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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Key & Peele: “Season Three, Episode One”

Illustration for article titled Key & Peele: “Season Three, Episode One”
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For the first Key & Peele sketch in 10 months to be a Trayvon Martin riff is exactly why Key & Peele shouldn’t have been off the air for 10 months in the first place. Is there any other show on television that’s not on a channel explicitly aimed at a racial demographic that stares down America’s racial politics like a sentry? It’s so seductive how Peele, in a loud-and-clear hoodie, starts walking through a manicured dollhouse suburb. First it’s just him and some white kids, and then they refuse to return his smile, and then they get called in by their mother, Sandra Bullock from Crash. The comedy creeps along with the threat, and the hostile visuals and ambient horror-movie soundtrack make this white neighborhood a minefield. It’s hilarious—the second take of the lawn-mower guy, uh, standing his ground is as funny as it is pointed—but it’s not exactly dangerous in that, even if Peele were about to get murdered, he’ll be back for the next sketch. Instead, the punchline lets all the tension out with a cute joke like a Saturday Night Live commercial: Peele pulls up the hood on his hoodie to reveal a white kid’s totally unconvincing profile on it to fool the cop. But if the joke is SNL silliness, the conviction is far from it. The ostensible ghetto-wear of Trayvon Martin this time becomes his shield. So steely it hurts. Makes you wonder why the Obama sketch was about Internet porn and not the response to Sandy Hook.

The season premiere runs the gamut—that satirical sword is followed by a recurring character, an slapsticky cultural joke, an observational relationship premise, a climactic musical parody—and the only sketch that didn’t have me laughing way too loud early this morning (or giving a one-man standing ovation in my head in the case of the musical) was Obama, but what are you gonna do, try and keep Luther at bay for yet another week? The other recurring character, Mr. Garvey, delivers his usual mispronunciations and sudden Jacksonian rage (“Ain’t none of y’all old enough to go to da damn club!”), but he also brings the Key & Peele nerdery (“How would you know if you gonna be a leader in the future? Is there a Stargate in your bedroom?”) and some totally unpredictable miscommunications (“I’m sorry, sweetheart. You are not in the chest club. Mosquito-bite club, maybe”). And speaking of nerdery, at last a television show that knows how people use computers: Peele gets called out for clearing not just the Internet history but the cache and the cookies.

I came to Key & Peele via the sketch about black audiences yelling at the screen, only in this case, they were shouting things like, “Put some information up in the frame, bitch!” Indeed, its visual style sets Key & Peele apart, every episode directed by Peter Atencio with an expressive eye that heightens the comedy. The Les Miserables sketch is more a parody of the musical production than the Tom Hooper film—good thing, because a more precise parody would have given us migraines with labyrinthine editing of fisheye wide-shots cut with Dutch angles straight from the Titanic—but the way the camera moves is half the fun. It explores that impressively staged world along with Key’s Javert, first strolling along the corridor, and then discovering new participants as they join the song. The main joke is that Javert is sick of the interruptions in the medley number, and the ensemble is already fit to burst by the time the Thenardiers pop up, blithely breaking the camel’s back. At the end, someone bursts through the fourth wall in a way that even Javert isn’t allowed to: “Why are we all facing the same waaaaay?” It’s not just the grand finales, either. The rap battle is show in long takes from the front like its source material, and the “Steinbeck, y’all!” interlude is shot in a wistful golden lakeside park such that even the pink mist exploding out of Hype Man Lenny’s head is visible in silhouette.

On Nerdist Writers Panel, showrunners Jay Martel and Ian Roberts talk about the common sketch difficulty of endings, but this episode is a model of endings, each one throwing one final curveball and getting out of there. Think of the one-and-done reversals like Mr. Garvey excusing a student to go pick up his daughter and the wife suddenly breaking a sweat. The bigger problem is usually the running stage material, which can feel like a speed bump when it’s not this good (“This shit is argumentative!”). In fact, one of the best moments in the episode comes on stage, when the duo are play-acting a woman tricking her boyfriend into seeing Les Mis by saying it stars “your boy Wolverine” and Gladiator and Catwoman. “That’s for you! I come to the movies for you,” Peele says in that still-funny drag voice before landing the line with a mime popcorn. And then Key starts to smile like he’s breaking character and/or remembering how much he loves his girl even though she tricked him into seeing an excruciating movie, and it’s electric. Key and Peele have more chemistry than any OTP this side of Walt and Jesse. Happy to have them back.

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of one final curveball, the Metta World News is already a season highlight, and I know I should be more cautious, but I hope it becomes the new recurring tag. “Welcome to Metta World News. Our top story: Why are people always trying to steal my magic? In other news, cat litter can be used to blind people when fighting. Interesting. I didn’t know that. Well, that wraps up Metta World News for this Wednesday, February biscuit [unintelligible]. I’m Metta World Peace. Good Night.”
  • Key as an elderly fan of Key & Peele concerned about responsibility: “You ain’t on thin ice, brother, but you on ice.”
  • “Jay-kwellin”: Never not funny.
  • I’m already pissed that Jordan Peele isn’t going to be up for an Emmy just on the basis of the rap battle. His pure id, his not-all-there expression of delight, his alternately dyspeptic-baby and puppy-enthusiastic wailing.
  • Another great sketch moment that’s neither performance nor writing: As the sweat escalates and the girlfriend asks if Peele’s nervous because the porn he looks at is worse than horses, suddenly sweat starts spraying off the top of his head like a thumbed hose.
  • As much as I love the drag characters, it’s nice to see Key & Peele give a part to a woman of color instead of casting Key in drag. Unfortunately, she’s not on the IMDb page for this episode, yet.
  • The Les Mis sketch is late but great, second in hiatus-forced unpunctuality only to Childrens Hospital taking on Contagion 11 months after it premiered.
  • Obama: “I assure you that the country’s gotten safer since the end of the Bush era.” Luther: “And I ain’t talking about the president.”