Photo: Adult Swim

The Christ Is Right

Do you have a personal relationship with Black Jesus? Because you should.

Tonight marks the second coming of Black Jesus, after Adult Swim aired its pilot episode last week. Black Jesus is the latest project from Aaron McGruder, who created The Boondocks, the occasionally brilliant animated series that endured a long gestation period at Adult Swim, with four seasons that spanned nine years. McGruder left The Boondocks to jumpstart his new project, and the first people who should get on board with Black Jesus are Boondocks fans who weren't feeling its recent/terrible final season. Consider Black Jesus a palate-cleanse after an undercooked Boondocks meal.

Black Jesus' promise starts with Gerald "Slink" Johnson in the titular role. Johnson is a warm, enthusiastic Jesus who towers over the rest of the cast -- at 6'5", his height complements and legitimatizes those biblical robes. Religious groups have cried foul and tweeted #boycottblackjesus, but if they watch the show they'll find that it's deferential to Christianity. Johnson's performance is sincere, and the only thing that angers Jesus is when his message of "kindness, compassion, and love for all mankind" falls on deaf ears.

Most often on the receiving end of Jesus' message are his apostles, an ensemble comprised of Boonie (Last Comic Standing alum Corey Holcomb), Fish (Andra Fuller), Trayvon Vine standout Andrew Bachelor), Maggie (Kali Hawk), and Jason (Antwon Tanner). In the pilot episode, the guys (and girl) grow tired of Jesus because he never has money (particularly weed money), and they're unsure about his idea to start a community garden to grow vegetables (particularly weed, but also Spanish onions). The group can't forsake him, though, especially since he can get them out of trouble with a miracle: he turns water to wine and records a miraculous voicemail.

The vagueness of Jesus' miraculous powers lends the show some much-needed absurdity. That absurdity lifts a rote scene in which Jason's unfortunately shrewish girlfriend (Valenzia Algrin in the role of Officer Dianne) yells at him for "getting high and hanging out with homeless dudes." Jesus takes the homeless insult in stride, and as the couple argues, two women approach Jesus with a "wonderful basket of shit." Dianne watches incredulously as Jesus hugs his followers and rummages through their gift basket. Jason smiles and tells her, "Baby, that's Jesus."

Screen: Adult Swim

Screen: Adult Swim

McGruder and co-creator Mike Clattenburg have to walk a fine line with the miracles. Giving your lead character the power to pull off a deus ex machina at a moment's notice is dangerous for storytelling. In the pilot, for instance, Jesus uses one miracle to help Jason's relationship, and another to help a group of kids who just robbed him. Fish calls it a "miracle in reverse." Balancing his miracles so that some of them backfire is a wise choice. A good handle on the miracles will keep the stakes real. The Futuramaepisode about playing god ("Godfellas") makes a point about divine intervention that McGruder and Clattenburg should consider: when you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.

Another possible red flag is Clattenberg's visual style. Clattenberg directs every episode of the first season, and he's spent much of the last decade directing Trailer Park Boys projects. Black Jesus looks pretty flat, and it's easy to forget the show is set in Southwest Compton, given that we don't see much local flavor. There is a missed opportunity in the pilot's climax -- a scene in which Fish has to chase a group of fake gangsters after a drug deal gone wrong. Instead of framing a chase sequence, we see the gangsters reach a dead end and just wait for our heroes to reenter the frame.

Speaking of our heroes: making the leap from good to great will hinge on how well Black Jesus accommodates its ensemble. So far, Boonie's defining trait is his weight. Fish is the tough guy. Jason is the good guy. Trayvon is the young nerd. We know Maggie likes spiked cider, but not much else. Every ensemble comedy takes some time to establish, so I can't assign the pilot too much blame. I can vouch for the cast members whom I'm already familiar with: Holcomb is a talented, bleak comedian, and Bachelor is a livewire who only needs a few seconds to generate laughs.

The first episode comes to a close with the apostles' commitment to the community garden, which is when we really see how wise Black Jesus was to cast Charlie Murphy as its antagonist: "making a garden for the group to hang out" is a slight central conflict. Murphy plays Vic, but he might as well play the devil. Vic thinks Jesus is a homeless cult leader, and he wants the community to see him for the fraud he is. I grade sitcom supervillains on a pass/fail rubric, and Vic is an undisputed pass, just from the orneriness and aggression in Murphy's speaking voice. In the few minutes of screen time he gets in the pilot, Murphy steals the scene and forces you to consider some of Jesus' character flaws. After ten minutes of hanging out, we finally get some real tension. Even if the ensemble never jells, watching Murphy's hatred turned up to 11 set against Johnson's infectious enthusiasm make Black Jesus well worth following. The next episode airs tonight at 11 PM ET; make sure you join me there.

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