The Portuguese Man-of-War, its masted bluebottle bladder anchored by feathery, stinging tentacles that can dangle up to 165 feet below the ocean’s surface, is not a jellyfish. It’s not, in fact, even an it. One of only two types of siphonophores in the world, the ocean-dwelling man-of-war is instead a symbiotic colony of specialized organisms that, while technically part of the same species, are not self-sustaining. Alone, the differentiated polyps that make up the ocean-dwelling creature can’t survive. Together, they integrate to form a single, beautiful, occasionally deadly animal.
If this all seems a league away from whatever it was you expected to read when clicking open a review of David Makes Man, well, good. The self-described “lyrical drama” about a “ferociously intelligent, instinct-driven, passionate” teen forging his own path through trauma into manhood that was created by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight, High Flying Bird), show-run by Dee Harris-Lawrence (Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.) and executive produced by both alongside Oprah, Michael B. Jordan, and Revenge’s Mike Kelley and Melissa Loy. Expectations are the last thing you should be bringing into OWN’s first original teen-centric series. David Makes Man transcends expectations. It transcends genre. It just… transcends.
Much of this transcendence is due, of course, to McCraney’s particular line of naturalistic poetic genius. If you’ve seen Moonlight or High Flying Bird or Choir Boy, the fact that young David Young’s story both defies easy description and delivers deeply human realness on every page won’t be a surprise. But while David Makes Man would be excellent no matter how it traveled from McCraney’s imagination to OWN’s screen, the version we get to watch rises to exceptional thanks to the presence of two things: Akili McDowell’s astounding work as teen hero David (a.k.a. DJ / Dai), and the textural shimmer of the team’s dreamy, innovative visual style.
On the power of the first, don’t get me wrong—the entire cast of David Makes Man is a gift. Nathaniel McIntyre and Lindsey Blackwell are particular standouts (in the five episodes provided for review) as David’s more affluent school friends Seren and Marissa. Alana Arenas and Isaiah Johnson give emotional heft to the adult side of the story as David’s (living) single mother, Gloria, and (dead) father figure, Sky. McDowell, though, tasked as he is with embodying the soul of a middle-school-aged kid torn daily between two identities, two histories, and two futures, is the Platonic definition of a revelation. So much of David Makes Man depends on the inner churn David experiences as he tries to balance the daily struggle to survive life in the Ville without falling into the drug-dealing world that got Sky killed, the academic expectations that seem to exist in a vacuum at the magnet school he buses to every day, and the quotidian social pressures to fit in and not be weird (slash, not be embarrassed by his corny-ass mom) that every middle-schooler in human history has had to face. More often than not, McDowell is asked to communicate that tightrope walk with just his eyes, or his balled fists, or his quicksilver mask of a school-day grin. It’s so much, but McDowell delivers every detail with such heartfelt naturalism that it’s hard to remember David isn’t real. It’s genuinely astounding.
This isn’t to say McDowell, as David, never gets to bounce his energy off other players. Every scene he shares with Sky (and without, though to explain what that means would be a spoiler) hits the viewer square in the heart, as does the complexity of his friendship with Seren, who’s haunted by demons of his own both at home and at school. And while things in the courtyard of the Ville are tense, what with Sky’s son Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert) and his right hand Shinobi (Jordan Bolger) running the drug game in Sky’s absence, David’s relationship with his mom and little brother (Cayden Williams), and with their genderqueer neighbor/babysitter Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), is tender and funny and supportive. It’s a markedly positive counterpoint to what Seren is surviving across town, despite his big, safe home with its well-stocked fridge.
As much good work as McDowell and the rest of the cast are doing, the visual textures that cinematographer Todd Dos Reis and directors Daina Reid, Kiel Adrian Scott and Michael Francis Williams bring to McCraney and Harris-Lawrence’s vision elevate all of it. Like Euphoria, the landmark teen drama that made its own shimmery splash on HBO earlier this summer, much of David Makes Man’s narrative takes place on the fringes of reality, necessitating the use of innovative/trippy cinematic tricks, like the feverish scratching of a silent, pleading argument in the blank spaces above and between a shellshocked David and a weeping Seren when they’re sitting in the school hall after being reprimanded by the principal for fighting in class, or David’s bedroom ceiling transforming into the surface of the ocean, or Sky doing… anything. (His New Edition duet with David in Episode 105, “Love or Poetize These Hoes,” is a thing of beauty I couldn’t spoil if I tried.) But where the liminality of Rue’s world is defined by her level of sobriety and/or willingness to dick with the audience, the liminality of David’s is dictated by the changeable rules of his prodigiously wild imagination, and the substantive difference between those frameworks is blatant. The visual poetry of Euphoria was so often dazzle for dazzle’s sake; the visual poetry of David Makes Man is deep with specific meaning.
Which brings us back to siphonophores.
In the handful of episodes of David Makes Man critics were given access to, the role played by the man-of-war is subtle—like, blink and you’ll miss it subtle—but even folded in with all the other feats of imagery, allusion and metonymy that McCraney et al have pieced together to achieve such heart-catching nuance, the otherworldly perfection of the lonely siphonophore stands out. And I don’t just mean visually, although its physical alien beauty is a perfect addition to the water-filled daydreams David regularly finds himself caught up in. The dangling neon tentacles stand ready to tangle the audience up in the dreamy real/not real sleight-of-hand which the show pulls off not just scene to scene, but shot to shot. The man-of-war stands out on a deeper, more figurative level, its biological reality as a colony of unlike organisms obliged to join together in the shadow of violence not just to survive, but to be recognized by the wider world as real, reflecting the divided-but-symbiotic identities, loyalties, and ambitions that keep David and everyone he knows so deeply—and at times dangerously—entangled with one another.
“Where do you come from?” David’s favorite teacher, Dr. Woods-Trap (Phyilicia Rashad), asks her class when assigning a major project in the series’ premiere. “What’s your story?”
Man-of-war, Sky whispers in David’s ear, even as he’s still too deep in grief and anxiety to make sense of anything. Man-of-war, the show whispers to us, through Sky, through David, and through the floating man-of-war suspended in the imaginary ocean above David’s bed.
Time will tell how the metonym plays out in the remainder of the season, but for now, it’s perfect shorthand for one of the most transcendent stories on television this year.
David Makes Man premieres Wednesday August 14th on OWN.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.