'Unplanned America': “Boyz in the Hood” and ”Inhibition and Exhibition”
The reality TV road show tackles sex, cycling, and hip-hop in its third and fourth episodes.
Unplanned AmericaCast: Pawel Jarecki, Tim 'Gonzo' Ryan, Nick Maher
Subtitle: “Boyz in the Hood” and ”Inhibition and Exhibition”
The fourth episode of Unplanned America, titled “Inhibition and Exhibition”, is easily the first season’s most entertaining, as the boys hit the West Coast in an attempt to see what happens in situations where people cast off their inhibitions.
Their first stop is Los Angeles, California: they’ve been given access to a porno film shoot produced by Vivid Entertainment, one of the biggest names in the adult film industry. The shoot is, as we quickly come to find out, an XXX-rated parody of Austin Powers. Any viewers unfamiliar with the porno parody genre learn all they need to as the film’s director, David Stanley, explains the, well, ins and outs of the script’s plot.
The rest of their time on the set is filled with both awkward little gems, like Dr. Evil riding a phallic rocket against a green screen, and more somber moments meant to humanize the film’s cast. A visibly nervous Gonz spends a significant amount of the episode interviewing the actors and actresses, asking questions about how and why they got into the adult entertainment industry: some got into for the sex and stayed for the money, others got into it for the money and stayed because of the sex.
There are no tearful revelations here; Unplanned America avoids trotting out any of the well-worn stereotypes of sex work that often accompany such behind-the-scenes examinations of the porn industry. Instead, they focus on the professional concerns of the people making these films. Veteran starlet Nina Hartley discusses the effects of piracy and digital media on the industry’s profitability, and director David Stanley laments the loss of porn’s underground, seedy feel with the rise of the Internet. Despite the industry’s financial concerns and the actors' personal struggles with social stigma, the feeling one gets is that the people on this set genuinely enjoy their jobs.
When the actual sex scenes begin filming, the real entertainment becomes watching Gonzo and Parv squirm. Grippers check their cellphones, lighting rigs are adjusted, and the boys glance nervously at one another as the soundtrack reaches peak ludicrousness: Austin Powers’ trademark “yeah, baby” punctuating an orgasmic moan. However, the episode’s most charming moment is courtesy of a nude Tommy Pistol, in full Austin Powers regalia, singing “Happy Birthday” to Parv while being dusted with baby powder by a production assistant. A birthday for the books, I can imagine.
The boys wrap up this episode by traveling to Portland, Oregon, to witness the city’s annual Naked Bike Ride. The event, as we’re given to understand it, is a loosely organized, light-hearted protest of a variety of issues, from the vulnerability of cyclists on the road, to the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Overall, though, the 10,000 person-strong ride seems more about personal liberation and outsider camaraderie than anything else. As one rider puts it, “It’s great for community building.”
The third episode, “Boyz in the Hood”, has a decidedly more somber tone, as the crew travels to some of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods to learn about the city’s emerging “drill music” hip-hop scene. According to the episode’s voice-over, drill music is characterized by grim, aggressive beats and lyrics that depict the realities of gang warfare that plague many of Chicago’s underprivileged neighborhoods. The Unplanned America crew is admittedly nervous when they arrive in one such neighborhood for a behind-the-scenes view of Chicago rapper King Louie’s first video shoot, and are visibly out of the place in the neighborhood.
They quickly learn, however, not just about Chicago’s drill music scene, but also about the inconsistencies and ambiguities that mark inner-city life. America’s “most dangerous neighborhood” is full of incredibly friendly people. Neighborhood kids poke good-natured fun at the filmmakers’ Australian accents, and music industry insiders patiently answer their questions about the area’s crime rates.
The video shoot quickly becomes a community attraction, drawing a huge crowd from surrounding homes. The desire to motivate the neighborhood's children and teens, and to show them a way out of the miasma of gang violence is constantly repeated throughout the episode. As Chicago music legend George Daniels notes, the shoots provide neighborhood kids with the opportunity to see full-scale productions, as well as modeling a range of career options made possible by the local music scene.
As much as violence marks the city and its music culture — “drill music” itself refers to the gang vendetta culture known as “drilling” — it's also marked by a deep and persistent belief that things can get better. One of the most surprising aspects of this episode was learning that most of the emerging artists in the Chicago scene are teenagers. One young artist profiled by the crew, Sasha Go Hard, is emphatic about her commitment to using her craft to create something positive out of a childhood marked by violence and struggle. “I love Chicago, but it’s rough,” she tells the camera.
If there's a take-away from this episode, it’s that communities lacking in material goods are often still rich in culture, community, and spirit. Clearly, Chicago’s South Side is one of these communities.
The show’s primary asset continues to be its even-handed, humane treatment of topics that could easily slide into cartoonish or stereotyped portrayals. When I started the season, I was particularly concerned about the show adopting an outsider perspective of American subcultures that would ultimately serve to reinforce the clichés for which we are known abroad: Americans as loud, crass, and materialistic. Much to my satisfaction, the show has (thus far) not taken that perspective.
If there's anything negative to be said about Unplanned America, it’s that its creators haven’t quite figured out the format that best suits the show’s content. Some episodes feature only one subject, while others feature two, but the time spent on each is variable and can undermine the episode’s pacing. Emotionally heavy meditations, such as the Chicago drill music segment, are often capped with the kind of unrelated shenanigans one expects from three friends on a road trip, but the result is often less charming than anticlimactic. It’ll be interesting to see where the show goes in its final episodes. The goods are all there — they just need some artful arranging.