Even in a musical genre built on self-mythologizing, few acts have crafted a narrative as varied and outsized as the Wu-Tang Clan. With a core in the vicinity of 10 rappers (depending on how you define Cappadonna), each boasting multiple aliases, plus a family of associated acts in the dozens, the Wu built a brand based on the street-level drama of their primarily Staten Island upbringing, but filtered through lenses as eclectic as martial arts movies, comic books and 5 Percenter doctrine. The Wu narrative is gritty and grounded, while at the same time verging on urban legend or tall tale.
It’s fitting, then, that 2019 has seen TV take two approaches to the Wu-Tang Clan legacy, very different tellings, yet each featuring an assortment of Wu members as executive producers, like if you asked The RZA to break this down a hundred times, it’d never get told the same way twice.
After giving director Sacha Jenkins free rein on Showtime’s exceptional four-hour Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, RZA has more control over Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga, which he created with Alex Tse. A scripted series — I’ve seen eight of 10 episodes — it captures some of the group’s kaleidoscopic perspective and nascent brilliance, but leaves too many of its best ideas half-developed. The documentary captured the music and the personalities better and, more importantly, it tells the story so much more clearly that I’d almost call Of Mics and Men a required introductory text to make any sense of American Saga.
American Saga starts in Staten Island in the early ’90s, introducing a teenage Bobby Diggs (Ashton Sanders), caught between two versions of the American Dream. Bobby wants to make music, but his older brother Divine (Julian Elijah Martinez) is applying an untrained business savvy to the drug game in the hopes of moving the entire family to a better life. With the help of Bobby’s lifelong friend Dennis (Siddiq Saunderson), Divine is running a crew out of Stapleton, stoking an increasingly violent rivalry with a Park Hill crew led by Power (Marcus Callender) and Sha (Shameik Moore), another of Bobby’s friends. Floating in this general sphere are Statue of Liberty concession stand assistant manager Shotgun (Dave East) and Bobby’s cousin Gary (Johnell Young).
There’s a burgeoning feud that you’d expect to turn deadly if you didn’t know that Bobby is going to be The RZA, Dennis will eventually be Ghostface Killah, Sha is on his way to becoming Raekwon, Gary is The GZA and Shotgun is Method Man-bound. Or maybe you don’t know those things. If that’s the case, I’d bet you won’t be able to make heads or tails of the relationships between these characters and their individual personality traits — nor will you have a clue what’s up with the eccentric supporting character constantly scamming for food or women who may not even have a name in the series, but is well on his way to becoming Ol’ Dirty Bastard (TJ Atoms).
This is one of those prequels that runs on dramatic irony, because if you don’t already know where the story is going, it’s frequently hard to be engaged by where the story actually is. These characters want to escape the life they’re living for a better one, though with the heavy reliance on familiar tropes, you may think they’re just trying to escape the genre their show is primarily set in for a new, no less well-trod, one — leaving The Wire (or Power) behind for Empire (or Hustle & Flow), basically.
The story is just a version of the truth, a construct, and American Saga doesn’t let you forget that. For logical reasons, the musical side of the story feels much more alive than the low-rent crime story, and I’d gladly have traded out hours of macho posturing, crack-cooking and stash house obsession for more equal time watching Bobby trying to figure out a new drum machine without an owner’s manual. One is a TV show I’ve seen 50 times before and the other a fresh snapshot of fledgling genius. That’s probably why the eighth episode, written by Gabe Fonseca and directed by Tara Nicole Weyr, was easily my favorite of the group sent to critics, a terrific rise-and-fall arc in miniature, tracing the origins of the Wu-Tang ethos.
There are attempts to tell the otherwise unremarkable story through Wu-colored glasses, though none of those flourishes are introduced in the Chris Robinson-directed pilot. The second episode has bursts of animation that are part Fritz the Cat, part Saturday morning cartoons. Subsequent episodes have hints of a console video game or weathered, grindhouse cinematography. In each case, what seems like a great idea and approach to the episodic adventure is just a taste, without enough follow-through to ever be completely satisfying or illuminating. Sometimes this all feels intentional, like these enticing elements of inspiration right on the edge of these characters’ lives. More frequently, it feels inconsistent or insufficiently committed.
Sanders is a solid centerpiece to the story, but Bobby isn’t an especially dynamic character until that eighth episode. I look forward to seeing the Moonlight veteran get more to do as the story moves forward. For these episodes, the standout was probably Saunderson. The proto-Ghostface Killah has the most colors to play, including a romantic relationship with Bobby’s sister Shurrie (Zolee Griggs) that only avoids feeling like a perfunctory pause in the non-stop testosterone because of how sympathetic Griggs is in an underwritten role. In a series that even struggles to provide even thin “girlfriend” parts, Erika Alexander, as Bobby and Divine’s hard-working mother, also manages a few fiercely memorable beats.
East, who has a burgeoning hip-hop career of his own, becomes more and more comfortable with Method Man’s familiar mannerisms and cadences as he goes along, and Atoms does admirable work making ODB’s larger-than-life ridiculousness come across as organic and not just comic relief. Scattered throughout the episodes are brief but welcome guest appearances by the likes of Stephen McKinley Henderson, Bokeem Woodbine and Jamie Hector.
My initial instinct after the pilot, which features Future RZA and Future Raekwon freestyling an almost album-perfect version of “7th Chamber,” was that American Saga might be rushing from rags to riches too quickly. Then after the fourth and fifth episodes, too much by-the-numbers New York drug drama, I began worrying it was going to spin its wheels forever. The eighth episode was where Wu-Tang: An American Saga was closest to the series I wanted to watch, but maybe all I really want is to watch Of Mics and Men again or go for a drive pumping Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
We all choose the Wu-Tang Clan origin story we prefer, I guess. What an age to live in.
Cast: Ashton Sanders, Shameik Moore, Siddiq Saunderson, Julian Elijah Martinez, Marcus Callender, Erika Alexander, Zolee Griggs, David “Dave East” Brewster, TJ Atoms
Creators: Alex Tse and The RZA
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)