Violence & Metaphysics: The Philosophy of Devilman Crybaby – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Devilman Crybaby!
Written by: Myles McDonough
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Dean Bottino
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
A Surreal Trip – The Philosophy of Atlanta – Wisecrack Edition
Hey, Wisecrack. Jared here. And today we’re talking about one of the funniest and weirdest shows on television, Atlanta. What makes Atlanta so thought provoking is that it’s simultaneously one of the most realistic and one of the most surreal shows on television. This seemingly contradictory combination makes the show one of the most thought-provoking and funny shows on the air. So Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Atlanta. Spoilers ahead and Lakeith, if you’re watching, this one’s for you. But first, a quick breakdown for the uninitiated.
Atlanta has a simple premise: Earn, a Princeton dropout, needs to find a way to make some money so he links up with his cousin Alfred, AKA Paper Boi, and becomes his manager. All the while he tries to balance his relationship with the mother of his daughter, Van, and becomes friends with Alfred’s roommate, Darius. But this simple premise is deceiving, as the show, which creator Donald Glover described as “Twin Peaks with Rappers”, pushes the boundaries of reality to insane lengths for both comedic and dramatic affect. And it accomplishes this by using both surrealism and realism. Let’s begin by defining our terms. Realism is any set of restrictions to a creative work which demand that it adhere to the dominant assumptions about what is and isn’t possible.
Realism presents the world with minimal interference from the perspective of the artist. One of the best examples of contemporary realism is the work of British filmmaker Ken Loach, who uses his films to present the gritty reality of British life without any sugar coating. His most recent film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, tells the story of a man struggling to stay financially afloat in the brutal bureaucracy of the British welfare state. And unlike the typical hollywood tale of overcoming poverty Daniel Blake dies alone in a bathroom stall before receiving justice. Unlike this harsh realism, surrealism pushes beyond the limits of reality. If Ken Loach uses the camera to show the world precisely as it is, someone like David Lynch uses it to create something which exceeds our logical expectations. It’s also worth noting that most comedic television is neither realist nor surrealist, but simply fiction with no claim to authenticity.
This is why it doesn’t matter that the Manhattan of Seinfeld is just a soundstage in Los Angeles or that Kevin James could be married to three different beautiful women in two different CBS shows. Now that we’re clear on the basics, let’s get into the nitty gritty of surrealism with the OG surrealist, Andre Breton, who is to surrealism what Guy Fieri is to Donkey Sauce. Breton was a French writer working in the early twentieth century who viewed surrealism as both an artistic and political tool. One of the ways in which Breton describes Surrealism is a “psychic automatism in its pure state” in which one expresses “the actual functioning of thought.” If you haven’t had your daily microdose of LSD yet, what Breton is saying is that surrealism uses art to express what’s really going on at both the personal and social level. Surrealist art might confuse us at first, but on the other side of this confusion we can see the world in a new light. So how do you take an artform that aspires to exceed reality, and combine it with an artform that takes exactly the opposite approach? Let’s find out.
First, on realism. Atlanta makes a deliberate effort to portray life in Atlanta accurately, especially for people struggling like Earn. It removes the fictionalized glamor of say, a rap video, and instead gives us the sometimes not-so-pleasant reality behind the facade. Take Paper Boi’s apartment. While the network originally wanted him to live somewhere that would fit the stereotype of a rapper’s house the show puts him in a pretty standard Atlanta apartment building, where someone like Paper Boi would actually live. Or Redman. He also is usually profusely sweating, because Atlanta is fucking hot, and anyone who would portray it otherwise with makeup is a liar.
