The concept for Whalebus’s new fiction podcast, Childish, seems simple at first:
An All-New, All Original Musical! Dante, a college student in NYC, becomes an RA in order to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Childish Gambino. While he hopes this will be the next step toward becoming a famous rapper, his delusions of grandeur are shattered when he realizes his dweebish co-workers are hellbent on making his life miserable.
The concept could find an easy home in the dozens of college sitcom-style pieces of media before it, and in some ways, does: Childish has the captivating-yet-flawed protagonist, the well-meaning but obnoxious higher-up, the annoying peers who turn out to be more complex than they seem. Adding the musical element to the podcast makes it feel, at times, like the cool younger sibling of Pitch Perfect.
What makes Childish feel distinctly different than most other college sitcoms, though, is the depth of what it’s trying to say. Childish isn’t just about a rapper trying to get his start by following (and, likely, ultimately straying from) a prescribed path. It’s also about power systems at universities and what happens when we take advantage of them.
As of writing this review, the first three episodes of Childish have been released.
The podcast begins with Dante’s (Reginald Keith Jackson) introduction to his new coworkers in the dorm hall, conveyed in a peppily saccharine classic musical theater number. The fish-out-of-water trope is conveyed not just in the clash of musical styles, the Broadway of the hall versus Dante’s hip hop; it’s also conveyed by his coworker, Taylor (Kaila Wooten), as he arrives:
Taylor: Well, welcome to Zizza Hall, or Z-Hall for short! [. . .] We like to joke that everybody knows “Z” latest news about everyone in “Z” Hall.
Dante: I’m excited! I can get used to white people jokes.
Taylor: We definitely have plenty of those around here!
Taylor: Jokes, I mean.
But the podcast isn’t entirely about juxtapositions; in fact, it’s impressive how well the showtunes blend in with Dante’s Childish Gambino-styled rap. The contrast is there in concept, but in execution, the music feels cohesive and easy to sink into. There’s a saying in musical theater that the numbers are there for when the characters can’t speak about their emotions; instead, they have to sing. The same is true here in Childish. The musical numbers start out purposefully hokey, but quickly become an expeditious method for elegant character development that could otherwise feel clunky or awkward in dialogue alone.
Which isn’t to say that the music is perfect. The production of each song, especially songs focused on Dante, feels a little thin and hollow. There’s something to be said about Dante imitating Childish Gambino but not yet reaching those heights, which could be reflected in the music’s production. Still, it makes catchy, well-written songs feel more forgettable than they should be.
Both in the music and the dialogue, Childish excels in its writing and performances. Chidlish has zippy comedic timing and introspective scenes that aren’t afraid to slow down and take some breathing room for the emotions to hit. The jokes come quickly and hit hard before making way for more plot and character development–and those developments are continually intriguing. Dante’s flaws come to the surface, but Taylor’s complexity quickly makes her more sympathetic. All the while, another RA, Ricky (Brendan McGrady) has something up his sleeve.
And this character development plays against the overarching sense of unease in the plot. As Dante seeks to be more like Donald Glover, his obsession and ambition get the better of him. He justifies his ethical missteps by telling him they’re what he has to do to be like his hero, even when it means playing into a power system that makes him uncomfortable and throwing his friends–or, at least, colleagues–under the bus. By the third episode, the setup for the plot has changed radically, leaving Dante questioning what he should do next.
In its first three episodes, Childish weaves a captivating story with more depth and twists than expected by its description alone. How Dante’s quest will drive his decisions, regardless of how they affect others, is a fascinating twist on a typical college sitcom setup.