For years, we've been living in a golden age of scripted TV that shows no signs of stopping despite the infuriating popularity of the Keeping Up with the Armenian NBA Hand-Me-Downs (a Joel McHale Soup joke, not mine) and Jersey Snores of the world. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Community and Parks and Recreation are some current examples of this golden age.
We've also been experiencing a golden age of animation on cable. During high school, I loved the cinematic Batman: The Animated Series and The Simpsons. I always wanted to write for either of those shows. Quality-wise, they were such a huge step up from the wack cartoons of the '80s that frequently insulted viewers' intelligence and were nothing more than 30-minute excuses to hawk some toys. I'm a bit envious of pre-teen and teen viewers these days because their cartoons contain even better animation than B:TAS and the classic-era Simpsons did (the dizzying and mind-blowing action sequences on Disney XD's Motorcity make the beautifully animated Batman-vs.-Man-Bat airborne confrontation in B:TAS' first episode look like "Steamboat Willie"). These younger viewers have so many well-written animated shows to choose from (on cable, that is, instead of on the broadcast networks, which abandoned the kind of younger-skewing programming that's become the lifeblood of niche-y channels like Cartoon Network and the gazillion Nicks), compared to the paltry amount of three or four I watched regularly in the '90s.
Lately, I've been DVRing standout animated cable shows like Young Justice and Motorcity, and I've put season 2 of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes on the DirecTV DVR equivalent of a Season Pass (DirecTV calls it the "Record Series" button) because the kids' networks that air these shows schedule them in bizarre time slots I have a hard time either remembering or waking up early for (maybe Earth's Mightiest Heroes would receive better ratings if viewers could actually find it). Today, I'm reviewing the five non-Adult Swim animated shows I've been regularly DVRing and catching--Green Lantern: The Animated Series, Young Justice: Invasion, Ultimate Spider-Man, Earth's Mightiest Heroes and the new Monday night show Motorcity--for a column called "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner." I hope to make this column about non-Adult Swim animation on cable a weekly thing on Tuesdays instead of Fridays--this trial and possibly inaugural edition today is an exception--but writing these things takes so goddamn long for me to do.
Ever since MCA's passing, I've been bumping so many Beastie Boys tracks, so I wanted to name a new blog feature after an obscure Beasties track. Hence "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner."
Disney XD and the half of Cartoon Network that has nothing to do with Adult Swim are channels my Mad Men/Justified/Louie-watching self usually avoids like the plague, so if it weren't for the Village Voice newspapers' Topless Robot blog or The A.V. Club, I wouldn't have been aware of Cartoon Network's "DC Nation" hour on Saturday mornings and its rival during an even more ungodly Sunday morning time slot, Disney XD's 76-minute "Marvel Universe" block. I caught the hour-long Green Lantern: The Animated Series sneak preview (which, fortunately, was much less of a slog than the live-action Green Lantern movie) last year on Cartoon Network but had totally forgotten that new GL:TAS episodes were dropping during the newly launched "DC Nation," so I didn't start tuning into GL:TAS until three or four weeks into the new season.
Though I'm not really a fan of the Green Lantern Corps space cop characters, I like how they're basically Jedi knights with personality. The live-action Star Wars prequels would have been much less lethargic had they featured as one of its heroes an acerbic character like the grumpy Green Lantern known as Kilowog, the dem-dese-dose alien cop who's wonderfully voiced on GL:TAS by not-so-dem-dese-dose black actor Kevin Michael Richardson (a.k.a. Martin Luther King from The Boondocks' classic "Return of the King" episode).