Meanwhile, Earn lives in a storage unit and works a series of odd jobs while trying to make it as a manager. When they’re in need of sustenance, Paper Boi and Darius don’t just get wings from an anonymous restaurant they go to Atlanta institution J.R. Crickets and order lemon pepper wet wings, a regional staple not available outside the 678 and 404 area codes. This commitment to realism makes the city of Atlanta a character in the show. This stands in stark contrast to surrealism. While its realism is important, Atlanta’s embrace of surrealism has produced its most memorable moments. Whether it’s the nutella sandwich guy on the bus, a black student wearing white face in class, a strip club DJ speaking to Earn, “Man, don’t just look at her – tip her! Where you going, my man? I said tip her! Yeah you, with that green jacket and wack-ass Coca-Cola T-Shirt.” Or most things Darius does. “Be careful – it’s very very cold.”
Atlanta’s world is full of seemingly nonsensical characters and events. Atlanta often blends the surreal and the real together in the same scene, including the one we just discussed. After being told that the chef hooked them up we see a magical glow coming from the wings showing viewers from outside Atlanta precisely how magical and revered these wings are. But often, the use of surrealism can ask us to rethink what we take for granted. In the season one episode ‘Nobody Beats the Biebs’ Paper Boi is playing in a celebrity basketball game with the son of Justin Timberlake and Post Malone, Justin Bieber. While the idea of Paper Boi dunking on Bieber is perfect enough on its own, the real twist comes when we see Justin Bieber, and he’s, well, black. This is a clear subversion of our expectation. And while this surrealist casting might seem confusing, it creates some wonderful comedic moments, “Hey you’re that n****r that blew that other n****r’s brains out! Cool.”
But what’s most important is that besides being black, Atlanta’s Justin Bieber acts just like the real Justin Bieber. He treats reporters and fans like shit, “I love you, Justin!” “I know, bitch!” acts like a spoiled brat, has a huge entourage, and can’t fathom the idea of anyone getting more attention than him. After acting like an asshole for much of the episode, Bieber holds a press conference where he apologizes for his behavior with a new song something that Bieber actually did in real life. “Is it too late to say I’m sorry, man?”
This surreal take on Bieber’s very real behavior leaves the audience with a crucial question, namely, would his behavior be perceived differently if he were black? Black Bieber would please Breton, as he’s used not just for surreal humor, but forces the audience to re-think their assumptions about reality. In this case, does our culture forgive white celebrities for bad behavior while holding celebrities of color to a different standard? An even weirder example of surrealism takes place in the same episode. While Paper Boi and Earn are busy at the celebrity basketball game. Darius heads to his local gun range to let off some stress. But his range-mates get pissed when they notice that Darius’ target poster isn’t a human outline, but instead, a picture of a dog. This raises the question: who the fuck would shoot a dog target? “You can’t shoot dogs. What are you, a psycho?”
But then, we are forced to consider, why are we more uncomfortable with someone shooting a dog target than we are with them shooting at a picture of a human. “Well why would I shoot a human target? I mean, that’s weird right? I mean, look at that – that’s just way too specific.” It’s also a potential nod to white people’s over-the-top obsessions with their dogs, which no one at Wisecrack can relate to. Nope, not even a little bit. “I did not realize people love dogs this much.” A use of surrealism that is quite literally hard to see takes place in episode 8 of season one in which Earn, Darius, and Paper Boi are outside the club after strong arming the club owner to get paid.
Just getting their money was a surreal endeavor in itself but things get even weirder once they hit the parking lot. In case you don’t know what you just saw, that was an invisible car speeding through the parking lot leaving bodies in its wake. Is this meant to be a commentary on the absurd ways that celebrities use their money to flex on everyone else? Maybe. Could it be highlighting the way in which we have become so desensitized to violence that only way to make it stand out is to use an invisible car? Maybe. Or maybe this is Atlanta at its most Twin Peaks and we shouldn’t look for meaning at all? Either way, it’s a good reminder that surrealism doesn’t always have to mean something, as often it’s used to undermine and confuse our rational impulse to project meaning onto everything. The flip side of this meaningless surrealism can be seen in one of the most uncomfortable moments of Season One, the Juneteenth party. Just in case you’re not up on your history, Juneteenth is the holiday that celebrates the abolition of slavery in Texas, and in general, the emancipation of slaves throughout the confederacy.
