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The end of Key and Peele

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 10, 2015

Wesley Morris expertly examines the show’s achievements:

American television has always been fundamentally white. Its points of view emanate from the vantages of those who control the industry and create its content. If it deals with race as a problem, it typically can do so only if it believes there’s a solution. But as a black viewer, I’m never looking for contrition, simply an acknowledgement of a condition; I don’t need television — or American culture — to provide a remedy. Black America has tended to see the discrepancy between the cultural importance to diagnose and the delusion to attempt to cure. Merely giving a nonwhite person a speaking role is not absolution. That contradiction is visible to a black audience almost anytime it sees itself chauffeuring, housekeeping, mammying, best-friending, sidekicking, saying everything about white characters while saying nothing about itself. That was the biracial brilliance of Key and Peele. It understood race as real and racism as inevitable, and never lost sight of the way in which individual white people can be agents of change but also of offense, wittingly or not supporting a system of demoralization.

Kwame Opam discusses how the show lived and grew across the world wide web:

Key & Peele’s greatest strength and weakness was its format; as a sketch show, it’s best remembered for its bite-sized bits — most of which wound up online. “Substitute Teacher,” which first aired in 2012, is one of the show’s earliest highlights. It quickly went viral, and right it now boasts more than 80 million views on YouTube. Earlier this year, Paramount even announced it plans on turning it into a feature-length film. But the episode it premiered on only pulled in 1.16 million viewers at the time, a drop in the bucket compared to its online views. And it makes sense, especially for a huge swath of the population that doesn’t have cable. Why wait for the show when you can watch the best clips on the internet?

This is a complex but not unique irony: how a slice of pop culture in 2015 can be popular enough for the President himself to take notice (and embrace it), and to seem to have zeitgeist-defining properties, but not be quite popular enough to sustain a half hour in basic cable.

Maybe that’s tied to something Morris and Opam touch on but don’t quite name. More than any show on television, to my mind, Key and Peele felt young. Not young in the shallow way that all media, maybe especially television, seem to exploit young talent; not young in the same reckless, juvenile way Chappelle’s Show or vintage Saturday Night Live was; young in the open, searching, insouciant, absurdist key that’s so important to sketch comedy.

That’s what’s in the mix of what Morris rightly identifies as the show’s blend of sadness and acceptance. It’s youth knowing that this is not forever, that it would be wrong to linger, that the future (and everything good, bad, and unchanging that comes with it) is inevitable.