Let me start off by saying that, going into Season 3, which aired this past Spring, I was a huge fan of “Atlanta”. Overall, I thought Season 3 was thought-provoking, and I’m no doubt going to watch Season 4, which premieres tonight.
However, if even the most fanatic of fans were to ask themselves why they are going to watch the fourth and final season of this once heralded show, it wouldn’t be because season 3 left them wanting more.
Actually, it’s quite the contrary. While the episodes were well-written, daring, and took the minds of Black people to places rarely traveled in the isles of American Black television, the season, as a complete piece of art, absolutely, completely, and totally failed its viewers.
For those of you old enough to remember, LL Cool J was one of the biggest names in rap going into 1993. Eight years prior, in 1985, his debut album “Radio”, was a critical success, sold over 1 million copies and birthed “Rock the Bells”. A couple years later, he would drop “Bigger and Deffer”, which would spend 11 weeks atop the charts with hits like “I’m Bad” and “I Need Love” leading the way as all-time great songs. And of course, there was 1990, when he released the infamous, “Mama Said Knock You Out”, his fourth album, featuring the song with the eponymous title. Off that, he won a Grammy and the album would end up being the highest selling album of his career.
But in 1993, while at the height of his musical powers, LL dropped “14 Shots to the Dome”, perhaps one of the most lackluster, up and down, copycat, critically slammed albums of all-time. In the album, LL Cool J simply tried to do too much. He was accused of trying to adopt way too much of the West Coast influence that was starting to infiltrate the New York native’s radio plays. The album was also too repetitive, often recalling much of the music in “Mama Said Knock You Out”. And if you know LL, you know he likes to hit you with the “seductive funk”; and in this attempt, he overdid it in his attempts to repeat the success of “6 Minutes of Pleasure”, a very seductive piece, throughout several songs on the album. At the end of the day, it was just a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad album.
Season 3 of “Atlanta” was Donald Glover’s “14 Shots to the Dome”.
This past season was all over the place, sometimes giving us the characters we love, sometimes not. As if the first two seasons of “Atlanta” weren’t surreal enough, Glover painstakingly asked us to suspend our disbelief as the writers overdid it with homages to shows and themes that are far less grounded in reality than what we had come to expect from “Atlanta”. While we all love Darius as a character, the constant trope of his goofiness felt repetitive and empty as it went on throughout the season with neither explanation nor exploration. And while trying to keep us on our toes at all times, “Atlanta” completely leaves us hanging on what at least some would call the co-main character, “Earn”, as there’s barely a whiff of Earn’s development this season–just blatantly obvious images of the fact that he’s changed, but again, with no explanation as to how, or better yet, why.
While the comparison to LL Cool J’s “14 Shots to the Dome” is fitting, the perfect TV analogy probably rest with with Season 2 of “The Wire”, where the writers basically tried to course correct and tell us that “white people do bad stuff too”, and abandoned everything good about what made “The Wire” a standout TV show in its first season.
That’s not to say the season was a complete miss. After all, even “14 Shots to the Dome” allowed us to get another sampling of LL Cool J’s sensibilities and birthed “Ain’t No Stoppin’ This”, which most aficionados consider a true underrated classic. And even if it was overkill, “Atlanta” putting Black people in a “fairytale”, as Glover deemed it, was fun to observe at times–whether it was visiting an underground residence or watching Alfred trip on some drugs throughout the streets of Amsterdam. But all and all, there were just too many things that made this season fall flat on its face, and certainly not worth the multi-year wait.
If I were to narrow the ills of this past season of “Atlanta” down to 3 things, I’d first start with the fact that we really only got 6 episodes of “Atlanta” as we know it. Six! That’s after waiting four years. The Sopranos once took 2 years off at the height of its powers, and came back with 13 episodes. Larry David once took six years off and came back with 10 incredibly well-done episodes. Now, I know there was a pandemic and everything, but word on the street is that Season 3 was written before the pandemic, inclusive of the season finale, so it’s quite possible they were planning to give us what we got in the first place. Of course, they did give us another 4 episodes, in which none of the major characters took part, yet still called those “episodes”. What they really were though were short films–and really vessels that gave the writers of the show the room to do some creative messaging in a lazy, yet somewhat unique, fashion that probably doubled as a cost-saving measure given that those episodes, on a per-minute basis, had to be much cheaper to shoot without the beloved actors we’ve come to love–and there’s no doubt shooting on location in some of Europe’s most expensive cities wasn’t cheap. Clearly, viewers didn’t like these overdone short films. While I fully know that ratings aren’t the metric we should be going by any more, each airing of those off-brand episodes of “Atlanta” resulted in far fewer viewers than the week before. And when the show opened the season with a short film, it killed the original viewership for the actual season premiere.
