With "Maxxx," O-T Fagbenle subversively takes on pop culture's soft-serve cultural appropriation

In his six-episode British comedy, the "Handmaid's Tale" star shows a comedic side with subtle bite

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 31, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

Maxxx (Hulu/Channel 4)
Maxxx (Hulu/Channel 4)

Subversion is a wonderful thing in mainstream popular culture. The part those seeking to employ it often get wrong is that it's best presented in targeted and frequent bursts. Anything more and its subtextual potency is lost, defeating the intended usage.

"Maxxx," O-T Fagbenle's six-episode comedy currently airing in the U.K. and streaming in its entirety on Hulu, proves this by cloaking a pointed takedown of the racism, cultural appropriation, and commodification of stereotypes inherent to popular culture's mass marketing machine within a cringe comedy about a boyband has-been. It also illuminates an unexpected side of an actor best known as the eternally concerned but generally out-of-frame husband to Elisabeth Moss' June in "The Handmaid's Tale."

While the humor lands inconsistently over the first few episodes – at the very least, it requires a bit of acclimation time – the undercurrent of societal critique in "Maxxx" never wavers. The trick is in whether you're looking for that part.

Unless your world is colored by microaggressions and constant, low-grade ignorance being reflected back at you, you might not even notice the tiniest shards of satire. But if it is, all you need to do is press play, sit back, and enjoy.

As Maxxx, the linchpin of a boyband with overtones of B2K flavored with a few dashes of Ali G, Fagbenle's faded star is shallow, mystifyingly stupid, and pathetic in all the typical ways. "I've just been working on the DL because real Gs work in silence, like lasagna!" he says to explain his disappearance, adding, "Think about it."

While he isn't the brightest bulb on the theater marquee, his penchant for waxing philosophical reveals a man in the depths of an existential crisis. Maxxx props up his ego with pills and the devotion of his adopted son Amit (Alan Asaad), and pines away for his ex-girlfriend Jourdan (Jourdan Dunn). Determined to win her back, he embarks on a brave comeback quest, wheedling his way back into the temporary good graces of his eccentric former manager Don Wild (Christopher Meloni, channeling a warped energy similar to the one he works so well in "Happy").

Don palms off Maxxx on Tamzin (Pippa Bennett-Warner), an untested, conservative, but extremely determined potential hire for his firm, hinging Tamzin's employment on her ability to wrangle Maxxx and fully expecting both to fall flat on their faces.

The headline question in "Maxxx," however, is whether it is possible for a star to square authenticity with fame, demonstrated by the title character's accidental discovery that he actually has talent beyond the public's expectations.

An improvised riff on his acoustic guitar yields a very thoughtful and poignant track that the principled Tamzin, champion of artistry and innovation, wants to sell, while Don, a man attuned to the realities of the marketplace, would rather push an insipid, pedestrian pop nightmare titled "Soft Serve."

The washed-up singer is his own worst enemy in the usual ways, and it can be difficult to decide which is more to blame for his many stumbles: his insecurity, his inebriation, or Wild's self-serving subterfuge. He believes he knows how to orchestrate his comeback and insists she simply sit shotgun in his ill-fated drive, or at least run interference with his obsessed and too-familiar cousin Rose (Helen Monks), whom he names as his assistant mostly so she'll give him and Amit a place to crash.

Any number of underdog stories begin this way and end with the underestimated parties triumphant, and this series more or less follows that structure.

What differentiates "Maxxx" is the nature of his inner conflict, and the traps and pitfalls lying in wait for Tamzin and her charge. Don gives her a preview of what awaits her within moments of meeting her. When Tamzin brings Don an avant-garde artist, Don responds by pointing to photos of megastars on his wall and boiling their success down to material goods, number of units moved, and what items of real estate those sales gained him.

Meloni's frenetic Don Wild steals the show and powers it in equal measure, serving as the destructive, libertine force who holds Maxxx's desired comeback hostage, to a certain degree, because he can and because it's entertaining both for him to experience and for the audience to watch.

But the choice of the stars he cites on his wall of fame is quite intentional: Jennifer Lopez. Ricky Martin. Michael Jackson, because the rude punchlines just write themselves. The main point is that Wild only puts his reputation on the line for winners; the implication is that Wild is a rich powerful white guy at the top of the heap in the entertainment industry, propped up by people of color.

Surely Fagbenle has some familiarity with that experience.

Plainly most of Maxxx's problems are of his own making, but key ones are connected to his struggle to establish a sense of identity. Externalizing that internal conflict leads to Tamzin being splashed with the spillover and suffering all manner of abuses and indignities, many of them owing in part to the fact that nothing about her fits the market-drive idea of so-called "Blackness."  

The script brings this out both in how Tamzin is written and the stiff, decidedly upright way that Bennett-Warner portrays her, and by placing her in situations that are ostensibly about belonging but evolve into something much more serious – for instance, drawing her in to a rap battle with a talented artist of Indian ancestry only to get some killer blows in not with any hidden ability but owing to the rapper's appropriation of the N-word.

"I mean, what the f**k are we doing here?" Wild rants at Maxxx, "The last few good years of your life, chasing authen-f**king-ticity, when you can have . . . fame?"

Fame costs, and "Maxxx" spells out of the truth in that statement on several levels. That doesn't make a taxing view. On the contrary, the lithe runtime is designed to maximize impact while minimizing one's attention expenditure, making it as easy to breeze right by the little barbs as it is to binge.

Fagbenle's choice to infuse a comedy he co-wrote, directed, and executive produced with these details demonstrates a level of confidence in the audience's willingness to pick up what he's putting down with a wink and a whole lot of cheek that other creators might not dare.

It's refreshing to see him trade in dour angst for purposeful farce and step from a sideline role be centerpiece of a story he can tell in a way that few others might or even have the ability to do. And there's something keenly satisfying – subversive, even – in seeing a man viewed as a co-star featured at the heart a comeback fantasy that lets us know how overdue he is to receive top billing.

All six episodes of "Maxxx" are streaming on Hulu.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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