In Retrospect: The PJs

Tubi is probably my favorite streaming app, no this isn't an advertisement. They've got a great combination of classic movies and TV shows, new and original content and the price is free. During my weekly dive into their newly available content I came across a show from my childhood. The PJs a show put together by Eddie Murphey. I decided to dive back in and let me tell you, this is nothing like what I remember.

If you don't remember The PJs was a claymation style show that followed the tenants of the Hilton Jacob Projects in Chicago.  The tenants feature lovable characters such as Muriel, Calvin and Juicy, as well as some hate-able characters like Thurgood and Mrs. Avery. Most of the characters don't like each other and have lasting feuds such as Haiti Lady and Sanchez, who believes she killed his wife. There's Thurgood against Mrs. Avery and the two of them against everyone else. Still they're a community that depends and helps one another.

The series bounces between one-off episodes with no lasting effects and some with ripples through the series. One thing about the one-off episodes is that they're pretty heavy on the morals. Look at the episode where Hilton Jacobs dies. Thurgood becomes obsessed with the wealth he inherited while haunted by the ghost of Hilton Jacobs. He's reminded that no matter how much money he has, he can't cut himself off from his community and he can't buy happiness either. In one episode a new security door is installed. The whole episode reminds me of the Goodie Mob lyrics from Cell Therapy:

Me and my family moved in our apartment complex. A gate with a serial code was put up next. They claim that this community is so drug free, but it don't look that way to me. [...] Every now and then I wonder if the gate was put up to keep crime out or keep our ass in
During the episode the bulletproof security door with retinal scan and all kinds of extra features is put up to help the residents feel safe. The door is stolen by a gang, who returns it, but sells drugs from the lobby. Now, instead of keeping crime out, it's locked in the building. But according to everyone except the project tenants now stuck in the building on a curfew, placed by the gang, the area is safer. I could be overthinking, as I've been known to do, but it makes me think of how the war on crime doesn't actually fight crime. It tries to manage it by locking in certain undesirable neighborhoods, then looking away. The people that end up punished aren't criminals, but everyone else.

One thing the show is heavy on is discussing the medical field's treatment of Black people. In one episode Thurgood begins suffering from dizzy spells, and eventually feinting. The reason is because his blood pressure is too high. The doctor speaks to him in complicated terms that non medical professionals usually wouldn't understand. When Thurgood finally threatens him he explains that his blood pressure is 190 which is dangerously high, lethally high. Still, he can't do anything for Thurgood unless his blood pressure reaches 200 which would indicate a stroke for most people. (I'm not a doctor, I don't know how accurate that statement is but I know blood pressure is made up of two numbers) Anyway, Thurgood comes back when his blood pressure is over 200 and the doctor places him on an experimental medication with plenty of risks, but also promises $50 if he doesn't die. Once his blood pressure is a normal range, the doctor says there's nothing else for him, no refills, no continued care. He's done, forget any information about how to prevent this in the future or anything like that. When Muriel is sick with the flu, the hospital sends her home in a blizzard because there's nothing they can do for her. In that same episode there's a joke where the residents line up to take flu shots and Thurgood rambles off a conspiracy about it being a way to collect DNA and create clones. The person giving the flu shots panics and yells they'll find another way to test experimental drugs and procedures on. Which, is something that the medical profession has regularly done to Black people.

One joke that hit me exceptionally hard is we see where Calvin and Juicy live, we know they're poor but they're told they can't go to camp because they're not underprivileged enough. Yes, they're poor and live in a crime ridden neighborhood but they're just over the poverty line. That hurt, I remember missing out on a lot of things in my youth because my parents were technically over the poverty line so they didn't meet the requirements for assistance. The entire system is rigged really. You can get government assistance to cover childcare expenses, but only if you aren't over the poverty line. You can get food stamps if you're married but you have to make less than $20,000 a year. Realistically, the poverty line in the United States should be around $35,000 to reach people who need assistance. But we're so stuck on pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and most boots don't have straps. This is a reoccurring theme, not just with the kids. Mrs. Avery is an elderly woman who refuses help from anyone, but struggles to pay her rent is seen eating dog food on more than one occasion. During the episode with Hilton Jacobs' ghost he tells Thurgood that no man or woman can survive on their own in this society. Yet we constantly see people searching for these so called bootstraps, and fail each time, only to be helped by the community.

