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‘Blindspotting’ an insightful Starz series worth a look, and a listen

The movie spinoff is enhanced by musical numbers, dancers and monologues by Jasmine Cephas Jones, powerfully reprising her role as a resourceful Oakland mom.

After her boyfriend is imprisoned, Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) moves in with his mother on “Blindspotting.”
Starz

Arguably the most original and electric movie of 2018 was “Blindspotting,” with co-writers Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal starring in a prose-poem-infused story about the lifelong and often complicated friendship between two Oakland men named Collin and Miles, who are trying to walk the straight line and do the right thing but find that a constant challenge in their gentrifying, polarizing, sometimes dangerous world.

Now comes the Starz half-hour comedy/drama series “Blindspotting,” a sharp and funny and insightful slice of political and social commentary wrapped in some live-wire, spoken-word-fueled musical numbers. It’s a wickedly entertaining work equal parts dreamlike hip-hop fantasy and gritty, real-world drama.

Diggs and Casal are the writers and co-executive producers (along with Jess Wu and Keith Calder) for the sequel series, which is directed by Seith Mann, a veteran and skilled TV director (“The Wire,” “Fringe”). We pick up the story on the New Year’s Eve six months after the events of the film, with Miles in cuffs for drug possession and his longtime girlfriend Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones, reprising her role from the film) left holding two bottles of champagne on the front lawn, in a state of shock and despair as the police cruiser pulls away.

When Miles is hit with a brutal sentence that will keep him incarcerated for years, Ashley is faced with some hard financial realities, and she and her young son Sean (Atticus Woodward) have to move in, at least temporarily, with Miles’ mother Rainey in the home where Miles grew up. (In a wise move, the showrunners have made Sean a few years older than he was in the movie, opening the storyline to Ashley’s ongoing dilemma about when to tell Sean his father isn’t really in Montana with his Uncle Collin — he’s behind bars.)

That’s when “Blindspotting” delivers this bit of surprising news:

Miles’ mother is Helen Hunt.

Well, not Helen Hunt the actress; that would be a woefully meta misstep. Helen Hunt PLAYS Miles’ free-spirited, progressive, bohemian mother Rainey, and while Hunt might not be the first actress you’d think of to take on such a role, she knocks it out of the park as a woman of a certain age who has a live-and-let-live attitude about sex, drugs, relationships, you name it — but is fiercely loyal to her grown children and will do anything to protect her young grandson. It’s the finest work we’ve seen from Hunt in years.

With the series pivoting from the movie to tell the story from Ashley’s point of view, we meet two other captivating and scene-stealing characters: Miles’ half-sister Trish (Jaylen Barron), a sex worker who also lives in Rainey’s house, often has her co-workers over for strategy sessions (a.k.a. posting sexy pics and videos on social media) and dreams of running her own empire; and Collin’s sister Janelle (Candace Nicholas-Lippman), who is back in the neighborhood for the first time in five years and is trying to figure out her next life move and also becomes a loyal friend to Ashley — unlike Trish, who loves her little nephew but doesn’t consider Ashley to be part of the family and blames her for Miles’ troubles (which, of course, are Miles’ fault). Benjamin Earl Turner provides hilarious comic relief as next-door neighbor Earl, who walks around with a long extension cord so he can keep his ankle monitor charged. (Like just about every plot element in the series, there are some thought-provoking truths involving race and the system beneath the comedy.)

The “Blindspotting” cast also includes Atticus Woodward (from left) as Ashley’s son, Sean; Jaylen Barron as Trish; Candace Nicholas-Lippman as Janelle and Helen Hunt as Rainey, who welcomes Ashley and Sean into her home.
Starz

“Blindspotting” has the same go-big-or-go-home style as the movie, with stylized elements including Ashley breaking the fourth wall to deliver a powerful spoken-word performance about the challenges she’s facing, and background extras often breaking into body-contorting dance moves that are breathtaking and exhilarating. We get fantasy musical numbers and drastic changes in lighting, and there’s even an element of farcical comedy when Ashley affects an exaggerated British accent for her job as a concierge at a posh and historic hotel.

Everyone in this series has a story to tell, but it’s Ashley who is front and center, feeling broken and brokenhearted because her man will be gone for a very long time — but refusing to drown in her sorrows because she is strong and smart and resourceful, and she has a little boy whose entire world depends on her. It’s great work by Jasmine Cephas Jones.