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The Vince Staples Show review – this joyously weird comedy is ludicrously suave

<span>Endlessly compelling … Vince Staples (right) with Kareem Grimes as Uncle Mike in The Vince Staples Show.</span><span>Photograph: Netflix</span>
Endlessly compelling … Vince Staples (right) with Kareem Grimes as Uncle Mike in The Vince Staples Show.Photograph: Netflix

Sidney Poiter once said he was tasked with “a terrific burden”. As the most high-profile Black actor of his era he felt he carried “the hopes and dreams of an entire people”, but in 2024, when the TV landscape has nurtured the talents of Will Smith, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and Quinta Brunson, Black talent’s burden seems less terrific. Clearly musician/comedian/actor Vince Staples doesn’t feel the pressure to be the respectable role model that Poitier felt he needed to be, judging by his self-titled sitcom – in which he really lets his freak flag fly.

Staples’s latest project embraces the weird, with this self-titled, surreal comedy – in which his protagonist navigates the dream-logic of a disquieting reality. He plays a fictionalised version of himself, a successful performer with a natural swagger whose world is filled with twisted, David Lynch-like humour. This Vince lives in a stylish mid-century modern home in a bizarre version of Long Beach, California, which is referred to only as “the Beach”, and the episodes begin with a Fargo-esque disclaimer: “This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to actual events are purely coincidental.”

The first episode follows a brief stint in jail after a traffic violation where even the racist police officers can’t help but think Staples is pretty darn cool. The rest follows our preternaturally chilled-out hero on an odyssey through small business loans, tense family cookouts, reunions with childhood rivals and, horror of horrors, trying to find a decent thing to eat at a theme park.

While the set-ups are slight, the execution is delicious. Staples navigates bank heists and relationship quandaries with ludicrous suaveness. He casts himself as the perpetual straight man, nonplussed by the surreal goings-on around him, even resorting to deadpan wit mid-bank robbery (“You do a heist, you’re George Clooney. You rob a bank, you’re Queen Latifah”). To add to the spirit of marching to the beat of his own drum, there are only five episodes, which range from 26 to just 18 minutes.

Staples himself is an endlessly compelling presence, with a near-permanent furrowed brow, a baritone drawl and a lightness of touch in his delivery that means he never overexerts himself to land a punchline. The dialogue is sparse but pointed. We don’t hear how exactly our eponymous figure knows the face-painted figure who is robbing the bank where he has just been refused a loan, but their easy rapport is so effortlessly established that we not only come to immediately understand the nature of their relationship, but also join Vince in wanting them to make off with the vault’s contents in a speedy getaway.

Staples has previously been best known as an affiliate of the California alt hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, which counted Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator among its members. But he has also appeared in the recent White Men Can’t Jump remake, coming-of-age indie dramedy Dope and has a recurring role on the popular sitcom Abbott Elementary as Janine’s love interest, Maurice. Given his career background and his show’s phantasmagorical flights of whimsy, the logical comparison for this series would be with Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which was launched after Glover’s successful stint on Dan Harmon’s cult college-set comedy Community and early success under his rapper pseudonym Childish Gambino. Even if the two highly funny, delightfully weird shows are ultimately different beasts, both afford plenty of joy in watching Black men afforded the creative freedom to present the twisted workings of their minds without self-censoring for the sake of mass appeal – even if that comes across as a little weird to some.

The series touches upon some serious issues as well as the more surreal comic touches. It delves into mass incarceration, gun violence and a difficult relationship between Vince and his mother (Coming to America’s Vanessa Bell Calloway) – who are perpetually having to post bail for one another. But these issues only arise as they serve Vince’s story, rather than his journey being used as a tool to preach about struggles facing the entire African American community.

The series is executive produced by Kenya Barris, whose previous show, black-ish, focused on a successful, loving Black family and reportedly had 79% non-Black viewership. But the show is Staples’s unique vision. Unlike black-ish’s willingness to perform Blackness for the uninitiated (explaining to its audience the biases around hair, colourism or why “we” love Prince), The Vince Staples Show isn’t interested in making it more palatable or comprehensible to placate the Netflix masses. The creative partnership between the pair seems to have brought out the best in both, making this a return to form for Barris and a wonderful showcase of Staples’ talents. These Black artists joyously fill the screen with a vision unburdened by needing to be the representative of an entire community, and it’s down to audiences to step into this world and buckle up for a weird and wonderful ride.

  • The Vince Staples Show is on Netflix