Obama sighting! Finally some politics this season from our Obama impersonator-in-chief. The president doesn’t have a lot to say. He just wants us to know that he knows what his criticisms are, specifically those from his own party, even more specifically that Gitmo is open and he quite enjoys the use of drones. Luther tries his damnedest to defend the president: “Like I ain’t got enough shit to do! We got a James Bond villain running Russia, I got a Congress full of teabaggers, the earth is burning up, and now I gotta deal with all these whining-ass beyotches in my own party!” But the sketch is after something more complex. Luther’s defense of drone warfare is how cool it is (“We can murder people with flying robots!”), but when he takes it too far by comparing the president to a Sith Lord, Obama uses a drone to threaten Luther. For his sign-off, President Obama fist-bumps a drone while smiling at the cameras. If The New Yorker thought of it, it’d be one of the defining images of this presidency.
Luther might chalk up Key & Peele’s hesitance to get into politics this season to a slow news year—talk about making excuses—but it’s dispiriting for the show that opened season three with a Trayvon Martin hoodie and before that made its name lampooning any number of racist situations to charge into a television landscape littered with images of Ferguson and look away. Not that Key & Peele owes us anything, exactly, but to say the rare black sketch comedy with an acclaimed Obama character has no responsibility is a disappointing dodge. It’s one of the reasons season four feels so comfortable.
This Obama sketch is pleasant but dead serious. Yes, there is gridlock in Washington—and props for saving this one for after the midterms—and yes, some critics want both dead terrorists and a clear conscience. But as the sketch reveals, the real defense of drone warfare is that Obama likes them a lot. They’re convenient. In a position where he feels like he can’t exert power in other ways due to checks and balances, drones gives him power. And his staffers live under that sword. The Sith isn’t the right analogy. This is George Lucas surrounded by people telling him Jar-Jar Binks isn’t a serious human rights issue. (He is!) I don’t think that’s a very precise satire of what’s going on, but this drone-happy portrait of the president is dead-on.
The other politics sketch is more simplistic: A trio of black Republicans sabotage a van full of black Democrats trying to get to their polling place before it’s too late. It’s basically about how dorky these black Republicans are in their leather jackets, dad jeans, braided belts, and old-fashioned glasses. But it’s also about how lame their satire is: “You see the color of our skin, right? How could we not blindly vote Democratic?” Okay, so Republicans are unhip. Is that all? The sketch ends with an old woman shouting, “Black Republican mother-fuckers!” which is either a new “This honky grandma be trippin’” or an attempt at catharsis, at calling out these guys in a funny enough way that we get some release. It seems like there’s more to this issue, but if the criticism is just that black Republicans are lame, there isn’t much tension in need of release, now is there?
The weakest sketch: With apologies to the magnificent costume and make-up departments, the froyo sketch is depressing. How hacky to dress up Key in a fat suit and make his character repulsive. His squeal chokes the jokes. His physical comedy is a step short of a vomit tube in his sleeve, although I do admire his dexterity in catching all that froyo at the end. Last but not least, bingeing on diet food isn’t much better than bingeing on full-calorie food. We know. They’ve been doing these jokes since as long as I’ve been conscious. Key & Peele is better than this.
The funniest sketch: Strike Force Eagle 3: The Reckoning is the kind of one-off special you might find on Adult Swim late one Thursday night. These kinds of media riffs are Key & Peele’s specialty, this one being a ‘90s Cinemax action movie parody. There are even framing problems that at first suggest pan-and-scan, but the credits are more made-for-TV movie. And those credits alone capture a certain goofiness: Cal Flavell (Key) as Jamison Teague, Barbara Van Kraft (Anna Camp) as Dr. Carol Roberts, Kris Baucom as Fernando Escubado, Alexi St. John as Hop Suey. I think Peele plays that last one, but I can’t tell from the screener if he’s supposed to be Latin or Asian, which is part of the charm.
Key’s Teague is a MacGyver-haired hero clad all in denim trying to rescue Carol, strapped to a chair at a gangster’s pool party at a Mexican villa? It’s so silly, and everyone’s so serious, and the style takes you right back to a late night of channel-surfing in the mid-‘90s. The running gag is Teague’s neck-snapping prowess—he also made-you-looks someone to death, but mainly it’s neck-snapping—but what’s most compelling about this sketch is the detail. Everything’s exactly as it should be. Even the jokes that are too exaggerated to play as an excavated TV movie are right at home in this movieland with its own history and rules. It’s the rare sketch that brings a whole world to life.
- The runner has its own running gag this week: Key accidentally revealing some sexual fantasy that makes everyone uncomfortable. First he envisions himself and Peele as Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers, then he talks about wanting to spoon Obama, and finally he says he’d have sex with a male centaur but not a female one. “If I was a woman, and I saw a centaur, why would I not get up on that?”
- Peele’s sex detective is making fun of a whole subgenre of cop shows, but his stammer is Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham to a T.
- Peele’s froyo employee tries to comfort Key’s when her boyfriend, just back from Afghanistan, rejects her. “Maybe he got that BFD…PTSD.”