Created by and featuring Brooklyn-based filmmaker Terence Nance, “Random Acts of Flyness” is a multimedia art project in the form of a TV series.
Premiering Friday at midnight on HBO, it’s a comedy more or less, bringing together live action, animation, music and dance to make, in the creator’s own introductory words, “a TV show about the beauty and ugliness of contemporary American life.”
It’s a sketch show. It’s a magazine. It’s a Gesamtkunstwerk. And it is not the sort of program associated with HBO or for that matter, any other television network with the possible exception of Adult Swim, where formal lines are just things to be crossed and sophisticated methods mix with dime-store materials. (One series it does resemble, superficially, is FX’s “Legion” in its shifting planes, dream connections and visual variety).
But where Adult Swim shows are, as a class, temperamentally absurd, nearly everything about “Random Acts” has a social or political or personal point to make. It exists in a world that might change for the better.
Its meanings are sometimes obscure and sometimes obvious, nearly to the point of being polemical, and most often somewhere in between. But its surfaces are always interesting and splendidly executed. Even the glitches are artfully placed.
Every minute of the opening episode, “What Are Your Thoughts on Raising Free Black Children?,” sings with ambition and thought-through detail. At times “Random Acts” feels as much like something that might be submitted to the Whitney Biennial as it does an episode of cable TV. (Indeed, Nance, the recipient of a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship, has created gallery work.)
For years there were almost no black people on television; in the 1960s black actors began getting regular and occasionally starring roles and by the 1970s even their own shows, with mostly black casts, though they tended to be formally conventional comedies made for wide appeal. It is only lately, with shows like “Atlanta” and “Insecure” and “Dear White People,” that the African American experience has come to television in a way that while not unfriendly to wider audiences, isn’t necessarily concerned with winning them over.
Such stylistic interruptions, mixed media and a metafictional thrust — not to mention an interest in the expressive use of titles and typefaces — have long characterized Nance’s work. (You can find a selection of his short films and trailers for longer ones, including the lauded and laureled 2012 feature “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” on his website, terencenance.com.)
The interruptions and hard turns of “Random Acts” have something of the flavor of late Jean-Luc Godard, and at times, for that matter, of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” but also of the off-kilter funkiness of non-commercial hip-hop. (Nance is one of his show’s composers; his brother Nelson, also a musician, closes Friday’s opening episode singing.)
Similarly, the show is a medley of mediums and realities, mixing fiction, seeming actuality and altered reality. The opening sequence, filmed on a smartphone, might be real, though the end rather marvelously gives away the fact that it isn’t, while a segment called “Random Acts of State Sponsored Violence” (with “Random” blanked out) is nothing but a montage of real-world video clips of police using (highly) excessive force, set to a cheery soundtrack.
In “The Sexual Proclivities of the Black Community,” Nance and artist Doreen Garner appear as talk show hosts interviewing a young man named Yeleen on “the invisibility of the bisexual black man”; the stories are told in stop-motion animation. “Worry No. 473 of 1000 Worries that a Black Person Should Not Have to Worry About” — subtitled “Something That Really Happened” — shows Nance dealing with the potentially dangerous aftermath of having accidentally gotten into a car that looks like his; shot in wide-screen black and white, it resembles both a silent movie and a midcentury European art film.
An “infomercial,” featuring Jon Hamm as a spokesperson for a product meant to free white people of “white thoughts” – anything “from burning crosses and wearing sheets to engaging in the secret suspicion that your Guatemalan housekeeper holds some sort of grudge against you to sitting there comfortable on your laptop watching this infomercial saying out loud to yourself, ‘None of this applies to me, I read Noam Chomsky, I’m not racist’ … a classic white thought” — becomes a dream incorporating dancing skeletons, a robed choir and a king.
Most disturbing in a show for which disturbance is something of a game plan is the mock children’s show “Everybody Dies,” which has the look of 1970s or ‘80s cable access television; the contextual impression, however, is that what we’re seeing is real, a woman – Ripa the Reaper (Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins), from the Department of Black Death – sending black children screaming into the afterlife.
“You might slip in the shower, you might get hit by a car, you might get sick and die slow,” says Ripa. Slowly revealed as a traumatized prisoner of the job, she becomes more urgent and agitated: “You might be running from the police, you might be running from a stranger who thinks he’s the police, you might be playing with a toy gun, you might be not selling cigarettes.”
The references are not hard to spot, if you have been paying attention.
‘Random Acts of Flyness’
When: Midnight Friday and Saturday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd