'I'm a Virgo' Is on the Cusp of Greatness

Created by Boots Riley

Starring Jharrel Jerome, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Olivia Washington, Brett Gray, Allius Barnes, Kara Young, Walton Goggins

Photo courtesy of Prime Video

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished Jun 21, 2023

Boots Riley is a connoisseur of the weird, strange and downright bizarre. He has an uncanny ability to make viewers not only accept his lunacy, but embrace it with open arms. His directorial debut, 2018's Sorry to Bother You, revelled in this balance, with its absurd, anarchic satire presenting a relentless stream of ideas more insane than the last. Look up the word "bonkers" in the dictionary, and Riley's vision is sure to be the first entry.

An unabashedly political filmmaker on a countercultural crusade, Riley wears his communist ideology on his sleeve. The director and writer laces the most ludicrous moments with a serious political jolt — and it's in balancing these two forces that his work sometimes falter.

I'm a Virgo is Riley's first series, and while it's undoubtedly his most ingeniously realized piece of world-building, it's also his most preachy. Riley's inability to satisfyingly juggle his politics and storytelling ambitions traps this series on the cusp of greatness. In its joyously bold attempt to depict propaganda in the entertainment industry, it also surrenders to it.

At its core, I'm a Virgo critiques the hypocrisy of popular superhero stories, but Riley's brushstrokes are far too wide to only have one target. The seven-episode series also takes aim at the perils of capitalism, systemic racism and class consciousness with varying degrees of success.

The show centres on Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), a giant forcibly sequestered from the world, with only comics and TV as his connection to what lays outside. His parents (a phenomenally funny Mike Epps and Carmen Ejogo) cite stories of giants being ostracized and killed throughout time, and accordingly shelter him in an aptly-sized dwelling where he bench presses cars and eats his mom's cooking in one bite. Yet, their love and care are too suffocating for Cootie.

One night, he breaks free and finds a group of friends who accept him for who he is. He falls in love with the world and becomes shocked with what his parents deprived him of, amusingly shouting, "I'm 19 and I just heard bass for the first time? That's abuse!"

Jerome injects Cootie with an infectious dose of clumsy charm, highlighting the teenager's shallow knowledge of the world's true workings. His lovable nerves come to a boil when he's flirting with fast-food employee Flora (Olivia Washington) who, like Cootie, is an outsider and possesses the ability to colourfully move at sonic speed. Their relationship comes to a head in one of the most bizarrely endearing sex scenes in recent memory, growing more ridiculous by the second but never relinquishing its heart — a quality indicative of the series as a whole.

Cootie's friends, Felix (Brett Gray), Scat (Allius Barnes) and Jones (Kara Young), expose him to a multitude of new and challenging ideas, including a peculiar cartoon called Parking Tickets that melds stark existential philosophies with slapstick gore. Cootie's perception shifts, assuming the role of a subversive revolutionary that deeply conflicts with his idol, "The Hero" (Walton Goggins), whose just and valiant image only serves as a vessel for the nation's corporate overlords. Goggins is a late, scene-stealing addition to the series. The character's self-glorifying tendencies are a perverse delight to experience, especially when he lashes out at his suit's AI, which hilariously sounds a bit too much like Bill Cosby.

The tenets of superhero mythology sit at the heart of I'm a Virgo, as does the nature of media itself, with Riley's political lens fixated on deconstructing the most popular stories of the modern age. It's in these moments where the show's thematic underpinnings become a tad too dogmatic. Though vividly performed and photographed, the climax of the series talks down to its audience, pontificating during a moment that attempts to be illuminating.

Despite the thematic hiccups, Riley proves himself to be one of the great practitioners of magical realism. He blurs the lines of fantasy and reality with such stylistic prowess that every minute of each episode is tightly packed with vibrant wonders. I'm a Virgo traverses whole lifetimes, backstories and genres in what feels like seconds, bursting with unbridled creativity at every turn. In one moment, it's a riveting coming-of-age fantasy; in the next, it's a dazzling, spectacle-driven superhero adventure. Each fork in the off-kilter road is both outrageous and relatable, deeply telling of the everyday absurdities we've simply come to accept.

Though it's marred by plot inconsistencies, thematic shortcomings and a cliffhanger ending that keeps its bananas concept from being exceptional, I'm a Virgo is filled with an outsized level of genius. It's a fearlessly original series and truly deserving of an audience that will hopefully make its necessary second season a reality.
(Prime Video)

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