It’s a fact that the engine room of television can feel like an intimidating, insular place to those whose voices aren’t usually heard inside that room. The outsider can feel that a small creative group has grip on everything – the structure and tone of storytelling, the issues that can be raised and what types of experiences can be referenced or chronicled.
As an industry and as a creative arena, television doesn’t really have what you might call moral intuition. For so long, it wasn’t required. Now it is – and that’s for the better. Like most cultural shifts, what’s happening is a result of many factors accidentally combining. One factor is the sheer amount of content that is required as the steaming wars play out. Risks are taken, and there are fewer impediments to experimentation.
Blindspotting (streaming on Starz/Crave) is a sterling example of what’s happening, in all its flaws and strengths. On the surface, it looks like a reasonably conventional comedy: While a guy is in prison, his girlfriend and their son temporarily move in with the imprisoned guy’s mother. Wackiness will surely ensue as the girlfriend and son try to adapt to the new reality.
Not quite. What unfolds in Blindspotting includes spoken-word poetry, monologues directed to the camera, and dance sequences. The show is near-impossible to define as all sorts of boundaries are crossed.
The series (eight half-hour episodes, with new ones arriving each Sunday) is a spin-off from the movie of the same title, with some of the same characters – but you don’t have to be at all familiar with the film. It’s set in Oakland, Calif., and is utterly rooted in the place. The opening scene tells you it is New Year’s Eve, 2018. Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) is arriving home from work, there are fireworks in the sky – and Ashley is just in time to see her boyfriend Miles (Rafael Casal) being hauled off by the police for drug possession. She’s angry and embarrassed.
The issue of sentencing for Miles comes up. How long will he be incarcerated? As with much in the show’s dialogue, you are obliged to concentrate on the discussion because there’s heat in every conversation. You get the feeling the series is probing social issues as much as it is inviting you to laugh. (Generally, those issues are social equity, social justice and second chances.) The upshot is Ashley can’t afford to stay in her home and acts on the suggestion that she and son Sean (Atticus Woodward) move in with Miles’s mom Rainey (Helen Hunt) and half-sister Trish (Jaylen Barron).
The Rainey character might be most recognizable figure here. She’s an ultra-cool mother, a long-time feminist who can spout about the history of feminism any old time. But the character isn’t played for laughs. She’s sometimes a scold, inserting realism into unrealistic rhetoric from younger women. Trish, meanwhile, is running an online strip club out of Rainey’s house and fancies herself as a progressive who will one day be the boss of unionized sex workers.
Everything moves forward with a buoyancy that’s anchored in something different from conventional TV. There are stops for poetry aimed at the camera and the audience at home, breaking the fourth wall; there are scenes of people dancing to hip-hop as they work. There is theatre, musical comedy and abrasive stand-up comedy, too. While the tone and rhythm will remind some of the early films of Spike Lee, there’s nothing you’ve seen quite like the staging of some scenes here.
The social issues touched upon are local but universal. The gentrification of inner-city Oakland is a regular theme and the issue of class identity percolates in the tensions between Trish and Ashley, with Trish accusing Ashley of being inauthentic because she moved out of the neighbourhood.
Blindspotting is created by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, the duo who wrote and starred in the original movie. While Casal is in the series as Miles, Diggs doesn’t appear. The movie was essentially about two Oakland guys played by the creators, but here, in an unusual move, the central role and core perspective is handed over to a woman. Both Diggs and Jasmine Cephas Jones starred in the hit musical Hamilton, and its influence is evident here. Casal emerged as a poet and playwright before the original Blindspotting movie was a critical success. These are not the sort of people who unusually end up creating TV series.
The series is not for everyone. It will discombobulate some viewers who want their comedy served up in easily recognizable form. But it’s utterly fascinating as a whimsical concoction that has real weight. It’s where television is headed, and not before time.
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