It’s hard to be too critical of a work like I’m A Virgo, which so clearly has its heart in the right place. It’s a comic book-inspired Marxist critique of contemporary policing and economic disenfranchisement, replete with Michel Gondry-esque visual charm and an endearing sense of oddball humor. It’s also directed by Boots Riley, avowed communist, frontman of iconic rap group The Coup, and director of one of the most distinctive American debuts of the past decade, Sorry To Bother You. But then again, it is also being released by Amazon, corporate supervillain #1, so it’s not like Riley can claim full innocence.
On the surface, the series looks and sounds like a quirky standout in a cookie-cutter streaming landscape. It follows Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), a 13-foot tall giant isolated from birth by his foster parents (Mike Epps and Carmen Ejogo), as he is suddenly thrust into an absurdist vision of contemporary Oakland defined by an erotically-tinged burger chain, Big Bang Burger; a pseudo-fascist, jet pack-wearing vigilante/corporate CEO known only as The Hero (Walton Goggins); and an existentially-laden Simpsons-esque show called Parking Tickets. As Cootie finally ventures forth from his home, he joins up with a friendly group of stoners and a fry cook gifted with super speed, Flora (Olivia Washington), who help him grow politically, sexually, and emotionally.
There’s something undeniably electric about the show’s premise and pop-surreal worldview; and in the opening acts, when Riley first sputters from one absurd allegorical device to another, the energy is infectious. Unfortunately, without much rhythmic or tonal variety, it also quickly becomes a monotonous enterprise. Riley is too happy merely being clever to actually be entertaining, and the show ultimately boils down to little more than a series of weird anecdotes — Look, Riley says, Cootie’s uncle is a former pop-star! Look, there’s a cult of latte-wielding Steve Jobs impersonators who worship Cootie! Look, a random side character wakes up one morning suddenly doll-sized!
Quirk is leaned on so heavily in I’m a Virgo that emotional depth and narrative engagement are almost entirely elbowed out. Major characters, like Cootie’s friend Scat (Allius Barnes), never develop personalities beyond their colorful names. When the plot teeters into tragedy for one character, due to a lack of health insurance, it’s hard to feel anything but a shrug. There’s nothing wrong with clever artists letting all their random ramblings hang out, but I’m A Virgo is too overdetermined and focused on making a point to allow for a genuine sense of intellectual curiosity to blossom. It’s like Robot Chicken by way of Jacobin magazine, with anarchic free-spiritedness giving way to literal-minded intellectualism.
This could be forgivable if even the show’s most commendable aspect — its penchant for jocular leftist allegory and unsparing ability to call a spade a spade — didn’t feel underdeveloped and tossed-off. By trying to skewer everything from for-profit healthcare to astrology to over-policing to male modeling, Riley fails to develop any critiques beyond easy, surface-level put-downs. By the time Elijah Wood cameos in the third episode as a lawyer advocating for more ethically delivered lethal injections, the pile-on of topical issues is already so great that another broadly-drawn satire of liberalism is only grating. The show even has visually arresting, pseudo-psychedelic lectures on the basic tenets of Marxism, for chrissake. “All art is propaganda,” claims the show’s villain, The Hero, in one episode; it’s delivered as a joke, but it unfortunately comes across more like the director’s reluctant confession.
Or maybe the reason why the show feels like such a misfire is simpler; as Audre Lord said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Maybe a glossy, comic-book-style satire of corporate-sponsored authoritarianism produced as an original property for the Amazon monolith was only ever going to hit easy targets and feel surface-level. In fairness, even if I’m A Virgo is not the Dziga Vertov Group, it’s not that Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial, either. But still, coming from the guy who in November 2001 was flagrantly celebrating 9/11 as a rebuke of U.S. imperialism, the lack of bite found in I’m a Virgo is a stunning disappointment.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 25.
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