Hook (Djoré Nance). In this retelling, Hook goes after Pan because he assumes he is gay. "Nuncaland," which is broken up into two acts, starts out by cheekily poking fun at the form, but it really sings by its second act (see the video above). As an ex-theater fag, I was surprised by how much this section choked me up. (I'm sticking with the term "theater fag." If you have a problem with it, take it up with the boss.) Pan, usually played by a white woman onstage, is played here by a boy, a brown boy, and an arguably gay brown boy—things that feel significant and refreshing and worth noting—and it's touching and complicated and masterful. I'm having a difficult time remembering the last time TV musicals were this good and bold and inventive?
Recent TV isn't a stranger to musicals. Riverdale just included a musical episode, joining the long list of shows with musical episodes: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Scrubs, That 70's Show, OZ, and on and on and on... Musicals have long been stylistically tapped in TV series, but typically with winks and cheese and hackneyedness that principally begged for media coverage. Of course, there's Smash and Glee, but they often felt so corny. Nance, whose mother is an actress, teacher and theater director, makes the musical form immediate and necessary for telling this story.
The early discussion around Random Acts of Flyness has predominately been about "if America is ready for the mind of Terence Nance," but this hyperfocus on Nance's idiosyncrasies overlooks how Nance often aces established genres. "Nuncaland" is a victorious take on the Peter Pan musical—it could be 10 times longer and still hold an audience.
But while I stan for Random Acts of Flyness, I'm betting many viewers will respond to Nance's boldness as this YouTube commenter did: "I'm not into this weird shit, watched about 10 seconds and had to bounce. Whatever message this fortune cookie has hidden inside will just have to be deciphered by someone more tolerant." The handful of critics who've reviewed Random Acts of Flyness are equally wary. Vulture's Angelica Jade Bastién called the show "dazzling, but emotionally inert" and questioned "whose consciousness is Random Acts of Flyness trying to shift?" After the most recent episode, Vox's Karen Han said the show "is starting to fulfill its enormous potential"—and by its second episode! Finally!!!!
The treatment of Random Acts of Flyness brings out my suspicion that the bars
experimental* avant-garde programs have to clear are much higher than the bars set for their normie counterparts. People want an ingénue! Meanwhile, Westworld will probably bore people to sleep for another four seasons. (*Nance has said the show isn't experimental. He told IndieWire: "I don’t see the show as experimental. Definitely avant-garde, but I think the people in the writer’s room are all very skilled at engaging audiences very viscerally in terms of like — ‘Are we going to be able to get people to engage with this consistently, in the way they would sit down and watch ‘Seinfeld’?” Although if Random Acts of Flyness isn't experimental TV, then what TV is experimental?)
"Nuncaland" isn't even the best part of the episode, "two piece and a biscuit." It's a short, vibrant anomaly next to other anomalies that, as a whole, make TV feel exciting and maybe even revolutionary. The promotional text associated with the show states that "Random Acts of Flyness is not the revolution," which may be true, but it certainly feels like it could inspire a revolution. Hopefully HBO will let Nance and Co. keep making TV that feels this good.
Some more clips from the series premiere: