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FEATURING: Jharrel Jerome, Olivia Washington, Walton Goggins, Kara Young, Carmen Ejogo, Mike Epps, Brett Gray
PLOT: Cootie, a 13-foot tall black man, tries to find a purpose in Oakland, while idolizing a real-life superhero/media sensation known as “the Hero.”
COMMENTS: How do you find shoes for a 13-foot tall teenager? And how do you support him without him eating you out of house and home? If you care about the answers to these stupid questions, then “I’m a Virgo” is not for you. If, on the other hand, you’re curious as to how giant Cootie is going to carry on a romantic affair with the normal-sized Flora—who experiences time at about ten times the speed of other people—then have I got a series for you!
“I’m a Virgo” is, on the one hand, a charming story of a sweet, naive man-child coming-of-age in a world that’s not always kind to the differently-heighted. Since this is a Boots Riley joint, it’s also a left-wing political allegory, with a citizen-led rent strike occupying a major subplot. The series is, unexpectedly, also a satire of superhero culture; in Riley’s eyes, these icons of law-and-order are nothing more than propagandist for the status quo . Cootie, meanwhile, is the ultimate image of the Other; he’s a minority of one even within his own minority group. And there are ample, literal lectures about the evils of capitalism. Most of the time, these are far too on-the-nose, as compared to the subtler satire seen in Riley’s debut feature Sorry to Bother You, where such critiques arose naturally as an organic part of the plot. But I can at least say that these lessons are far livelier (and more hallucinatory) than the similarly didactic Marxist monologues that occasionally pop up in ‘s Dziga Vertov movies of the late 60s and early 70s.
And, since this is, again, a Boots Riley joint, it’s also a work that explores these weighty issues by diving into a deep well of absurdist satire. If you thought the premise of a 13-foot man roaming the hood was enough madness for one series, Riley disagrees. We also get the story of the Hero, a homegrown Oakland version of Batman, who runs a comics empire during the day and fights crime at night from his headquarters, and whose elevator moves the building up and down instead of shuttling people between floors. He and Cootie aren’t the only remarkable humans on the block: about half the cast has hidden superpowers which are gradually revealed. The series also features a group of tiny people about as big as your finger, as well as a religious cult devoted to Cootie (who is indifferent to them). Remarkably, Riley ladles out the insanity with a steady hand, sprinkling his twisted creation with bold, surreal flavors, but never overwhelming the core story or making his characters seem anything less than psychologically real (regardless of height).
The extended length of the series format is both a blessing and a curse here. On the plus side, Riley has plenty of time to explore numerous oddball cul-de-sacs without taking time away from character development; for example, the smidgen of crazy grace that comes with a pirate broadcast of an animated series-within-the-series, a digression that would feel too far afield in a feature. Almost an entire episode is devoted to the Hero’s bizarre lifestyle; there’s so much richness here, in his fear of assassination by ninjas, his relationship to his subordinates, and his search for the perfect mate, that a spin-off series devoted to this complex character would be most welcome. On the other hand, it’s always troubling when the first season of a series like this wraps up awkwardly, tying up some loose ends but leaving others flapping in the breeze. Unfortunately, “I’m a Virgo” falls prey to this syndrome in the final episode; it’s particularly disappointing that the Hero ends his too-short arc in anticlimactic fashion. Overall, however, this is a small complaint for Riley’s extraordinary sophomore effort, and one that Amazon can easily make moot if they decide to pick up “I’m a Virgo” for round two. This bizarro Oakland neighborhood has too much craziness left to explore to leave after a mere seven episodes.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an epic and surreal story that is part fairy tale, part parable, and utterly unique. Evoking the same off-kilter filmmaking style as his feature film debut, Riley has delivered one of the weirdest streaming series in recent memory that pulls together statements on unemployment, racial bias, exploitation, and class warfare within the guise of a comic book-themed superhero adventure. I’m A Virgo is weird and weirdly wonderful.”–Alex Maidy, JoBlo (contemporaneous)