“Do you suffer from white thoughts?” Jon Hamm asks in the first episode of Random Acts of Flyness, a trippy new variety series created for HBO by filmmaker Terence Nance. Appearing in a fake commercial for a topical salve known as White Be Gone, Hamm describes whiteness as a debilitating yet seductive condition that gives those afflicted a “profound sense of identity and purpose, as well as an unbridled populist political power.” Suddenly, an iMessage pops up on the screen, and the scene we’ve been watching shrinks to fit the interface of the video-editing software on Nance’s computer. “It seems to me that as ARTISTS,” the friend who has messaged Nance writes, “we should be addressing whiteness less and affirming Blackness more.” The director agrees, and the segment abruptly ends.
Spastic and impressionistic, Random Acts of Flyness is the free jazz of television, a searing collage of black life in America with a rhythm all its own. The show is reminiscent of the early, experimental days of televised sketch comedy, particularly the surrealist gags of The Ernie Kovacs Show. But this is Nance’s first foray into television, and his collaborators are largely indie filmmakers like himself. The result is a TV show that feels like no other. Through jarring transitions, ironic juxtapositions and, most of all, an urge to deconstruct television itself, Random Acts, which has already been renewed for a second season, unsettles the familiar patterns of late-night TV comedy. It’s crafted to shake viewers out of their screen-induced stupor.
The show is also, as that interrupted Jon Hamm segment illustrates, a pointed critique of political satire and its effectiveness, or lack thereof, in 2018. Some bits wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of Key & Peele, the Comedy Central sketch show that likewise zeroed in on race in America. In the Hollywood Squares spoof Hotep Squares, a contestant is quizzed repeatedly on the country’s racist history and each time assumes that some shameful fact must be an exaggeration; in another bit, Nance plays a Steve Jobs–like tech guru in a black turtleneck who, to a roomful of journalists, unveils an app called Bitch Better Have My Money — a new technology that matches black people to the nearest white person who may owe them some form of reparation.
But Random Acts is more than a sketch comedy show. The series is shot through with jolting, violent reminders of what it means to be black in America. The first episode begins with Nance recording a video of himself while riding a bicycle through what appears to be Brooklyn, the footage presented on a vertical strip of screen as if we’re watching a Facebook Live feed. As he introduces the show, a police car veers up behind him, siren bleating, and pulls him over; the phone tumbles to the ground. Another segment has the grainy texture and block lettering of a Seventies-era children’s program, but with a macabre twist: A black woman in a black cloak and headwrap named Ripa the Reaper (Tonya Pinkins) is the ghoulish host of this show, called Everybody Dies! She ushers screaming black children behind a door marked death and beats a little boy — labeled a “juvenile delinquent” — with a frying pan in a sequence dubbed “Whack-A-Soul!” She sings the theme song of Everybody Dies! to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Despite an air of ironic detachment, Random Acts is at its core an earnest project, intent on opening up space for marginalized voices. It features running interviews with queer, trans, and bisexual people, who muse on life in their bodies; one gender-fluid interlocutor’s story about a date gone awry is rendered via stop-motion animation. Its finger firmly on the arrhythmic pulse of American life circa 2018, Random Acts of Flyness offers the viewer something deceptively simple and frustratingly rare: It shows us something that we haven’t seen before, but that’s queasily familiar all the same.