TV Review: Atlanta, 4×5, “Work Ethic!”

Aaron Neuwirth reviews season four, episode five of Atlanta, Work Ethic!" in which Van and Lottie are dealing with an opportunity to work for a black media empire.

Naturally, right after delivering one of the more grounded episodes of Atlanta, Donald Glover steps in to direct an episode that’s practically on par with “Teddy Perkins” in terms of weirdness (and Glover even appears in another ridiculous costume). “Work Ethic!” is a showcase for Zazie Beetz’s Van, who hasn’t had much to do so far this season. It’s another example of Atlanta showing it knows how to use its strong cast when it has stuff for them to investigate on various levels. In addition to all of this, as a satire of black media empires, this episode is also pretty damn funny.

True to form, there’s little in the way of setup at the start of the episode. Van and Lottie (very well played by Austin Elle Fisher) are simply on their way to Chocolat Studios. It should become more and more clear over time to various viewers, but this is very obviously a stand-in for Tyler Perry Studios. Whether or not Glover is specifically going after Perry or just what he represents, I can’t say for sure. With that in mind, given the enormous Atlanta compound Perry has for producing his various films and TV shows, I am curious if Atlanta was able to actually film on the property or work elsewhere. It’s not as if this show is made in a vacuum, so I will remain curious about the awareness Perry actually had beforehand.

Regardless, we quickly learn Van is simply working as a day player on a TV show for Mr. Kirkwood Chocolate, the unseen mega mogul responsible for a lot of film and TV that amount to garbage, but still manage to win plenty of BET and NAACP awards. While filming her scene, dressed as “urban best friend,” Lottie reacts to the actor from behind the camera, which immediately impresses Mr. Chocolate (who sees all and communicates from a PA system with a speaker on every stage).

From here, despite Van’s trepidations, Lottie is given a chance to act in a scene, which leads to a chaotic series of events where Lottie is hustled all over the studio to film in a ridiculous number of films and TV shows. This quickly exasperates Van, who can not only not keep up with Lottie being escorted to different stages (including the Tommy Lister Stage and the John Witherspoon Memorial Stage), but is fearful of what this will do to her young daughter. One could say these beats are somewhat predictable, but it doesn’t stop the episode from balancing the thrill of a mother losing track of her daughter with the hilarious absurdity coming from the various crew members who are either purposely oblique or too afraid of Mr. Chocolate to do anything to help.

Eventually, fed up with how things have gone, Van marches to the building in which Mr. Chocolate is held up. As strange as things already were, infiltrating the building means a security guard getting shot in the foot and Van climbing a strange ladder to arrive in a room filled with typed pages, a Komodo dragon, and retro furniture. Of course, I should have expected Glover to be filling the role of the enigmatic producer, but I still wondered if there would be some big-name guest (let alone going the extra mile of actually getting Tyler Perry).

As it stands, while no less hilarious, Glover’s Mr. Chocolate lays out what we all basically understood. The man wants to offer Faustian bargains in exchange for compensation to a point. Van smartly recognizes this is not the right path for her daughter and keeps her away.

This is where I should once again mention how good Fisher is in this episode as Lottie. While not a huge factor as a performer in the past, she gets her time to shine in the way she plays along with the roles handed to her. Watching her beg her mother to stay (after Van says no to a 6-season series that will keep the two of them financially stable for over a decade) is just as important as the aftermath. As we’ve known since Robbin’ Season, Lottie is not just a great little girl; she’s a gifted student.

For Van, she knows her daughter is something more than just exceptional in the way all mothers say their children are. To deny her the opportunity to learn from a normal education environment in favor of quick fame would be a considerable loss on Lottie’s potential. For Fisher, the moments in the epilogue play well as she gets over the momentary joy of being on a set and simply hugs her mother, understanding she knows best.

The exploitation of young girls for the sake of glitz and glamor has been well documented pretty much throughout the history of Hollywood. Being a little black girl thrust into this sort of limelight seems like it could have even more repercussions if not handled right. As we can tell from the way Chocolate Studios wants to fix everything in post, it would not be handled right with Lottie.

For all the effort put into the oddities of being in this studio, Beetz does all she can to balance Van’s fear for her daughter and her tough attitude. After a season in Europe, where Van purposely chose to be more carefree, it is nice to see her in charge, and in a way that matters, compared to last season’s finale, “Tarrare.”

As a one-off episode, some of this comes down to how much a viewer enjoys seeing Glover and his team skewer a culture created mainly by Tyler Perry. I don’t necessarily think it’s meanspirited, but the relevance could be more of a question if the episode didn’t deliver so many good laughs, broad as some may be. As far as Van-focused episodes, it plays well to the character’s strengths, and I’ll be curious if the developments here factor into wherever this final season of Atlanta is going. Of course, now that we’ve checked in with Van, it will be up to Darius to round out the random adventures with our main leads.

Bonus Tracks:

  • Movie posters I saw in Chocolate Studios: Ain’t Crazy, The Shook, Single Father, Captain Kernal, Still Ain’t Crazy
  • Lottie to Mr. Chocolate: “Where are you?” – “I’m everywhere.”
  • “We really need to stick together.” – An important note should also go out to the stage moms who seem well aware that having a kid get a break would mean everything to them as far as being financially secure, no matter how tough that decision to exploit their child may be.
  • There’s a running thread concerning Shamik, the maintenance guy. The final joke about the business card he gives Van is succinct, crass, and funny.
  • “Grits don’t work on me.” – Glover is clearly having a ball channeling an assortment of different ideas for how to play Mr. Chocolate.

Atlanta is now airing on FX and streaming on Hulu

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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