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‘Random Acts of Flyness’: Terence Nance Makes Avant-Garde TV Entertaining, With a Little Help From Jon Hamm

"I think it's hyper-engaging in a way that allows space for more avant-garde stuff to do it stylishly," Nance told IndieWire of his new genre-defying HBO show.

Terence Nance

Terence Nance

HBO

Random Acts of Flyness” may play like one grand television experiment — its sketch-like segments hinge on a whimsical but distinctly dark sense of humor when tackling topics such as patriarchy, white supremacy, and black sensuality — but don’t call it “experimental.”

“I don’t see the show as experimental,” said director, writer, and creator Terence Nance in a recent phone interview with IndieWire. “Definitely avant-garde, but I think the people in the writer’s room are all very skilled at engaging audiences very viscerally in terms of like — ‘Are we going to be able to get people to engage with this consistently, in the way they would sit down and watch ‘Seinfeld’?”

Nance had been kicking around the idea for a television show since 2006, six years before his debut feature-length film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” put him on the map with a well-reviewed premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. “[The show] was called ‘Random’ and the description was essentially what it is now. The only difference was it was around themes,” said Nance.

He later recalled the idea when the show’s executive producer, Tamir Mahammad, asked Nance what a news show might look like from him. “I was like, ‘I would never do that. But I have this thing I want to do called ‘Random Acts of Flyness,’ and it would be this.”

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At a recent preview screening of the show’s first episode, questions from the audience revealed a sense of intrigue mixed with perhaps a bit of concern for how the non-linear show would be received. One spectator asked: “How did you explain this and sell the idea to let people know what they were getting into?” Words like “zany,” “unorthodox,” and “stream of consciousness” got thrown around. Nance answered each question thoroughly and carefully, often leaving more questions hanging in the air.

"Random Acts of Flyness" HBO Doreen Garner and Terence Nance

Doreen Garner and Terence Nance in “Random Acts of Flyness”

HBO

“I think the show plays like ‘Game of Thrones’ plays,” he said. “It does have a flexibility to how the idea of linearity is approached, but it’s a narrative experience.”

One segment features Jon Hamm selling a black cream for people suffering from “white thoughts.” You’d be hard-pressed to think someone more fit to sell such a product than this resolutely cheerful Don Draper. “The criteria was the face that America trusts,” said Nance. “We thought about a bunch of people, kind of put out soft feelers out, and we got a lot of, ‘No, not available, not going to happen.’ Luckily, [Jon Hamm’s] agent responded and thought he would like it. So we sent it and essentially just got lucky that he responded to it.”

In another powerful montage, revisited throughout the opening episode, different faces flash across the screen as Nance repeats in a staccato voiceover: “Blackface. Black face. Black. Face.” Their expressions are somber at first, but Nance allows warm smiles to trickle in by the final time the segment runs. “Just thinking about language and semantics and the idea of taking back the word that creates, because it’s just so — I have a black face. Yeah. I’m in blackface,” Nance said of the segment. “We were attempting to have a platform for people to be who they are, and that act of reclamation.”

HBO is billing “Random Acts of Flyness” as a late-night show, and premiering it in the midnight slot of its Friday line-up, right after the Mark and Jay Duplass-produced show “Animals” and “Vice”. A recent network synopsis described the show as “a handful of interconnected vignettes…a mix of vérité documentary, musical performances, surrealist melodrama and humorous animation.” It’s a bold mélange of descriptors that does its best to capture Nance’s unique and undefinable style.

“Some of what we use as avant-garde is just the nature of our style and the nature of how we talk to each other,” said Nance. “I think it’s hyper-engaging…in a way that maybe allows space for the more avant-garde stuff to do it stylishly. I think people consume media in a way that is not linear. I think we know what tools to use to communicate and be legible on the screen so that the world consistently engages.”

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