GL:TAS sells the "Jedi knights with personality" vibe more effectively than the much-maligned live-action version, which contained too little of Kilowog. Moviegoers who were so burned by the live-action Green Lantern that they gave up on anything else with the Green Lantern name on it should try out either Green Lantern: First Flight, a 2009 DC Animated Universe made-for-video feature that cleverly reimagined lead hero Hal Jordan's origin story as a Training Day-style space copera (and even snagged Law & Order: SVU's Chris Meloni for the role of Hal), or this energetic new CG series, which has partners Hal (Josh Keaton) and Kilowog investigating the deaths of their comrades and patrolling the stars on the Interceptor, an experimental ship that Hal and Kilowog stole and is maintained by Aya (Grey DeLisle), a resourceful female AI with powers like Hal and Kilowog's.
said it best over on io9: "Reynolds' disembodied face spends large chunks of Green Lantern floating around in an ocean of computer-animated cheese... Hal's costume is CG along with the backgrounds, so his head just floats there in the middle of a CG world."). Because animation isn't as constrained a medium as live-action, the action sequences on GL:TAS, particularly the airborne battles in last week's episode "Regime Change," are much more dynamic and epic than the ones in the Reynolds movie.
As a lead, Keaton's Hal isn't as difficult to empathize with as Reynolds' tepidly written version of Hal was, but if GL:TAS characters were cops from the original Law & Order, Kilowog would be Max Greevey and Hal would be boring-ass Rey Curtis. Aya has much less emotions than Hal but is a more interesting character. Luckily, the show has surrounded Hal with prickly characters to offset his frequent blandness, like Kilowog and Razer (Jason Spisak), a prisoner in Hal and Kilowog's custody who wants to atone for his past actions as an evil Red Lantern but hasn't completely rid himself of his dark side.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, must have always wanted to act out.
In another example of how bizarrely scheduled these animated cable shows are (so where's that fifth Venture Bros. season, Astrobase Go! and Adult Swim?), Cartoon Network's Young Justice, the other half-hour show in the "DC Nation" block, began its second season only one week after concluding its first.
And in an astonishing and I'm-still-not-quite-sure-if-it-was-necessary WTF moment for an animated show that's mainly for teens, the newly renamed Young Justice: Invasion jumped ahead five years into the future. The teens of Young Justice are now investigating a potential alien invasion that may have ties to the mystery of what six Justice League members who were brainwashed by supervillain Vandal Savage (Miguel Ferrer) were doing for 16 unaccounted hours at the end of the first season (Alex, I'm gonna go with "What is an evening of hookers and blow?"). Artemis (Stephanie Lemelin), who's basically Katniss with a raunchy sense of humor (separated from her bow and quiver by a team of villains in one episode, she memorably cracked, "Ugh, I feel naked. And not in a fun way."), and two other Young Justice members, Aqualad (Khary Payton) and Kid Flash (Jason Spisak), quit the team for reasons that have yet to be explained and were replaced by other heroes, like an unknown lady named Batgirl (Alyson Stoner).
Also, Rocket (Kittie), who joined Young Justice very late in the first season and is best remembered in print for being the first superheroine to experience a teen pregnancy in the late Dwayne McDuffie's Milestone comic Icon, graduated to the League. Robin (Jesse McCartney) is now Nightwing, and Tim Drake (Cameron Bowen) has assumed Robin's mantle and still-brightly-colored-for-no-reason-other-than-to-wind-up-with-bullets-in-the-ass crimefighting suit. Emo Superboy (Nolan North) and Miss Martian (Danica McKellar) are no longer a couple, and the latter (isn't her name a little like calling some Asian female member of Young Justice "Miss Asian"?) is now sporting a post-breakup haircut and Lagoon Boy (Yuri Lowenthal) on her arm. And the animation is still outstanding for a weekly TV series--this is the best a DC Animated Universe project has ever looked on-screen, outside of the DCAU feature films--and showrunner Greg Weisman, whom DC Animation wisely snapped up for this show after he lost The Spectacular Spider-Man to what appears to have been production company politics, is still killing it, though some of his creative decisions so far this season don't quite make sense, like that time jump a la Galactica and One Tree Hill.