It isn't just the episodes that hit right on the nose, but the characters. There's this thing where comedians complain that if their content isn't politically correct they'll be "cancelled." Being cancelled isn't a real thing, it is just a joke Black Americans have been making for decades and now you're all afraid of it. The thing is, you probably weren't that funny to begin with if you think being offensive is the only way to get laughs. Karlos Miller coined the phrase "LMNOP Community," almost twenty years after Bernie Mack yelled at gay men in the audience to "suck dick like a man if you're gonna do it," yet neither faced any repercussions because the joke was not about the LGBT community, but the homophobia outside of it. It is entirely possible to make jokes about minority communities without making them the joke. When Karlos Miller tells someone to stop playing with the LMNOP community because they got hands, they are not the joke. It's the men and women constantly getting knocked out due to their homophobia.

I bring this up because people don't understand the difference between being offensive and joking, but I want to give The PJs some credit for understanding this concept, when I was too young to know it was a concept. On the surface, many of their characters may seem offensive, but there actually is a lot of care gone into their backstories presented throughout the show. 

Take Jimmy Ho for example, he's a Korean man that speaks in broken English. He's occasionally caught saying something slightly racist and is quickly reprimanded for this. The think that really makes Jimmy stand out is that he mimics entire portions of Black American culture. The running joke with Jimmy is that he isn't Black and just wants to fit in. This makes Jimmy an amazing character. Long before Twitter was locked in the eternal debate about the simultaneous cultural appropriate and racism pushed by many Asian celebrities in and outside of the K-Pop genre, here was Jimmy Ho. 

That's not to say they didn't make mistakes. Take Haiti Lady for instance, initially she's there to just put curses on people and things. She plays no role other than comic relief. But, they didn't get rid of the character due to backlash, they corrected the course. They gave her a name, a backstory. They proved she was part of the community just as much as any other character. 

There's Smokey, he's a crackhead. It really is that simple, but the show handled him with care. Don't get me wrong, Thurgood gets mad at him, but Thurgood gets mad at everyone. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast tries to include him in everything, and is only disappointed with his actions. They actively try to get him clean on several occasions, invite him to participate in their gumbo contest and he's even invited to christen the new security door despite not living there. They're not upset when he steals from them, they just want him to do better. There's plenty of jokes about crack, but addiction is never treated like a joke.

They had a way of touching on these things without making them running jokes, but reminders. Juicy is a fat kid, and is often seen with a sign that reads "do not feed." His parents are morbidly obese and trapped in their apartment. Juicy is fat could easily have been the joke. Instead characters are often trying to make him eat more vegetables, eat less red meat. They watch Thurgood struggle with his blood pressure and Mrs. Avery have frequent strokes, they don't want that for Juicy. I don't actually recall anyone calling Juicy "fat," besides himself and Thurgood, who hates everyone. Calvin is his best friend, and constantly trying to stop Juicy from eating himself into the same prison his parents have. During the first episode Calvin jokes "The Super can't read," when Thurgood struggles on a word. Thurgood can read and write, at a 4th grade level. Despite Wheel of Fortune being his favorite show, he never finished grade school, because integration was too much to handle. When Muriel is praised for meeting the governor in their youth, she reminds everyone it was because the white kids were beating her in front of the school. They're from a generation where education was something that needed to be fought for and we're constantly reminded of that. One of the things Muriel repeatedly brings up is how far we as Black people have come, but how much further we still have to go to be treated as equals.

I believe another step they took to make sure they were being delicate with these depictions is the cast. Again, long before the uproar about white voice actors being the voice for minority characters, The PJs dodged the issue entirely. Jimmy Ho is voiced by Michael Paul Chan, Sanchez is voiced by Pepe Serna, Black characters are voiced by Black actors. This is a show made up entirely of Black and POC characters portrayed by Black and POC actors. It's kind of amazing when you realize this show made it three full length seasons. 

Looking back at The PJs the show is a lot more than what I remember as a child. I enjoyed the show growing up because adults were drinking, cursing and it was on free network TV before bedtime. When I would get some TV time and couldn't watch a favorite, I wouldn't mind The PJs. Now I understand it wasn't really a show meant for kids. The jokes aren't exactly hidden, but went over my head as a kid. I didn't realize Walter was a dirty corrections officer. I never understood the jokes about needing to check your blood pressure (especially Black men), why Haiti Lady's lectures about Voodoo not being evil and respecting other cultures went over my head. I don't even know if I can call The PJs a great show objectively. What I can say is, it's much better than I ever gave it credit for. If anything it's a collection of parables for adults. 

You can check out some of my short stories at 12 AM Fiction or if you like vampires follow my web serial Exsanguinate and of course hear me on the Powerbomb Jutsu podcast if you enjoy pro wrestling.

In Retrospect: The PJs In Retrospect: The PJs Reviewed by Darrell S. on Wednesday, July 07, 2021 Rating: 5

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