When journalists write about R. Kelly’s musical dramedy Trapped in the Closet, they tend to throw out a high-brow literary reference to demonstrate that they are intelligent human beings that just so happen to be exploring a subtlety free, it’s-so-dumb-it’s-brilliant work of art. I don’t believe in that, but I must say that after chapters 23 through 33 out of the planned 85 chapter series aired over the holiday weekend, it’s obvious that Trapped’s biggest influence is Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman.
Tristam Shandy is of course a strangely humorous nine volume series — released over an eight year span — in which a man unsuccessfully attempts to write his autobiography. Kelly’s most glaring acknowledgement occurred when Sylvester and Twan entered Beano’s headquarters in Chapter 32. In one of Sterne’s volumes there is a very long passage where one of the characters begins to walk down the basement stairs, only to stop and tell very long stories, repeatedly, at one point even pointing out that him and the character he was speaking to and boring to death that they hadn’t made much progress down the stairs for quite sometime. Kelly had Sylvester sing-narrate his and Twan’s every move from the entrance to the office, in a hypnotic and meticulous fashion: “They make a left/and then they make a right/and go down the stairs…./and keep straight…./then they make another left…/and another left…/then up the stairs…/third floor…./elevator……………./and through some doors.” The second biggest acknowledgement is the whole never getting to the point thing.
The book was purposeful in both its being written to be all about the journey and not the destination (the protagonist is not even *born* until the third volume) and in its odd comedy, but whether or not Robert Sylvester Kelly — who acts, writes, co-directs and executive produces Trapped — purposely intended for his magnum opus to gradually obstruct and dance around an endpoint and to be funny remains a question that could never really be answered. In terms of it’s humor, it didn’t really make a difference whether it was intentional or not at first, but in the five years since the last bunch of episodes were released, Kelly must had been told over a million times by fans about how funny the whole thing was. Combine that with the shock value of watching people lip sync to an R&B star singing about midgets and stuttering pimps dissipating, most of the new chapters’ humor had to and indeed came from more traditional comedic beats, for better or worse.
In regards to trying to service too many characters: Remember when we were just kids and R. Kelly introduced the world to Big Man, the midget that popped out of a kitchen cupboard back in Chapter 9? You could tell Kelly was excited by the twist he had written because he prepared the audience of Big Man’s arrival by giving him easily the most drawn out introduction: “Now/pause the movie/’cause what I’m about to say to y’all is so damn twisted/not only is there a man in his cabinet/but the man is a midget!/Midget!/Midget!/Midget!” But Bridget’s secret lover and father of her child only received five seconds of screen time in Chapter 23, as he was taking a phone call from a mysterious person that had called all of the characters so far in the story, except for the very important Chuck, who was off the grid. Also not appearing in the new stories? Chuck. Or Bridget, or James for that matter. Instead, there was a lot of screen time given to characters like Pimp Lucius. We learned a lot about Lucius (one of the characters played by Kelly), like that ever since he pretended to change his ways in church in chapter 19, God sometimes talks to him.
It’s true: God is now a character in this thing. Or is He? He was not heard from again after that little incident. It would actually not be surprising at all if it was never brought up in the next 52 chapters, which is part of Trapped’s ridiculous charm. We also learned that Lucius is actually the son of Rosie the nosy neighbor and Randolph, the surprisingly-horny-for-an-89-year-old church janitor. Easily the broadest character, Randolph humorously and randomly confused Lucius’ ladies of the evening for the female R&B vocal group En Vogue.
Even though the absent Chuck was a big part of their story, Chuck’s lover Rufus and Rufus’ wife Cathy had a key storyline in chapters 26 and 27. Thanks to marriage counselor/psychiatrist/R&B singer made up like an old man Dr. William T. Perry, Rufus and Cathy got back together as a married couple, even though Rufus flat out admitted that he was still in love with Chuck, who is not the same person as Cathy, his wife. There was a thirty second bit in which Rufus and Dr. Perry innocently negotiated what type of water Rufus would be able to consume during the session. The entire gag of people singing banal conversation reeked of Trapped being too self-aware for its own good for the very first time.
But then things became *really* self-aware when Reverend Mosley sold a Trapped in the Closet book on a TV commercial.
As he was introducing a meta layer to the festivities, Kelly took a step back and calmly displayed that he is well aware and respectful of classic tropes, exhibiting knowledge of the old chestnut “Chekhov’s Gun.” When his main character Sylvester took his brother-in-law Twan’s recently acquired gun and placed it in a holster against his leg — with the camera distinctly showing the gun’s new home as Kelly sang about what had just transpired — the viewer intuitively knew that that weapon is going to be used. We didn’t have to wait another five years either, because that gun came back into play one chapter later in a meeting gone wrong with a drug lord (don’t they always?) named Beano. Kelly played the new character, and he looked like this:
Sylvester and Twan’s interactions with Beano and his cronies was really interesting because 1)Twan *finally* beat someone up after 80 percent of his lines were either about threatening to maim or kill someone or telling Sylvester he wont maim or kill someone; 2)The music loop that scored every scene up to that point was halted for ten seconds when Sylvester complained of loud rap music interfering with his sales pitch; 3)Operatic music accompanied Beano either briefly choking on a sunflower seed or making fun of an Italian person - it honestly could have equally been one or the other; 4)The music loop suddenly got a disco/Off The Wall remix for a foot chase between our heroes and Beano’s bad guys, a surprisingly blatant pastiche of a specific genre of film (that genre being “Bitchin 70s”). 5)Bankhead and the rest of Beano’s muscle were on some sort of particularly potent brand of bath salts:
The final chapter ended with Sebastian and Twan reaching the studios of the show Out of the Closet with Larry, a program that possibly all of the characters are going to appear on with the aforementioned two. Of course, we do not know who Larry is, just like we have no idea how this Larry would know any of the characters, or if Tina even remembers that she has a kid or a million other loose ends. What we do know is that there is a distinct possibility that the Trapped in the Closet universe is in danger of collapsing on itself with its Community esque self referencing, that it might alienate viewers with its ever expanding mythology like Lost, and/or might be even worse than Cop Rock. It’ll be fun to see what a mash-up of all of those influences, intentional or not, looks like, even if we have to wait another five years.