Justice League Unlimited expanded the scope and cast of Justice League and was loaded with cameos by obscure DC characters, but it never lost its focus on the seven original heroes we grew to like as a team in the first two seasons. As long as Young Justice: Invasion doesn't veer off into "Hiro in ancient Japan"-style tangents--last week's "Earthlings," which introduced to the DCAU the DC scientist hero named Adam Strange (Michael Trucco), who's basically John Carter with clothes and none of the stench of box-office failure, was almost an aimless tangent--this show could be another Justice League Unlimited instead of another Heroes.
Ultimate Spider-Man places Marvel's most popular character in a Young Justice-like premise in which the web-slinger (Drake Bell, who starred in Superhero Movie as a hero who was a Spidey parody) and other superpowered teens--Spidey-hating Nova (Logan Miller), token female White Tiger (Caitlyn Taylor Love), a de-aged Luke Cage (Ogie Banks) and an equally de-aged and annoyingly mandal-ed Danny Rand (Greg Cipes), a.k.a. Iron Fist--are given a Sky High-style education from S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Chi McBride) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) on how to become better heroes. Out of all of Spidey's animated incarnations so far (from Ralph Bakshi's psychedelic Spidey to the solid and much-missed Spectacular Spider-Man), Ultimate boasts the most high-quality animation. The fluid and agile movements of this new animated Spidey and his superpowered cohorts are a huge leap forward from the cookie-cutter animation and constantly recycled footage of Bakshi's '60s Spidey and the jerky early '80s animation of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.
Dini isn't the only B:TAS alum who's involved with Ultimate. His colleague from that influential show, animator Eric Radomski, is a co-executive producer on Ultimate. One of B:TAS' best visual touches was the expressiveness that Radomski and Bruce Timm brought to the eye portion of Batman's mask, and that same expressiveness has been added to this new animated Spidey's eyes. I wouldn't be surprised if that was a Radomski touch.
Fortunately, Ultimate has retained Spidey's sense of humor from the comics, an ingredient that Tobey Maguire's largely brooding Spidey could have used a little more of in the Sam Raimi movies. However, Spidey's frequent asides to the camera are too Zack from Saved by the Bell for my tastes (the worst element of Bendis' Ultimate comic that this show has retained is Peter's Zack from Saved by the Bell-style hairdo), and that's where the writing on Ultimate falls short for me (neither am I much of a fan of Bell's smarmy delivery as Spidey). Your tolerance for Spidey's shticky Scrubs-style narration on Ultimate--which was eliminated from last week's Spidey/Hulk team-up episode "Exclusive" because most of the ep was told from the POV of Mary Jane Watson's camcorder a la Cloverfield--depends on the tolerance you may or may not have for either Marvel's similarly shticky Super Hero Squad Show from a couple of years ago, Disney XD's loud and obnoxious promos for its mostly unwatchable live-action sitcoms(*) or DC's often slapsticky but less grating Teen Titans animated series. So far, my tolerance is low.
The serialized structure and world-building of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes may be the most enjoyable elements of the Disney XD series, but at times during its second season, that world-building has resulted in the current Avengers team members becoming guest stars on their own show. The "To Steal an Ant-Man" episode from two weeks ago caught up with Ant-Man (Wally Wingert), who quit the team last season and isn't even a regular on the show anymore, and focused on an identity-theft predicament he was trying to resolve with the help of the mismatched Heroes for Hire duo of Luke Cage (Christopher B. Duncan) and Iron Fist (Loren Lester). In a character detail that probably confused newer viewers, Luke and Danny were several years older here than on Ultimate Spider-Man (and this version of Luke apparently despises the name "Power Man," as well as the metal headband and yellow disco shirt that Huey once snarked about on The Boondocks). I wouldn't have minded this episode if it were actually a backdoor pilot for a Heroes for Hire cartoon--and luckily, we were spared the tacky backdoor pilot line where Ant-Man says to Luke and Danny, "And I'll be looking forward to hearing about your other cases. I'm sure they'll be as much of an adventure as this one." But as an episode of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, right smack dab in the middle of an ambitious arc involving the alien adversaries known as the Skrulls and the Kree, it was mostly filler.
