"Random Acts of Flyness" — a new HBO weekly series that launched Friday at midnight — is part fever dream, part sketch comedy, part surreal aesthetic statement. Pick your label, because each is correct. A creation of Brooklyn-based filmmaker and artist Terence Nance, "Flyness" is only superficially about "patriarchy, white supremacy and sensuality" — HBO's words — but goes deeper into a dreamscape occupied by (of all people) Jon Hamm, who, in one sketch in the pilot, sells a product to "cure white thoughts." Another is about the "1,000 worries black people should not have to worry about." (In the launch, viewers got "No. 473.") Then there was Rita the Reaper, a '60s-era kids TV host, who tells her youthful African-American fans that "everybody dies."
Did I mention the animation, of which there is plenty? It's exuberant and excellent. HBO ordered six episodes of "Flyness," but expect more. This show is simply remarkable.
I spoke recently with Nance, 36 — a Dallas native and NYU grad, whose acclaimed indie film "An Oversimplification of Her Beauty" (about Nance's ruminations on unrequited love) premiered at Sundance in 2012. An edited version of our chat:
What's the genesis of "Flyness"?
I was in college when I wrote the first treatment in 2006 [and] I was in the process of making my first feature ["Oversimplification"]. I was just in the mode of trying to bring everything I do to the table. Then, in 2014, my friend and colleague Tamir Muhammad had this project at Time Warner [where Muhammad is director of content and artist development] called OneFifty. I had a bunch of stuff I'd made and we put that together, and kind of created a pilot with different segments with interstitial pieces.
There's nothing like this on TV — a high compliment, by the way — but any concern it'd go over the heads of viewers or even HBO?
My feeling is HBO did get it instantly [because] it does use visual and sonic language that is readily legible and understandable. Who the characters were [like Rita or Hamm] and what the emotions were are clear and I always thought they were even if the presentation was new. In some ways, that [the newness] was an asset.
"Flyness" can be funny and scary in the same moment, which is a neat trick. We learn, for example, what the No. 473 thing is that black people need to worry about. What's 472 or 474?
(Laughs) We wrote them all down and unfortunately, they are innumerable.
Your film, "Oversimplification" — which was also filled with animation — was labeled "Afrofuturist." Does the same label apply here?
My thinking about that label is that it's particularly kind of coded with a visual and sonic aesthetic that's about science fiction, or something fantastical or some exploration of black people in the future. The pilot's obviously surreal and I'm black, but I think the kind of aesthetic I wanted was articulated in the '70s with [funk pioneer] Betty Davis, or [SoCal artist] Martine Syms, and her 'Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto' [which essentially argues that black artists need to focus on a real future, not a sci-fi one]. Our future doesn't have to be in space, but there has to be ways of defining the future with what's relevant right now.
It's an exciting time for black filmmakers on TV. What statement do you want "Flyness" to ultimately make?
I believe in chaos, so I don't think there is a way to describe what it will be or mean culturally. [Also] the series is not just me, but it's also eight other writers and directors ['Flyness' has eight executive producers] who are close to me. Their voice is cross-pollinated with my voice. There's so much commonality with us but huge differences with all of us, too.
And I've got to ask about the trade reports: Will you in fact direct "Space Jam 2," with LeBron James in the starring role?
That would be great if it did happen. (Laughs) I grew up on that movie.