Second, “Atlanta” all of a sudden turned into an anthology, and a poorly done one at that. “Atlanta” has always been of the mindset that we’ll skip a decent amount of time in the storyline to get to the monumental parts of the show’s intended arcs and themes. But what they did in season 3 was a bit hacky. I’ve already mentioned jumping in and out of the actual storyline by doing these short films, but then they also decided that the episodes, after episodes 2 and 3, just weren’t going to have any connectivity whatsoever. There seemed to be almost no arcs except for the fact that they were in Europe and Van was exhibiting uncharacteristic, and unexplained, behavior. We didn’t see Earn grow. Alfred didn’t have any real problems–except the overdone first world problem of being the lonely superstar. And while Van’s behavior was explained in about 30 seconds at the end of the season finale, her pop-in-pop-out status was a curious choice given how her and Earn ended things in season 2–with both their love and child in the crossfire.
Please don’t get me wrong. Individually, the 6 main episodes that made up Season 3 of “Atlanta” were good short films and would get standing ovations at Sundance. But connectivity is what makes TV work as a medium and it’s what made us fall in love with this show. Yet this season didn’t have any of it. And it’s a cop out by the writers to simply say they didn’t want to give us what TV always gives us. Okay, that’s fine–redefine TV, give us a new way to explore a plot, themes, and characters that takes advantage of the medium at hand. But don’t give me a tried and true anthology series and try to tell me that you’re doing something new…you’re not. You’re really just afraid to deliver on the pressure of a plot that can accomplish all of the crazy stories and messages you wanted to tell, and thus, they decided to hide behind telling us this is just the “good stuff” you wanted us to see.
Third, and lastly, I have to ask the question: did you actually do a whole lot of laughing this season? In this so-called era of “Peak TV”, it seems that one of the things that has been lost is actually trying to make us laugh. Yes, I know I’m not the first one to decry the fall of the sitcom, but it’s certainly not wrong of me to point out that a show that kicked things off in its pilot episode with a man making a peanut butter-jelly sandwich on the bus and then later turned “The Migos” into a Black, quasi-three-stooges group of drug dealers, has the expectations of being funny. But I’ll admit, funny is hard to keep up. It’s much easier to draw people in with “different”, weird, horror-filled, thematic episodes. Hell, it’s why the finale, featuring Van, was so engrossing, despite the fact it did little to actually explain Van’s state of mind–or make us laugh.
Of course, many will disagree with me. Stephen Glover certainly does, as he thinks this was the best season of “Atlanta” ever. There will also be the “Atlanta” apologists who think Donald Glover can do no wrong, despite the fact that his creative genius has certainly had its issues. That said, I admire Glover, but he is not without fault, and season 3 of “Atlanta” more than proves that. He’s trying to be a lot of things to a lot of different people with this show, and in that effort, he failed to deliver on the promise that “Atlanta” started off with: we’re going to be surreal (aka weird), Black, funny and character-driven. They achieved something weird this season–there’s no doubt about that. And I’ll never deny this being a Black show, despite the other detractors out there. But this season’s arc lacked the humor we’ve known the show for, as well as the characters we’ve come to love. Sure, there were new characters we met, but they weren’t developed and didn’t live up to the hype.
As I said though, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to be there for season 4 tonight. Maybe it’s just me knowing that the setting is returning to “Atlanta”, and thus I assume that means a return to a show that lives up to its promise.
What I do know for sure, is that despite the complete and utter failure of LL Cool J’s “14 Shots to the Dome”, he came back stronger than ever with his very next album, “Mr. Smith”, which is widely noted as one of his best albums. Here’s to hoping “Atlanta” finds its “Mr. Smith” tonight on FX.