At the party the husband of the host gives Earn an impromptu lecture on the importance of visiting Africa. “That was a pilgrimage. Needed to pay my respects, ask for forgiveness, you know.” “I don’t, I really don’t.” “Wait, you’ve never been to Africa?” “No.” “You gotta go. Man, it’s your motherland, what’re you thinking?” And predicts his ancestors via his facial features. And to ensure that he is the Platonic form of “that white guy”, he later performs a poem about the horrors of slavery, “Jim Crow has the name of a man but is a ghost. But Jim Crow is haunting me. Like in that movie poltergeist.” That’s right – the only white guy at the party celebrating the end of slavery performs a poem about slavery from the perspective of a black person. “…are these slave ships?” And to add salt on the rim of this super awkward margarita, the party’s bar offers “fun” cocktails named after the horrors of slavery. “I’ll have the plantation master poison.”
And we couldn’t talk about surrealism in Atlanta without covering the most talked about episode of Season One – B.A.N. The entire episode takes place during a fictional talk show where Paper Boi is being grilled by a feminist sociologist for his lyrics. The crown jewel of this episode is a black teenager from Atlanta that self identifies as a thirty year old white man from Denver, “Hey excuse me, what IPA do you have on Tap? Hey, did you see Game of Thrones last night?” This came on the heels of the cultural shitshow that was Rachel Dolezal and the ensuing debate around transracial identity. While the notion of a white person self-identifying as black led to genuine debate and consideration, Atlanta asks us to consider how we feel about the issue when it’s a black teen self-identifying as a white man. And Paper Boi’s response is one that much of the audience likely resonates with, “I’m sorry, yo this is dumb.”
And this might be the ultimate genius of Atlanta, as unlike other shows that have used surreal elements to take us further away from reality, Atlanta uses surrealism to bring our focus back to reality itself. By using the surreal to disrupt the habitual ways we look at, and think about, certain topics, we can reconsider them all together. We see this in Clark County and his hybrid music video/commercial for YooHoo. This seemingly surreal example of a famous rapper making a song about an artificial chocolate beverage exposes something that’s actually going on, i.e., much of the art produced in our day and age is really just thinly veiled advertising for shit we don’t really need. “I hate this shit.” “This shit is goood.”
This example resonates with the influence of Marxism on Breton, as a surreal moment leads to socio-political critique. We see something similar when Clark County and Paper Boi visit the offices of a music streaming service on the same day and have very different experiences. This use of surrealism for social critique is what keeps Atlanta in the spirit of Breton’s work. In both seasons surrealism is used to reflect on everything from inequality to cultural appropriation and it refuses to let the viewer turn off their TV without confronting something real, and urgent, about society. This might be the most unique contribution Atlanta has made to contemporary television, in the same way that it employs surrealism without veering into absurdity, it also provides cultural commentary without coming off as preachy, “Hi, I’m Brendon Tarnikov, chairman of NBC entertainment. And I’ve got a hit idea for the new season. DON’T DO DRUGS. There’s no hope with dope.”
And it’s this commitment to pushing the boundaries of surrealism that gave us one of the most insane moments of television in recent memory. Before we go, it’s worth mentioning the aims of Breton’s surrealism in relation to Atlanta creator Donald Glover’s musical alter ego, Childish Gambino. As Breton makes clear, the aim of surrealism is not simply to create a new form of culture, it’s to use art to change culture through revealing its true structure. For Breton, “the world is only very relatively in tune with thought”, meaning that much of what we perceive isn’t a true indicator of the way the world really is. We can see this in ‘This is America’, where surreal elements are used to make a scathing political critique of the state of affairs in contemporary America. And if this video is any indication, it seems like Glover and his creative circle will be continuing to push the limits of a new black surrealism for the foreseeable future.