Wu-Tang: An American Saga

3 out of 5

Created by: RZA, Alex Tse

covers seasons 1 and 2

Fictionalized biographical histories are… interesting. Someone decides that someone else’s real life story would probably make for solid entertainment, and sets about “adapting” it. Motive can maybe be questionable – one of our main focuses here, Bobby Diggs (played by Ashton Sanders), would become RZA, co-founder of the hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan, and… co-creator of this show. But I can’t deny the potential of a series focusing on himself, in the same way I can’t deny the righteousness of the show’s subtitle: Wu-Tang had a huge impact on the music scene, and the experiences that’ve been rapped throughout their discography could surely make for gripping material; whether or not that impact and those experiences are representative of America as a whole is, perhaps, debatable, but we’re talking about a legion of musicians whose albums are known internationally, and whose influence is seen and felt at a similar scope in music today. And the from-the-ground-up processes many of those musicians had to suffer through to get to where they got – ain’t that, indeed, quite a classic “American” story, especially bearing in mind all of the class and race struggles that involved? (As in: class warfare is part of American history, and weee, so is our racism.)

But back to that “fictionalized” tag, and motives, and how those play out: in adapting the material, a stance is taken – are we here to be entertained, are we here to educate, or are we here to hit a checklist of facts, for fans to nod at and perhaps argue about their accuracy?

While Wu-Tang’s moment-to-moment stories make for great, and occasional impactful TV, turning a very sobering, unsentimental eye towards a lifestyle in which slinging drugs to get by is really the only option “allowed,” and aggravations many of us have never had to deal with are daily issues – issues that, for better or worse, become accepted as How Things Are, its linear storytelling suffers, because it can’t quite settle on which mode of the above it’s going with. During its initial stages, when it’s really just laying the pieces – introducing Bobby and his friends and family; showing us the give-and-take between wanting to make beats in his basement and needing to earn money to support his mother and sister and brother; circling around all the eventual Wu-Tang members, so we can see how they fit into the community; and establishing that community, and the 1990s setting – during this portion of the show, its flow can be more open. We’re not really pressured into stepping through timeline landmarks quite yet. But eventually – perhaps about the halfway mark of the first season – we have to pick up the pace, and the show starts pushing us toward a collage of ongoing subplots (romances, rival gangs), Easter Egg references, and checkpoints on the Wu-Tang history. That latter bit arrives in a conflicted state: do we know who these people are yet? Do we know why Bobby’s production work was so visionary, or how the lyrics we here stand out from others?

In other words, the show gets its fan service and TV-isms confused, treating the latter with a bit of “you had to be there” lack of ceremony. And unfortunately, the former begins to suffer as well, as the effectiveness of those subplots is subjected to the escalating timeline. A skip forward towards the end of the season is especially puzzling, jumping past where a lot of things could’ve heated up.

Because the second season is more in the swing of telling the actual Wu-Tang story, and not its pre- formative elements, it’s a bit more seamless, but also lacks the initial emotional punch with which the show started. And that confusion between not knowing how to play to an audience who might know their Wu versus who doesn’t still exists.

From the ensemble cast, there’s also a big problem: Sanders. While everyone is sort of doing an impression of whoever they’re representing, they also come across as people; Sanders never makes it past the impression. It never feels like he’s acting with people in a scene, rather just trying to get down RZA’s mannerisms. This can obviously make immersion pretty difficult when he has to carry a scene, but thankfully, the large cast list is used pretty effectively – even though Bobby’s role is centered in the narrative, he’s not necessarily cetner stage the whole way through.

Despite all of this, the Wu story – however much it may or may not be fictionalized – still is a surely fascinating one, and RZA and Alex Tse and their various writers and directors know that the local NY settings, and getting deep with the industry ins and outs, are just as important “characters” for the story, giving the show an appreciably meaty backbone throughout.