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Arts + CultureTVDonald Glover keeps saving TV—and doing his own damn...

Donald Glover keeps saving TV—and doing his own damn thing

Childish Gambino, 'Atlanta,' 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith'—an ode to the multifaceted, ever-present power of GloverVision

It came up during an interview with W. Kamau Bell several years ago. He had a book coming out and we were discussing awards shows, Black creators getting their due, and such.

In years past, he’d shared experiences of being at Sundance, presenting a new show. And like clockwork, someone would always mistake him for Reggie Watts or Questlove. It’s the hair. You know, general light racism shit. Listen, Comedian, host, and executive producer W. Kamau Bell is a busy family man. 

So I was just stoked to ask him, as an executive producer of multiple TV shows, what he thought of Donald Glover’s Atlanta: “And Donald Glover has aggressively gone his own way. He could have been a guy who just does sitcoms and movies. But he went his own way. I was watching him perform on The Tonight Show as Childish Gambino with no shirt on. I was just like, ‘Damn!’ This is the generation that grew up behind me that just said, ‘Do your own damn thing.’

“I’m just happy to see Donald Glover get the role as Lando Calrissian because he was [rapper] Childish Gambino first. He didn’t play the regular Hollywood game. It’s interesting and gratifying to see the same guy do that record [Awaken My Love] and Atlanta, and both projects are legitimate in their own right. When I was watching his performance on Fallon, if I didn’t know who Donald Glover was, I would think there is this other guy named Childish Gambino doing this whole other thing.”

Awaken My Love, Glover’s 2016 proggy churchy soul genius of an early 1970s black rock album, which garnered a Grammy win for Best Traditional R&B Performance for the song “Redbone,” came from the same nerdy comedic actor Bell knew from sitcoms like Community… Glover flying that George Clinton freak flag high with Eddie Hazel guitar mojo, chompy Bernie Worrel electric organ feel, and even some D’Angelo screeching vocals to boot?

Shoot. This Glover, the one with no shirt on, made a decision: He would be the whole package version that we entertainment consumers would see for the next decade.

Twin Peaks with rappers” was how Glover and his production team described his executive-produced show that premiered September 6, 2016, on FX. From the pilot, Atlanta broke brains. Comedy-drama television usually was not associated with a Black cast. Those Twin Peaks semantics warmed up the critics. Call it baiting, an elevator catchphrase, or Peak TV Jabberwocky, the concept fits.

If Lena Dunham’s Girls was an ode to a specific demographic of young white women who might or might not have worked at Vulture in the early 2012s, Atlanta was a Gen-Z push-back to the anti-Black trope. Twin Peaks with rappers indeed. Atlanta, when it was on, exemplified Thursday night prestige television for FX.

Glover once said the only show that could touch his tour de force was The Sopranos. Even if you disagreed with the statement, you had to cop to the fact that Atlanta contained the same complexity.

It told Black stories, our stories, out of school, and those other stories POCs see every day but are encouraged to just “charge it to the game.” Gothic dark humor. Fables. Everyday Black life (to a certain extent), and then just bugged-out shit that maybe nobody could process. So America had to go hit up a Reddit board and crack the code.

Satirizing Tyler Perry, and Michael Jackson, rappers and clubbers, white couples adopting small flocks of Black children only to exploit them, and rich white people latching onto Black artists for clout. These topics were generally things discussed amongst closed circles.

But for Glover to bring these comedic, sad, horrific, and most importantly real situations into a television show? It more that equals the premise of a Mob Boss going to a psychiatrist.

No matter how far out things got, the performers Glover assembled were always up to the task of making these characters ones you wanted to hang with every week. The fact was, he was able to coral what we now recognize as a murderers row of big-screen talent: Brian Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield The show took a two-year hiatus because everybody immediately became in demand. Something you don’t easily see when it comes to Black actors in Hollywood. Props to Glovervision.

So we get to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Donald Glover-executive produced show, currently running on Amazon Prime Video. From the looks of the first three and a half episodes I’ve seen, this is a slick, funny dramedy that asks if romance can survive the gig economy or if it will kill you. Compacted with Atlanta-esque comedic snark, it’s seeded with little scenarios that present how race can affect your job and relationship, especially when you are married to someone of a different skin tone whose previous life you know nothing of. It speaks more of a generational love language than full-on racial politic.

John and Jane Smith dole out thorny, uncomfortable, and as the kids say “awkward” moments, draped in some of the finest clothing on television right now. ‘Tis Red Carpet material, every day. Our dashing snoops are matched together on a daredevil mission—and in a marriage.

Glover and his production team have remade the 2005 film for a web series that uses mumblecore, thinky-brain, quirky-nerd aesthetics. We know he’s not Brad Pitt. But more importantly, he knows he’s not Brad Pitt. That’s the point.

Glover has imbued the production with a Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Kenya Barris-type punch-up. When not on a mission, the relationship is the mission. Phoebe Waller-Bridge was at one point a co-creator and co-lead actor, but she and Glover had a “co-creator divorce” and Maya Erskine has stepped into the co-lead role, stealing scenes between Glover’s yips and twitches.

The series is blessed with numerous cameos from Parker Posey, John Turturro, Paul Dano, and other luminaries, master acting happening all around this hot-and-cold couple that you’ve seen in real life at a farmer’s market arguing over heirlooms. Glover and Erskine click, for sure.

With continued stories about streaming platforms shrinking in the shadows of the Death Star that is Netflix, peak TV going away, and productions cutting costs first in the writing room, Mr. and Mrs. Smith feels like a farewell to the type of artsy shots and weird plot lines we fumbled over but eventually came to adore over the past seven years. (That season of Atlanta set overseas? Go back and treasure it) 

I’m sipping slowly on the Smiths, treasuring each and every morsel, cause I don’t see more like it coming down the pike anytime soon. Especially when you hear they’ve greenlit a new universe for the, well, ever-so-basic cable show “Suits.”

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John-Paul Shiver
John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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