With “The Streisand Effect,” the fourth episode of its inaugural season, ATLANTA has just hit what we can only hope is its nadir. Following a peak in its early run with the terrific “Go For Broke” last week, creator/executive producer/writer/star Donald Glover’s rave-reviewed FX alterna-comedy finds itself wallowing in a valley this week. There was nary a laugh to be uttered, at least by this reviewer. The cast’s sheer charisma and producer/director Hiro Murai keep this from being a total wipeout, but “The Streisand Effect” is perilously close to being right there. It takes the worst meandering inclinations of the show’s first two episodes, “The Big Bang” and “Streets On Lock,” and multiplies those by a factor of 1,000. And that’s a conservative estimate.
There is a tantalizing hint, early on, of where Atlanta could — and should — be headed. Early into the proceedings, drug dealer/budding rapper Al “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) and his cousin Earn Marks (Glover) fall into a brainstorming session outside a very sweaty club, as they pass a joint between them. Earn cites his instrumentalist credentials, and suggests they expand Paper Boi’s sound to include live musician backup, a la Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. This leads into a song they think would fit this treatment, the equally tantalizing “Pussy Relevance” (“Pussy relevance/So intelligent”). This moment was funny, fresh, hooky and honest to its characters — and it actually seemed like it was moving the story forward, the only story that really matters: Earn’s feting of Al’s musical ascent. I want way more of this, and way less of the petty nonsense that the episode immediately evolves into.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the ambiguously ethnic Zan (Freddie Kuguru), a self-promoting social media personality (sporting his own branded skull caps, t-shirts and “sneakies” — “baby sneakers for adults,” in his words). Zan slinks his way into a. After thoroughly annoying Al, Earn and Al’s roommate Darius (Keith Stanfield), Zan has them pose for a series of Instagram portraits. After Al cuts him off, Zan pressures them into exchanging contact information until Earn (still trying to represent Al as his manager) relents and gives Zan his digits. The next day, Zan is talking smack on Instagram. Then it spills over to Twitter. Eventually, Zan throws shade on Paper Boi’s latest mixtape via Zan’s YouTube channel, in a wildly unfunny review that a character onscreen has to call funny a few times before we register that, in the world of the show, Zan was supposed to be comic relief. Could’ve fooled me.
Meanwhile, Earn continues to be broke. Unlike “Go For Broke,” a funny and poignant series of unfortunate events capturing Earn’s money-strapped hustle, “The Streisand Effect” drags out Earn’s financial status to monotonous effect. He and Darius travel through several instant-cash schemes, kicking things off with a fairly innocuous pawn shop stop. In “Go For Broke,” Earn tries to cut many a corner, including taking his on-again/off-again baby mama Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) out for a cost-effective meal. That episode rang very true to me, and it was hilarious. Even though I’ve sold things I kind of needed to pawn shops in my day just like Earn, the execution was so flat and apathetic that I certainly didn’t care enough to laugh. I rolled my eyes watching the show’s other comic figure, Darius, misadvised Earn throughout. He mumbles his way through some paranoid stoner theorizing that encapsulates Steve McQueen, AIDS, and Genghis Khan that isn’t nearly as entertaining as you might reasonably expect.
I know that Atlanta‘s objective is to project a veneer of loose removed apathy, and that certainly extends to a lot of the characters (especially Darius). It also appears to have extended to Atlanta‘s on-set crew and their post production team. At one point, when Al is playing pool in a dimly lit bar, a boom microphone definitely slips its way into the top edge of the frame. That’s an Ed Wood-level technical gaffe, something that even the most micro of micro-budgeted projects would make sure to eliminate from their final cut. “The Streisand Effect” feels carelessly rushed, a creative MO that seems to have infected all aspects of its construction. That includes a shoddy teleplay that goes nowhere fast, and feels like the chopped and screwed remix of what this episode should have been. Glover, who’s given sole writing credit here, could have easily cut the on-screen time of Earn’s minor-key money troubles in half and his audience wouldn’t have minded. I think the social media subplot just needed a punch-up, the jokes don’t land, but the idea is okay. It too, though, takes up way too much narrative screen time. The focus of this episode should have been about the evolution of Paper Boi’s music — not his guest-star detractors or a tired, bloated continuation of its predecessor episode’s A-plot. Here’s hoping week five is much more of a week three episode than a week four one.
Season 1, Episode 4 (S01E04)
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10PM on FX
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor