Screen Test

Gritty take on reality

Second season of comedy-drama Atlanta is television to savour, but superhero comedy The Tick loses a bit of its funny flavour in its new episodes

Brian Tyree Henry is rapper Alfred (above) in Atlanta and Griffin Newman is neurotic accountant Arthur in The Tick.
Brian Tyree Henry is rapper Alfred (above) in Atlanta and Griffin Newman is neurotic accountant Arthur in The Tick.
Brian Tyree Henry is rapper Alfred in Atlanta and Griffin Newman is neurotic accountant Arthur (above) in The Tick.
Brian Tyree Henry is rapper Alfred in Atlanta and Griffin Newman is neurotic accountant Arthur (above) in The Tick.

The first season of the comedy-drama Atlanta made it onto many critics' year-end best-of-2016 lists and as it returns for Season 2, there are plenty of reminders why.

The story of a broke Princeton dropout named Earn (Donald Glover) and his rapper cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) - both trying to make a life for themselves on the mean streets of Atlanta, Georgia - was easily the most accomplished and astonishing series of the year.

In this city, being a black man (or woman - Earn's girlfriend Vanessa, played by Zazie Beetz, is a key figure too) typically means a dispiriting daily grind, the constant threat of violence and a host of less obvious but no less maddening obstacles - some of which threaten to thwart Alfred's music career as it takes off, with Earn his neophyte manager.

The season was replete with fine-grained observations about interpersonal and racial dynamics - among the main characters as well as the wider black community, whites and the police.

And accompanying this singular, absorbingly-specific conjuring of desperation, hope and humour, there was sheer inventiveness, particularly in terms of the narrative and visuals, which often flirted with magic realism and the surreal.

Viewers were never allowed to settle too comfortably into any one groove, the show spotlighting gritty reality one minute and, in the next, imagining a world in which Justin Bieber is black.


    FX (Singtel TV Channel 310 and StarHub TV Channel 507), Fridays from March 2, 10pm

    4 stars


    Amazon Prime Video (six new episodes available from tomorrow)

    2.5 stars

Season 2 has been dubbed "Robbin' Season", which refers to the period just before Christmas, when many people in the city get desperate and turn to thieving and robbery - because "everybody gotta eat", Alfred's sidekick Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) explains.

Everyone is trying to rip off everyone else and the two episodes previewed manage to demonstrate this with scenes that are at once comical, violent, sad and absurd.

A sense of dread and paranoia seeps through the screen - Earn is still hiding the fact that he is homeless, for one thing, while Alfred is experiencing the absurdities and downside of fame even before he has really tasted any of the perks.

Like Season 1, this is stylishly shot - director Hiro Murai, better known for his music videos, has a knack for channelling shabby beauty, desolation and claustrophobia. And the hip-hop-heavy soundtrack remains exquisitely on point. This is television you will want to savour, not binge-watch.

Also unveiling new episodes is the superhero comedy The Tick, back tomorrow after a mid-season break.

The first half of the season felt like a somewhat novel take on the genre: an all-powerful but goofily clueless hero known as The Tick - a man-sized blue bug played by Peter Serafinowicz - teams up with Arthur (Griffin Newman), a dweeby and neurotic accountant, to track down The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley), the supervillain who killed Arthur's father but has long been presumed dead.

The first six episodes gamely sent up the tropes of superhero stories both current and retro: the worship of square-jawed, deep-voiced masculinity, the absurd secret identities and the overstuffed, metaphor-laden dialogue, to name a few.

And it grounded this in the humour of the mundane - villains privately confess to being obsessed with branding and tattoos, for instance. This was further leavened by the sort of quippy pop culture-savvy dialogue that much of modern TV comedy now aspires to.

Arthur began the series, promisingly, as something of a hero-sceptic. "I don't think superheroes solve anything - we have federal agencies that do that," he says with a sulk.

But he quickly leaps on the superhero bandwagon, so too does the show, its desire to bring something new to the table ultimately hamstrung by the constraints of the genre itself, which the writers seem to think demands convoluted plots that take themselves a bit too seriously.

Serafinowicz's comic stylings, initially endearing, have also turned him into a one-trick horse, every laugh he inspires springing from a variation on the same two to three jokes.

The series continues to have its moments, but its arch, playful tone does not feel quite as fresh as before.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2018, with the headline 'Gritty take on reality'. Subscribe