end its run to make way for a new Avengers cartoon that's closer in tone to the comedic Ultimate Spider-Man and closer aesthetically to the current live-action Avengers blockbuster (hold up, wasn't the whole point of Earth's Mightiest Heroes to drum up interest in the Joss Whedon movie?). If those rumors are true, Earth's Mightiest Heroes is yet another Marvel cartoon that's been ruined, which isn't surprising because Marvel properties have had a spotty track record in animation (it's like the opposite of the beloved DC Animated Universe).
Although most Marvel fans are especially fond of the '90s X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons that both ran on Fox Kids because they were faithful to the source material, I never thought those two shows were all that great to begin with, mostly because of their overwritten and hastily delivered dialogue, which was straight out of old Speed Racer reruns and was proof that those Marvel cartoons were so in need of someone like Andrea Romano, the voice director on most of the DC Animated Universe shows and more recently, The Boondocks and Motorcity, to keep the dialogue from sounding so grating. The shows paled in comparison to the Fleischer Brothers-inspired B:TAS, which was well-written, gorgeously scored and immaculately paced (even though I've revisited B:TAS from time to time and forgotten that a lot of B:TAS episodes--especially the ones that were farmed out to the frequently incompetent Korean animation studio AKOM, like "Moon of the Wolf," with its cheesy electric guitar theme for the werewolf character, or "I've Got Batman in My Basement"--were major clunkers).
I especially like the Earth's Mightiest Heroes incarnation of The Hulk (Fred Tatasciore), a boring character I usually don't care for (the inability to make him interesting in a live-action feature film must be why three different actors have played Dr. Bruce Banner on the big screen since 2003). Instead of the more familiar "Hulk smash!" version, the Earth's Mightiest Heroes Hulk is closer to more recent comics interpretations of the not-so-jolly green giant, and for the first time on-screen (not counting John Belushi and Chris Farley's articulate portrayals of him in SNL sketches), he can form complete sentences. Of course, Hulk's still a hothead, but this show portrays him as mostly taciturn and pouty. Speaking of feeling sulky, because of most of its live-action programming and its noisy promos, Disney XD is a channel I don't like staying around in for more than a few minutes, although that might change with the presence of...
Motorcity, the only one out of the five cartoons that's not based on a superhero comic for a change, is only two episodes in, and this unlikely collabo between Disney and the not-so-family-friendly Titmouse animation studio (of Metalocalypse and Freaknik: The Musical fame) is already the most inventive and thrilling of the five. It's not a superhero show, yet it's dealing with questions about heroism (and even activism) more interestingly than most of the above cartoons that are actual superhero shows.
In Motorcity's future setting, the socio-economical punching bag that is Detroit has been divided by greedy developer Abraham Kane (B:TAS and Metalocalypse vocal MVP Mark Hamill) into two sections, the sparkling-clean, EPCOT-like Detroit Deluxe for the city's most affluent inhabitants and Motorcity, a subterranean ghetto that Kane is plotting to completely bulldoze. Teenage gearhead Mike Chilton (Reid Scott, currently appearing on HBO's Veep as the conceited douche on VP Selina Meyer's staff) has banded together with cowardly hacker and best friend Chuck (Nate Torrence), industrial spy Julie (Kate Micucci) and mechanics Dutch (Kel Mitchell), Texas (Jess Harnell) and
the infamous Super Bowl XLVI Chrysler ad where Clint Eastwood big-upped the Detroit auto industry, now Motorcity is fighting again. But will Kane succeed in turning the Burners and the people of Motorcity against Mike, who, like Jacob, used to work for KaneCo? Will the fog, division, discord and blame make it hard for the Burners to see what lies ahead?
