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The Glacially Paced Greatness of ‘Chillin Island’

The HBO Max series, which wraps its first season on Friday, is the latest worthwhile entry into a genre best described as “slow comedy”

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

Choosing the right distractions has never been a more pressing issue than it has since the COVID-19 pandemic began. When you spend most of your time alone or with a select few, it’s easy for anything to devolve into just noise, particularly when it comes to watching television. Perhaps not coincidentally, the past few years have seen the rise of what could best be described as “slow comedy”—a sort of quiet, sometimes gentle but also very funny style of program featuring either timid-voiced hosts or drawn out, leisurely paced editing. Not to be confused with Ambient TV, it is more so television about ambiance. There’s How to With John Wilson, Joe Pera Talks With You, and the latest brilliant John Lurie show, Painting With John, all of which find absurdity in the quiet pace of everyday life. There’s even a Norwegian show that previously aired on Netflix titled Slow TV that captures the mundane tasks of daily living that can actually be quite soothing to watch.

But the latest—and my personal favorite—entry into this world of slow television combines glacial pacing with the thrill of the surprising and occasionally terrifying outdoor world: Chillin Island, the HBO Max series featuring rappers and New York notables Alec “Despot” Reinstein, Ashok “Dapwell” Kondabolu (or Dap), and Aleksey “Lakutis” Weintraub (or Lex). It’s an adaptation of their Know Wave radio show, which finds the three friends going on random excursions through the desert, the woods, swamps, and sea and bringing different rappers and musicians along with them. The first time watching, you expect something along the lines of Steve Irwin or a post–Anthony Bourdain wildlife show with rappers, but it’s not quite that. The most obvious comparison is the 1991 series Fishing With John, in which Lurie (who cannot fish) goes fishing with his hippest celebrity friends to hilarious results. In a meeting with the three of them over Zoom about their quietly bizarre show ahead of its season finale this Friday, they’re effusive about their show’s debt to Fishing. “The show as it is now was our fourth idea pitched,” Alec said. “We pitched it as our version of Fishing With John, but for the general outdoors with rappers. He even has a credit at the end of each episode.” Despite having a few scant memories of camping or farming as kids, none of the guys have a particular fondness for being out in nature, and similarly to Fishing, they wanted to mine comedy out of that.

Chillin Island—which is also executive-produced by Josh Safdie and DreamCrew, Drake’s production company—feels like a perfectly pitched Cosmos-type show run through the prism of a National Geographic nature program. Usually when TV shows bring in rappers, it can induce eye rolls for trying to appeal to youth or chase viral moments. But Chillin Island works primarily because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick or an attempt to prop up its hosts as cool kids. The show is goofy and, as advertised, chill. It moves at a languid pace, complete with the comedian Steven Wright providing deadpan, monotonous narration like an uncaring but bemused God. Our guides are laissez-faire, open to letting the guests and their locations surprise and take them seemingly anywhere. “We have a general idea of where we want each episode to go,” Alec tells me, “but how we get there is the surprise.”

A good example comes in the fifth and best episode of this first season, when the boys spend time in Gunna’s house in Atlanta, where they run into Killer Mike. As they wait for Gunna to show up, they have a conversation about camping and hunting and Mike’s refusal to do shrooms in the woods. When Gunna eventually arrives (and pulls off a bunch of doughnuts in a Mercedes) they go fly-fishing and cook dinner in the woods, but eventually leave Gunna behind and venture off to the Blue Flame strip club, where they reunite with Killer Mike. “On that particular [episode], we knew we wanted to end up at the strip club; we just didn’t know how it would happen necessarily,” Alec says.

The show is full of that kind of adventurous, play-by-ear-and-joke-along-the-way spontaneity.

In Episode 1, they spend time in the desert with Young Thug, who is extremely game and full of animal facts that he eagerly drops throughout the shoot. He also “borrows” a snake from a wrangler living out of a van, while at various points the hosts put their lives in danger by either flipping over an automobile or messing around with a flamethrower. “[Chillin Island] is really just a way to get ourselves killed, it just hasn’t been successful,” Lex says enthusiastically.

On an episode with Lil Yachty, they go to a mud run in the backwoods of Florida, where they roll around in another giant vehicle alongside the rapper, much to the chagrin of the locals who, according to Dap, were flying at least “20 different racist flags.” They link with an outdoorsman named Dave, who has the bugged-out eyes and general disposition of a man who tore up his Social Security card years ago to live out in the wilderness the way God intended. He cooks them lima beans over a fire and routinely mispronounces Yachty’s name.

But the real magic of this episode happens when Dapwell and Yachty have a conversation about heartbreak and drugs, and then Yachty reveals his enjoyment of reading weird sex stories on Reddit. It’s not clear how the conversation got here, but that’s the magic of the outdoors—you’re forced to reveal yourself amid the natural earth, away from all pretense. And then Lex befriends a lizard and Alec eats a big clam tail.

Chillin Island has the passive, conversational style of a very relaxed podcast, with the addition of the ethereal hip-hop/electronic production of the score and the comfortable interjections from Wright’s narration. It’s a show that’s good for watching while falling asleep, and it’s a perfect option in this never-ending pandemic that increases anxiety daily. Those familiar with the radio show are used to the hosts’ easygoing vibe and how their indifference to the structure and speed of media interviews allows their guests to feel comfortable enough to open up in ways they typically wouldn’t. “[Series director Xander Robin] did a great job of creating a boundary that allows us to do what we want to do,” Alec says.

Sometimes, though, that comfort can also backfire on the hosts, such as in the third episode, when they venture out into the sea with Lil Tecca. It’s a worthwhile watch, if for no other reason than to witness Lil Tecca’s utter disdain at being trapped in the ocean, at fishing, and just at the hosts in general. Lil Tecca tries to be a good sport, but it’s evident how much he hates the entire experience, and as soon as the opportunity to leave is offered, he does not hesitate. Luckily, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and his singing fisherman tour guide are happy to fill the void. The Chillin Island guys are fine with how things unfolded during the Tecca debacle. “That’s also part of what we want to do on the show,” Lex says. “We want to show when people hate us and hate the experience as much as anything else.”

Chillin Island has created a fun hang of a show that portrays the great outdoors as bizarre, enlightening, the perfect place to spend time with good people, and an opportunity to learn more about oneself and great for getting a few outfits off (which Alec in particular does throughout). When asked about their hopes for the show’s future, Alec mentions wanting to bring on more obscure guests whom the guys love, similarly to what they did on the radio show. There’s also hope from all three guys to bring on guests as varied as Future and Lil Uzi Vert, to Will Smith and the Obama family. “I hope we get a chance to share our complete vision of the show and end on a high note,” Dap says. “And I want us all to battle-rap while skydiving: Only the winner survives.” If you gotta go out, why not go like legends?

Israel Daramola is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, BuzzFeed, and Rolling Stone.