Television

Random Acts of Flyness Is a Playful, Radical Exploration of Blackness

The mixed-media HBO series taps into a realness that goes beyond what’s just “fly.”

A scene from Random Acts of Flyness.
A scene from Random Acts of Flyness.
HBO

Terence Nance describes Random Acts of Flyness, which premieres Friday at midnight on HBO, as “a show about the beauty and ugliness of contemporary American life,” but that’s deceptively tidy—and purposefully vague. The name of the show is a play on words gesturing toward its focus on blackness: fly being a dated slang adjective meaning “to be stylish,” “to be cool,” “to be clever.” Nance’s show fits all of these definitions, but random is the one it indulges most.

The first of the six-episode series opens with Nance introducing his show, filming himself as he bikes down the street. Almost immediately, a police car flags him down, and he gets into an altercation with an older white policeman. Is this real, or is this a scripted part of the show? The line is immediately blurred, and from there, the show branches off into interconnected segments featuring a horrific ’70s-style game show called Everybody Dies, hosted by Ripa the Reaper with her trusty scythe and “Murder Map” of America, riddled with light-up bullet holes; an infomercial featuring Jon Hamm, as himself, selling a product to help white people fight their “acute viral perceptive albonitis”; and a talk show called The Sexual Proclivities of the Black Community, featuring an interview with a nonbinary black person on their experiences with dating and relationships.

The format’s not entirely unique to Nance; the meta TV shows–within-a–TV-show (complete with faux commercials) concept has been explored by other late-night fare like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!; Robot Chicken; Rick and Morty; and Atlanta. But Nance distinguishes himself in this postmodern, new black surrealist project varying modes of filmmaking—from animation to urban musical updates of classic fairy tales to documentary-style found footage—to match the constant influx of varied media we ingest daily. He refuses to adhere to strictly surreal or satirical modes, and his relationship to fiction is just as flexible. Instead, he incorporates vérité documentary with interviews that are jarring not just for their proximity to his parody videos and infomercials but also for their naked sincerity. “I don’t know how to relate to my gender outside of being made into a spectacle,” a trans woman says in Episode 2, and it’s in these moments of empathy and revelation in respect to the even further marginalized members of an already marginalized black community that Nance taps into a realness that goes beyond what’s just “fly.”

If racial wokeness could be captured in 30-minute episodes, Random Acts of Flyness would be the show to do it; Nance tackles the usual suspects in the traumatic black American experience (police brutality, white fear, appropriation) but also addresses its more nuanced aspects. Queerness, homophobia, toxic masculinity: These are topics not frequently addressed in the black community, but they make appearances here, as in a segment featuring a first-person-shooter game in which a black woman takes down catcallers on the street with a frown.

For all his loud parodies and flyaway surrealism, Nance also takes some moments to scale his thoughts down to the micro level of language and muse about semantics. In one sequence, we see a series of black people, filmed from the chest up, in front of a black background while the narration says, repeatedly, “Black face.” Occasionally, we’ll see images of “blackface,” the act of cultural masquerading, flash across the screen—minstrelsy, a racist marmalade commercial, Julianne Hough’s “Crazy Eyes” Halloween costume—as the unseen speaker declares, “Not black face” with a buzzer noise and a large red mark laid over the image. We find something similar in a segment about the male gaze and the street harassment many women face. A series of black men say, “Good morning” innocently into the camera, but for every man who says it with a flirtatious smirk or a wink or a wolfish lick of his lips, there’s a similar rejection of the greeting. These parts of the show unfold more like performance art than entertainment television. Of course, those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, a point Nance proves with this very project, in the moments when he subverts terms and phraseologies and breathes them back into his multifaceted vision of blackness.

The only problem with his vision, as inclusive as it aims—and appears—to be, is that it’s as flexible and far-reaching as his imagination, which allows for truly captivating and innovative leaps but also risks flying away with all of its grand ideas. The Inception-style meta framing of the show as one featuring Nance being acted by Nance and written and edited and directed by Nance can taste like the particular brand of cheeky self-indulgence favored by film-school art projects, but fortunately it never dips too far in that direction.

Though the series features an impressive roster of guest stars, including Dominique Fishback, Whoopi Goldberg, Gillian Jacobs, Adepero Oduye, Paul Sparks, and Lakeith Stanfield, Random Acts of Flyness feels like more than just late-night television. Untethered by genre labels or traditional television formats, Nance’s show translates as something with roots in entertainment television, art house movies, and journalism—an experimental trip into blackness fly enough to post up in a modern-art museum.