“Why did I even think that this would be a good idea?”
First, there was Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman And Friends, in which Brett Gelman turned a Dinner For Five situation into a night of mayhem and psychological torture. Then, there was Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman And Brett Gelman’s Family, which had Gelman turn family dinner and a show turn into family therapy… and a show. (That description barely scratches the surface.) Now, Brett Gelman’s Dinner In America turns a frank celebration of African-American work in Hollywood into not the exact opposite, but definitely a warped version of that particular concept.
The very idea of Brett Gelman tackling race relations basically speaks for itself, and Brett Gelman’s Dinner In America works with that inherent knowledge. (For the sake of clarity, the remainder of this review will refer to the performer as “Gelman,” and to his Dinner persona as “Brett.”) It’s the logical next step in the Dinner series: If there were any dinner-time taboos Gelman had yet to discuss, it was either going to be race or sexuality.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Dinner series on a technical level has been its ability to convince a “respectable” cast to join in on the dark, morbid antics of Gelman and Jason Woliner. Brett Gelman’s Dinner In America is no exception. Loretta Devine (The Carmichael Show), Joe Morton (Scandal), Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson), and Mack Wilds (The Wire) round out this special’s cast, and even that is intentional. No, it’s not just because they’re black: Note the black relevance and significance of the specific projects they’re credited for here. Wilds could have just as easily been credited for 90210 (a far more recent credit than The Wire), but that wouldn’t fit into the bigger picture. Gelman and Woliner know what they’re doing just on that seemingly inconsequential level, and it’s that type of attention to detail that makes the Dinner series fascinating.
Once the special gets going though, that attention to detail is evident in the way the Brett character hits all the beats of trying not to be accidentally racist, failing every step of the way: replacing his white crew with robots, calling Shareeka “articulate,” explaining his feelings about black music (“How about a little less Crips and Bloods, and a little more kiss and hugs?”), both racist cop “murders.” The “black pedophile” tangent is a new one, though, and the type of moment that really shows off how funny Gelman is, outside of the shocking aspect of it all.
As for the rest of the dinner party (before it all gets truly crazy), the subplot about Loretta Devine policing the younger black generation quickly turns from inconsequential (the humorous repetition of “language”) to surprisingly “serious,” which basically describes the structure of every Dinner. Joe Morton goes from the quiet one who won’t let Gelman’s shit get to him to letting out a more subdued (so it is possible!) version of a Papa Pope speech from Scandal. And Shareeka Epps plays the most rational, level-headed one of the bunch, because not everyone can resort to madness. But even as the special makes a point of them all being very different black people with their own personalities and approaches to life (and this scenario), it ultimately doesn’t matter as the Dinner series makes yet another morbid point about how the house always wins.
Despite the subject matter (and the fact that each black celebrity is gunned down by the police), it’s funny enough, because the very concept of any “normal” people (celebrities or otherwise) and Brett Gelman in this scenario is inherently funny. It sounds like a disaffected, numb approach to take to it, considering the conclusion, but that’s the key to approaching this (and many other Adult Swim specials). Especially when, even with all of the talk of character Brett Gelman’s racism and how he can be better, this is still a special written by two white guys. That’s actually the biggest, pointed joke of the whole special—seriously, it works on a whole other level because of that.
What makes this work is that Brett Gelman’s Dinner In America—like its two predecessors—plays it all straight enough, right down to the score. It doesn’t quite feel like a group of actors playing at being in some weird Adult Swim thing. The celebrities in these situations feel very much like they’re just being themselves and reacting to an actual insanity that is happening around and to them, and that’s both a compliment to the actors and the writing. Brett Gelman has described these Dinner specials more as comedy-horror plays than straght-up “comedy specials,” and that’s still apparent here in moments like Devine’s story about her big experience with racism (complete with perfectly named characters like “Clarence Lewis” and “Sally Caldwell”) and Morton’s “you people” monologue directed at Brett Gelman.
“Subverting and then bounding past the conventions of ‘awkward comedy’ and becoming something wholly unique, Brett Gelman’s Dinner In America is unflinching, confrontational and unlike anything previously broadcast on television.” That’s how the press release for this special describes it, and that’s technically the goal of each one of these Dinner specials, especially the original Dinner With Friends With Brett Gelman And Friends. They really do go past standard “awkward comedy” or “shock humor,” but while Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman And Brett Gelman’s Family (which still feels a lot like it’s own thing independent of the series) may have been too much of a subversion of the entire premise of the original, Brett Gelman’s Dinner In America is ultimately too little of one. Basically, after the first two Dinner specials, Brett Gelman’s Dinner In America is the one that’s the most “what you see is what you get.” A 30-minute Brett Gelman Adult Swim special brings with it expectations of weirdness, but where Dinner With Friends and Dinner With Family pushed so far past those expectations, Brett Gelman’s Dinner In America simply matches them. As good as it is overall, the addition of it being a “conversation” about race doesn’t actually bring much of a change or make it more taboo, as intended or expected as that might be.
The twists of the first two specials were the type of thing that prepared an audience for this, and as such, Dinner In America doesn’t go for as many swerves. It’s quickly clear that this Brett isn’t going to be stopped (at least not this time), so the brutal writing’s on the wall from the moment the title hits the screen. Even the return of Anthony Atamanuik as Brett’s sidekick and that inevitable reveal (described as “my pal Freddie,” who’s played “my friend Joey and my best friend Anthony” in these specials) is just tossed out flippantly after the fake murder. As good as this edition of Dinner is, some of the magic is missing. At least for now.
The Dinner series has created a fascinating world in which Gelman and Woliner can do practically anything they want to, and Brett Gelman’s Dinner In America chooses to hit its mark and go with the expected. There’s still nothing else like it on television, so while it may leave a little to be desired, it’s still a solid effort. Plus, it’s all worth it for the image of Gelman bursting through that confederate flag and then setting it on fire with his fake gun. That is perhaps the most representative image of what to expect when it comes to Brett Gelman’s sense of humor and these specials as a whole.
- “‘Dude, are you black?’” The entire opening for Dinner In America is perfect with its A Tribute To Sidney Poiter fake-out, but the highlight is really Lance Reddick’s reappearance in the Dinner series. There’s a quick realization as why he would do this (serve as Brett’s “warm-up” act), as Dinner With Friends included Reddick as one of the “friends” who Brett tortured and promised to follow for the rest of their lives. Each “this guy” he drops about Brett just reeks of blackmail and coercion, and the way he runs out as fast as he can once the Brett Gelman experience begins is just fantastic.
- At the end, Brett Gelman avoids the sounds of his new black “friends” being gunned down with the calming sounds of Nina Simone’s “I Am Blessed.” Of course he does.