If you’ve got an hour to kill, or six discrete eight-to-12-minute chunks to kill, here is a tip for you: Wyatt Cenac has a new web series on Topic.com, which is apparently “an ambitious new entertainment & storytelling studio from First Look Media,” the new media company founded by Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald. A fun thing about 2017, I guess, is that tech billionaires and investigative journalists are financing comedy web series, so, why not make the most of it before they find out about multi-cams.
Created and directed by Cenac, aka Wyatt Cenac is a superhero story without really being a superhero story, in that most of the hero stuff is confined to the peripheries, so there’s none of that cumbersome origin story or big bad nonsense that’s dragged down just about every Marvel/Netflix series except for the two good ones. Mostly it’s a show about a group of friends hanging out in Brooklyn, which at times is frustratingly tired and at others surprisingly fresh. There is a sort of overarching plot, in that in the first episode Cenac complains about a new artisanal mustard shop that’s opened in Brooklyn, unable to comprehend how it could do enough business to stay open, and then later discovers it’s in fact a front for drug trafficking, and then takes it down. But most of that happens offscreen, right before or after the superhero action we do get, which is mostly just Cenac—aka the Viceroy—preparing to apprehend criminals or having just apprehended criminals. If it’s a commentary on the superhero genre, that commentary might be: superhero shows are pretty redundant!
Crucial to that critique is the genre’s overwhelming whiteness, which aka Wyatt Cenac puts on blast with varying consistency. In the second episode he apprehends a black criminal who assumes he’s white, calls him a pig, and is joined by a group of other black men who start recording the scene on their phones, thrilled to have captured a racist cop—who says the n-word, no less—on camera. “Simply assuming I’m a white dude just reinforces the culturally damaging notion that white must always be the default,” he tells them. “We live in a world where we could have a black president. Why can’t we have a black vigilante?” He wants to live in a world where justice is colorblind, he says, which is a fine thesis that’s not really interrogated any deeper in the series, whose notion of “justice” is pretty much limited to police catching criminals. The mustard shop that turns out to be a pot smuggling ring seems to be framed as a critique of gentrification, but it confines the evil of that phenomenon to actual statutory crime, which strikes me as… limiting. More effective in my view, silly as it seems, is when the Viceroy runs into another vigilante—there are a number in aka Wyatt Cenac’s New York City—called the God’s Sword (a delightfully off-kilter Matt Barats), whose beat is making sure nobody in his local park gets into any un-Christian activity, namely, sodomy. It’s a short scene but one of the show’s funniest, and one of the few that introduces a theory of justice in opposition to the Viceroy’s. Otherwise he’s effectively working with the NYPD—really, his job seems to be catching criminals for them—so it’s tough to read on how exactly he is fighting for a colorblind justice system.
Thankfully the show has other things going for it, for instance, Wyatt Cenac, who brings the half-baffled world-weariness he’s mastered in People of Earth to a much lower-concept world. Much of the show’s dialogue feels loosely adapted from stand-up, á la his musings about how a mustard shop makes money, a bit where he questions the etiquette of sending and retaining nudes, and a sort of weirdly prolonged thing where he explains to the woman in front of him at a yoga class that he’s not there to ogle her, even though he probably will inevitably ogle her, which, if you go to enough open mics in Brooklyn you will hear roughly this bit of observational humor no fewer than three times (most comedians try yoga at least once, because most yoga places let you take the first class free! Just a tip). aka Wyatt Cenac is New York-specific in the way many low-budget web series are New York-specific, in that Wyatt and his friends (Emily Tarver, Thomas Fowler and Jeena Yi) mostly walk around Brooklyn chatting about how weird Brooklyn is, a weirdness occasionally exposed through some heightened action as well as dialogue: a mother leaves her misbehaving child outside Cenac’s apartment for hours, where he screams until he falls asleep, a restaurateur shouts at his friend Penny (Tarver) to shut down her food truck because fancy restaurateurs hate food trucks, I guess. Look, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it isn’t, but who cares, it’s an hour of Wyatt Cenac and it’s free, baby.
aka Wyatt Cenac is streaming on Topic.com.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.