It’s been five years since director Boots Riley’s riot of a debut, “Sorry to Bother You,” dominated conversations. With a deft hand that crafted comedy with punchy social critique, “Sorry to Bother You” put Riley’s creativity and contributions to Afro-Surrealism on the map. The style he implemented in that film proves to be not a one-and-done, but a jumping-off point, as he reaches into his toolbox of absurdism and humor yet again in his new Prime Video series, “I’m a Virgo.”
The show follows Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), a 13-foot-tall, 19-year-old Black man raised in Oakland. Jerome, noted most for his dramatic work as Kevin in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and Korey Wise in Ava Duvernay’s “When They See Us,” stretches his legs (quite literally) into funky new territory with this series.
Cootie is sheltered. His adoptive parents (Mike Epps and Carmen Ejogo) keep him cooped up in the house for fear that when people discover him, he will be ogled, tokenized, and eventually disposed of. They keep him fearful with headlines of the giants who came before him, who now exist only in graveyards, science labs, or museums. So when Cootie decides to venture out of their home against their wishes, we’re equally skeptical but intrigued of how the world will receive him. What ensues is an absolute romp of a coming-of-age story, chock full of Cali culture, first love, friendship, and biting social examination.
The 13-foot-tall gimmick runs the gamut of physical comedy and day-to-day hilarity. Cootie’s size is accomplished through CGI, forced perspectives, and practical doll-size props, all of which work extremely well in Riley’s world. It’s incredibly kitschy, and the fun of it remains intact even when it isn’t believable. Through tickling sequences, we learn how he eats, uses the bathroom, and eventually, in one of the series’ most memorable moments, has sex.
Jerome embodies Cootie’s physical and social awkwardness with fun-loving empathy. His naivety causes us to view him much like his parents do, with protective care. Jerome manages the clumsiness and curiosity of Cootie without infantilizing him and, in the funnier moments, shows his comedic edge. Whether it’s using superspeed to test the romantic waters with counter worker Flora (Olivia Washington) at the Bing Bang Burger joint, downing a plate of tacos like it’s nothing, or assisting his friends in doing two-wheel donuts in their convertible, Jerome’s Cootie is a joy to watch.
Absurdity is the series’ truest commitment, and it functions not only for laughs but thematic support as well. A perfectly cast Walton Goggins plays “The Hero,” a millionaire with a super-suit á la Iron Man (but in the worst of ways). He’s basically a supercop on steroids, flying over Oakland, lauding the importance of law and order, and alerting Black teens that “three or more people dressed in similar clothing may be prosecuted as a gang.” Goggins is absolutely insane in his portrayal, but it’s exactly what the show needs in a ludicrous antagonist.
The Hero’s character represents the problems with the police but levels up by meshing that point with the world’s obsession with superheroes. Cootie idolizes The Hero’s comics but learns that with real-world implications, The Hero is not a protector of the people but of America’s classist, capitalist rhetoric. Capitalism is on full display in “I’m a Virgo.” From tackling the inaccessibility of healthcare in a particularly damning episode to a throughline of a cult of Steve Jobs lookalikes who name Cootie as their messiah, Riley explores the consequences of the institution with varying senses of gravity.
Even in opaque representations, the integrity of the commentary is not lost. When an agent approaches Cootie and books him as a model in a series of fashion installations where he, a giant Black man, terrorizes white mannequins, Cootie knows it’s “f**cked up.” Yet he chases the bag, sacrificing a shred of his dignity for a check.
“I’m a Virgo” has fun with its coming-of-age format while also staying true to the struggles of that life era, particularly for a young Black person. Navigating friendship, first loves, and spreading your wings from the parental grasp is one set of universal hurdles, but learning how to endure a political landscape that puts a target on your back is a beast of its own. With an incredible roster of talent animating this world, “I’m a Virgo” is a laugh riot, a pulsing social document, and an empathetic character study. Riley’s quick wit, surrealist creativity, and nuanced social investigation add this series to his history of absurdist excellence. If another five years is the cost of a third edition, it’ll be worth the wait.
Whole series was screened for review. “I’m a Virgo” premieres on Prime Video today.