Even though Motorcity must have been created by Titmouse honcho Chris Prynoski long before the Occupy movement began (and judging from how much work Titmouse put into making the show's visuals look amazing, it had have to been created that long ago) and Prynoski is more concerned with high-octane action than political allegory, it's hard to ignore how similar the Burners' opposition to Kane is to the struggles of us 99 Percenters. It's about time Occupy protesters got an animated show they can root for and embrace--and of course, watch while being camped out between protests, most likely through Burners-style illegal means that would make Disney's blood boil.
Speaking of Disney, how the hell did a show with a clear disdain for EPCOT-like things manage to get Disney's approval and make it on to a Disney-owned channel?
"When I asked Prynoski about this [satirical] aspect of Motorcity," wrote Jim Hill in his article about Motorcity, "all Chris could do in response was laugh and then say 'I don't think I'm allowed to comment on that. But I will say that you're a very perceptive fellow.'"
For a long time, I found it difficult to get over Cartoon Network's cancellation of the Titmouse-produced Megas XLR, which, like Motorcity, had a bunch of teenage gearheads as the heroes (instead of souped-up hot rods, their ride was a giant robot from the future). I think I'm finally over it. Motorcity is a great substitute, and in some ways, it's an even better show. Sure, there aren't as many amusing pop culture reference gags on Motorcity as there were on Megas XLR, which, for instance, regularly ridiculed MTV for cancelling the Titmouse cult favorite Downtown by destroying a "PopTV" sign in every episode (Roth, a robot named after car customizer Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and a shout-out to Admiral Ackbar's "It's a trap!" line from Hamill's Star Wars past are as reference-y as Motorcity gets). But the Burners are more interesting characters (I especially enjoyed the matter-of-fact way the "Battle for Motorcity" premiere episode revealed that Julie is Kane's daughter) and more fallible heroes than Megas XLR's Coop, who always triumphed over the Glorft at the end of each episode despite leveling most of New Jersey in the process. On Megas XLR, the destruction of Jersey was a running gag, but on Motorcity, the impact the Burners' battles against Kane have on the fragile ghetto they call home is treated a little more seriously.
This week's "Power Trip" episode, scripted by Megas XLR co-creator George Krstic, features a great scene where the Burners brainstorm how to break into the KaneCo Tower and realize why each of their ideas would suck donkey balls. In that comedic scene and in later moments where characters debate over weaponizing an unstable KaneCo energy source, "Power Trip" deals with how heroism sometimes requires compromise, but without getting preachy about it. Mike gets a KaneCo R&D scientist (Jim Cummings) to steal from Kane an energy core, which would result in Kane's evil empire being shut down once and for all. But even though the energy core is too unstable and dangerous for the Burners to keep around in Motorcity, Mike insists on using it as a weapon, and his stance is met with opposition by Chuck and the scientist. The series isn't afraid to show that while Mike is a great leader, he's also an adrenaline junkie, and his recklessness can be a liability for the people he wants to protect.
Mike and Chuck as a gay couple, and I wouldn't be surprised if some female viewer somewhere is currently hard at work on her Mike/Chuck slashfic).
|(Photo source: People of MotorCity)|
(*) I think I might be starting to warm up to Lab Rats, a new Disney XD sitcom starring Tyrel Jackson Williams, the hyperactive younger brother of Everybody Hates Chris star Tyler James Williams, as a teen who discovers his inventor stepdad (Hal Sparks) has created three bionic siblings. Lab Rats is like an innocuous throwback to a '60s Screen Gems fantasy sitcom, but with bionic teens and a supercomputer voiced by Will Forte instead of witches or genies, plus very little of the suckitude of Small Wonder. At the same time, it's also a little more progressive than most sitcoms because of its interracial family and the way the show has made this black kid the audience surrogate instead of the best friend of the white lead or some weird Magic Negro who brightens all the other white folks' lives. Too bad Lab Rats--like most other live-action Disney Channel or Disney XD comedies--is saddled with a How I Met Your Mother-style laugh track.