In the opening scenes, we could be watching any TV show about inner-city gangs. A low-level drug dealer in Staten Island in the late 1980s named Sha shoots up a rival’s apartment, then runs to hide the gun in the basement of his friend Bobby, a fledgling hip-hop artist.
But then Bobby fires up his turntables, Sha grabs the microphone, and the duo performs the Wu-Tang Clan’s “7th Chamber.” And we realize that Sha will someday become Raekwon, and Bobby will become RZA. This isn’t just any crime drama; it’s the origin story of the Wu-Tang Clan, one of the most heralded and influential rap groups of all time.
“Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” an eight-part biopic series that premiered its first three episodes Wednesday on Hulu (a new episode will come each week after that), really only comes alive in musical moments. Otherwise, it’s a rather rote, and kind of dull, tale that seems more interested in detailing the blow-by-blow struggle between two rival gangs than it is in showing how the Wu-Tang Clan came to be. What makes the show even more disappointing is that RZA co-created and co-wrote it with Alex Tse. Maybe he's still too close to the material to have enough perspective.
The show has a great cast, with Ashton Sanders of “Moonlight” playing Bobby, who is torn between the world of crime and the world of music. Music inspires him, but crime provides for his family, thanks to his older brother Divine (Julian Elijah Martinez). Bobby is ambivalent about working for Divine, but has to take over Divine’s drug operation when his older brother is incarcerated.
Unfortunately, that means much of the first few episodes of the show focuses on the ins and outs of that operation, without bringing much new or interesting to say about that life that wasn’t already said on “The Wire,” “Power” or a dozen other shows. Bobby is the most interesting character because of his inner conflict, but the show spends a lot of time with secondary characters who aren’t nearly as interesting.
The pop culture influences that inspired RZA and the Clan are largely relegated to the margins. We might see a clip from a martial arts movie in the background, or hear a throwaway conversation about superheroes. A couple of animated montages are thrown in to the second episode. Some flashbacks that Bobby has of the time he was sent to live in the country with his aunt and uncle have resonance, showing how they shaped his yearning for a better life.
But these flourishes are few and far between. A documentary about the up-and-coming rappers, such as Showtime’s recent “Of Mics and Men,” seems far more interesting than this cliché-ridden version.
Also on streaming: The second season of the hit Spanish series “Elite” premieres Friday on Netflix. The show takes place at an elite private school where several working-class students have been admitted, leading to culture clashes, romance and murder.