Coming of age in the early ’90s among the hills and pits of Fitchburg, there weren’t too many opportunities to get your mind warped (in the non-kegger sense).
The state college had a radio station that got adventurous a few hours a week; the hockey rink by the park hosted a bunch of unlikely touring bands from Fugazi to Nirvana; and it was a half-hour drive to Worcester, where the Tatnuck Bookseller had all the stuff the Waldenbooks wouldn’t carry. Apart from that, I had “Twin Peaks” and “Alive From Off Center.”
“Alive From Off Center” was (quite literally) a showcase of contemporary art and artists, broadcast by WNET and select PBS stations from 1985 to 1986. Each episode took a different form, denting impressionable minds with video works, dance, theater, and experiments from artists like Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, Tom Rubnitz, and Zbigniew Rybczynski. PBS’s “POV” was also where I experienced Marlon Riggs’s seminal work on the black experience of the AIDS crisis, “Tongues Untied.”
I hadn’t thought of Riggs or “Alive” in years, but both came rushing to mind last Friday when I watched my first (and hopefully long from last) episode of Terence Nance’s visionary new show for HBO, “Random Acts of Flyness.” (Which has just been renewed for a second season.)
Each episode is a melange of documentary film, surrealist skits, rattling satire, musical performances, and whatever other forms Nance’s imagination assumes. This could mean a stream-of-consciousness animation that spirits you back to the days of “Liquid Television,” or a cutting critique on “white thoughts” in the form of a twisted public access program — imagine a way more woke “Wonder Showzen.”
This first season also serves as a showcase for a number of talented directors (including Frances Bodomo, Naima Ramos-Chapman, Mariama Diallo, and Darius Clark Monroe) as well as guest stars like Dominique Fishback, Whoopi Goldberg, Ntare Guma Mwine, Adepero Oduye, and Jon Hamm.
Rarely do we get to see TV treated as a conduit for change, a commons for discourse, or a medium for art; but “Random Acts of Flyness” manages all three in a tidy 30 minutes. And its midnight airtime is worth staying up for, as it really feels like television passing into something like a dream state — offering a different kind of consciousness.