Key & Peele gets a lot of attention for its ability to parody the thought process of Barack Obama and his “anger translator” Luther. But here, we have an episode with almost nothing timely or based in politics, and it really works. Both Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele are obviously consumers of pop culture, and the sketches in this episode play off the tropes we witness every day in film, music, and television.
This season has expanded on both Key and Peele’s ability to play with video formats to better tell their story, which is a tribute to the directors and cinematographers they are working with. Take the first sketch from tonight’s show. Key comes out, dressed to the nines, rapping about how hard his life was on the streets, and how music is what got him through. Then Peele enters as a Lil Wayne-type rapper just talking about breasts and asses. And like the time Brother Mouzone from The Wire had to confront some low level street jockey, Key is horrified. Most of the laughs in that sketch come from his facial reactions, ending with him storming off the set—a long shot, so we can see the whole thing.
This season’s chameleon-like visual style aids the next sketch, which otherwise would have been a non-starter. Dark like Winter’s Bone, Peele stumbles back to his remote log cabin to find Key, a military guy, waiting for him. There’s nothing Key can say to get Peele out of retirement, Peele says. Those days are behind him. Except Key’s not there for Peele. He’s just… looking for a recommendation. This sets Peele off, who now must prove he’s worthy of getting the call, which basically means getting shot at a lot. It’s a pretty simplistic sketch, but it’s a visually perfect parody of those high-stakes action movies we see all the time.
When thinking about how they want their show to lay out, I’d imagine Key and Peele start with the comic idea. And you know, they’ve done a pretty damn good job of keeping things simple and streamlined. But this is a sketch production, and there are other writers and an entire video department backing them up, creating one of the more multidimensional sketch shows in recent history. Hell, they’re doing things Saturday Night Live can only do about one of every week or two, and they have eight episodes a season full of those types of visually rich sketches.
This episode excels at using high production values as a gateway to savvy pop culture satire. When Key goes to prison and is forced to choose a gang, the cinematography changes to something more akin to The Shawshank Redemption, though a documentary version—complete with Morgan Freeman-like voiceover, which works for both styles. It’s interesting to watch, and gives Key a chance to play an extremely low-status character, which doesn’t happen often.
The visuals can also elevate sketches based on a single joke. There are two high school-set sketches in tonight’s episode, one about a substitute teacher who is steeling himself for bad behavior, when all the students are pretty nice. Then there’s one where Key approaches Peele about a party, and Peele doesn’t want to attend because the girl he likes is going to be there, and she’ll discover he has a white dick. This is also one of the first sketches in the show’s history that directly references the duo’s biracial nature (they’ve talked about it in the banter segments before). Both sketches are funny on their own, but begin to resemble scenes from cheesy high school movies the more they play out. Especially given Key’s variety of increasingly ridiculous wigs. The legacy of Key & Peele will likely be forged from those hair follicles, mined from sheep and the dogs who herded said sheep.