What if Clifford the Big Red Dog was a black teenager in Oakland? That’s a hell of an elevator pitch, but it’s one that Amazon Prime has fallen for. I’m a Virgo, the first TV series from writer-director Boots Riley, is a Michel Gondry inflected fever dream set in urban California. Part comedy, part surrealist metaphor for the America of 2023, I’m a Virgo is unlike anything previously brought to the small screen.
Jharrel Jerome (one of the star-crossed lovers in Moonlight) is Cootie, an enormous teenager. At 13ft, he towers over Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo) and Martisse (Mike Epps), who are raising him away from society – albeit still within the Oakland city bounds. But they cannot keep their secret forever; Cootie won’t be indefinitely satisfied with fast food adverts and the veneration of a real-life super-vigilante, The Hero (Walton Goggins). No, Cootie wants a taste of freedom, and he finds it in the form of three wisecracking teens: wisdom dispenser Felix (Brett Gray), existential cartoon obsessive Scat (Allius Barnes) and activist leader Jones (Kara Young). Out in the real world (“I feel small,” he marvels, on the streets for the first time) he even finds love, in the form of burger chef Flora (Olivia Washington), who’s afflicted with her own, equally bizarre, condition.
While the roots are in absurdism, the flower blooms in the vivid colours of modern America. Police brutality, corporate oppression and the busted healthcare system fall under Riley’s microscope. “There’s a phenomenon called the crisis of capitalism,” Jones tells an assembled mass, before embarking on a cosmic explainer of profiteering (though it’s hard not to wonder how the character would square this critique with the streaming service that the show is on…). Riley, whose previous narrative work, Sorry to Bother You, depicts a Black telemarketer who successfully adopts a “white voice” to improve his sales, is deeply concerned with the state of young, Black Americans. “People are always afraid,” Lafrancine tells Cootie. “And you’re a 13ft-tall Black man. They fear you.”
Despite this, I’m a Virgo is never didactic. For all that Jones might extol the virtues of communism, the show itself is a classic example of the “fish out of water” trope, like Elf, Enchanted or Big, or as seen recently in TV series such as Schitt’s Creek or Ted Lasso. It’s a simple route to comedy: Cootie bench presses cars, snarfs burgers like they’re finger food, and has incredibly awkward sex (“I’m gonna ride it like a balance beam,” his date announces). It also allows the whole thing to exist in a technicolour landscape of forced perspective. Cootie is Gandalf in a world of Bagginses (Elijah Wood even makes a cameo appearance), and the frequent use of animation calls to mind Terry Gilliam’s segments for Monty Python (“I’m not the Messiah,” Cootie even says, at one point).
Sharp writing – which itself never strays too far into the surreal – is complemented by fine, full-bodied performances. Jerome is a revelation in a role that balances monstrous clumsiness with deep-seated sweetness. Epps, meanwhile, is terrifically funny as frustrated, protective Martisse (“You know, you’re a big motherf***er,” he observes, dryly) and Young brings real Gen Z verve to a character who might’ve otherwise seemed overly sermonising. The whole cast deliver their total commitment to Riley’s vision, however backbreaking the set design might have been.
“I’m a Virgo,” Cootie tells his new friends. “And Virgos love adventure.” I’m a Virgo is just that: an adventure. The word “visionary” is overused, both in reviews and in film marketing, and while Riley has many influences (from Gondry back to Buñuel, Lamorisse and Méliès) his application of these creative techniques to a modern, polemical canvas feels radical and, yes, visionary. I’m a Virgo is not just one of the best comedies of the year so far, but one of the most urgent, intense pieces of television in recent years.
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