Tuesday, August 7, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (08/07/2012): Scooby-Doo!, Ben 10: Omniverse, Ultimate Spider-Man, Adventure Time and Regular Show

'Baby want hot-ass Daphne to poop into baby's mouth!'
Like that old homosexual millionaire in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he wants Daphne to powder him up and spank him.
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

Scooby-Doo mysteries aren't all that difficult to figure out, so I correctly guessed that Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated villain Crybaby Clown (Mark Hamill, as demented-sounding as always) was really movie star Baylor Hotner (Matt Lanter), who disguised himself in Norbit-style prosthetics as research for a role he coveted. But these mysteries usually aren't ambitiously serialized or stretched out for a few episodes, which sets Mystery Incorporated apart from previous incarnations of Scooby.

A 21-year-old David Boreanaz is pissed off over the Philadelphia Flyers losing another game.
What also sets the show apart from past incarnations are the moody small-town setting (Crystal Cove instead of the more benign Coolsville); a grown-up sense of humor (instead of The Three Stooges or The Harlem Globetrotters as guest stars, Mystery Incorporated opts for the likes of Lewis Black as a secretly villainous ex-detective and Harlan Ellison as himself); and the fact that it takes its protagonists seriously for once, even though they carry on lengthy conversations with talking dogs and parrots as if they're regular people.

As Chris Sims notes at ComicsAlliance, Mystery Incorporated has taken a previously bland character like Fred--who's still voiced by Frank Welker--and used his blandness to reimagine him as an unexpectedly tragic figure (but not so tragic that he has an addiction to smack or picks up hitchhikers in the Mystery Machine and takes them to motels to torture them in order to feel alive).

"Fred is given a love of traps that comes off as about as one-note as Shaggy being hungry all the time. It's built for gags, giving him a funny obsession that [sic] so that he can be cheerily oblivious to Daphne's professions of love," writes Sims. "But as the show goes on, and it's revealed piece by piece that Fred's father has told him that his mother abandoned their family, his obsession with keeping things from getting away from him takes on a whole new light. It shifts from something that's pure comedy to a joke with an undercurrent of genuine sadness that grows ever larger as the truth about his life starts to come out."

Sheriff Stone is so inept he makes Prez from The Wire look like Commissioner Gordon.
All these novel (for a Scooby show) touches could be why Cartoon Network has been burning off most of Mystery Incorporated's second season without much fanfare each weekday afternoon since last week. Often when Cartoon Network execs wind up with an interesting and ambitious show with a cult following like Mystery Incorporated (a blogger over at Wired considers it "the true inheritor of the Buffy crown") or Genndy Tartakovsky's Sym-Bionic Titan, they really don't know what to do with it. The bizarre treatment of Mystery Incorporated as an afterthought is either because they have no clue how to market it or because they were probably soured by contract disputes with the show's producers, which delayed the second season. I'm not an industry insider, so I don't really know why Mystery Incorporated lapsed into Burnoff Theater.

Do they both take their glasses off when they make out? Without her glasses, Velma would mistake Marcy's elbows for breasts.
Hot Dog Water and Velma
But what I do know is that the first seven episodes of the new season have been as satisfying as the episodes from the first season's back half, which I first caught between seasons. So much has happened in one week. Mystery Incorporated temporarily replaced Daphne with Marcy "Hot Dog Water" Fleach (Linda Cardellini, reunited with her live-action Scooby co-star Matthew Lillard), a former rival of Velma's who's clearly attracted to Velma (now is that why Cartoon Network, which lost its shit over Adventure Time's implication that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline were briefly more than friends, sidelined Mystery Incorporated?). Daphne learned of Baylor's scheme as Crybaby Clown and dumped him. She rejoined Mystery Incorporated, which resulted in the ousting of Hot Dog Water, who pretended to be upset by the ouster and actually anticipated it so that she could use it as ammo to plot against the team with the backing of Black's Mr. E character. I wouldn't be surprised if Hot Dog Water's plot is a continuation of Mr. E's attempt to block the team from collecting every piece of the Planispheric Disk, the key to finding Crystal Cove's hidden conquistador treasure.

Also, Fred is getting to know his long-lost birth parents, "trap-making mystery solvers" Brad Chiles (Tim Matheson) and Judy Reeves (Tia Carrere), whose names are straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and whose non-verbal female puppy Nova is Scooby's first non-food-related object of affection. Brad and Judy are also former Mystery Incorporated members like Mr. E and local DJ Cassidy Williams (Vivica A. Fox). The fact that the couple is secretly in cahoots with Mr. E and the evil parrot Professor Pericles (Udo Kier), Scooby's predecessor as the team mascot--and their lack of remorse for sketchy past activities Cassidy still feels guilty about having been complicit in--are both bound to crush Fred's morale and leave him in a worse state than he was at the end of last season.

This rising conspiracy against the teens illuminates what Sims notes is a major theme of this show: "Adults are either outright liars or complicit in some kind of deception." And when these adults aren't just the costumed perps who are unmasked and busted by the team at the end of every episode and are figures whom Fred and his friends have placed their trust in--like Mr. E, Cassidy and now, Fred's real parents--it brings some genuine drama to the franchise's premise of teens who defy their fears to find the truth.

It's a cynical view of the world that Mystery Incorporated is amazingly unafraid to embrace, but to keep the show from being a total downer, the writers offset the ominousness of the rising conspiracy with humorous standalone storylines like a hilarious spoof of Andy Warhol--here, he's called Randy Warsaw (Billy West)--and his history as a control freak. In the funniest second-season episode so far, "Art of Darkness!," a perp with a grudge against Warsaw seizes control of his metal sculptures and uses them to attack and engulf models and singers Warsaw has molded into art-scene superstars, so Warsaw ends up replacing his missing emo art-rock star Eeko (Grey DeLisle) with Scooby. Warsaw sticks an Edgar Winter wig on the Great Dane and renames him Freako.

"That voice," purrs Warsaw when he first hears Scooby speak. "It's anti-art. Anti-music. It's--it's anti-words."

The sight of Scooby singing a droning, Velvet Underground & Nico-style tune is one of many reasons why--rut-roh--I'll miss Mystery Incorporated when Cartoon Network inevitably cancels it after this season is over.

The only thing wrong with this picture is that Chick-fil-A would never hire Shaggy because he's always high on the marijuana and his relationship with his male dog looks suspicious.
(Photo source: David Willis)

***

Cartoon Network's Ben 10 superhero franchise for preteen viewers isn't my cup of tea, but I wanted to catch the first part of "The More Things Change," Ben 10: Omniverse's two-part series premiere (the conclusion will air together with part 1 when the series officially premieres on September 22), because it's one of the last things credited to the late Dwayne McDuffie, whom I got to briefly meet a couple of years before his death. McDuffie, a Ben 10 veteran whose '90s Milestone comics I enjoyed as a teen, received a "story by" credit with his wife and writing partner Charlotte Fullerton for "The More Things Change."

I'm not familiar with the Ben 10 cartoons. My only exposure to the franchise has been the last half-hour of Ben 10: Alien Swarm, one of Cartoon Network's live-action Ben 10 TV-movies. Alien Swarm featured Barry Corbin in a terrible hairpiece as Ben Tennyson's grandfather Max, a retired member of the intergalactic peacekeeping force known as the Plumbers (fortunately, this group of Plumbers isn't afflliated with a right-wing dickweed who calls himself Joe). On Omniverse, Grandpa Max (Paul Eiding) has summoned a young alien Plumber named Rook Blanko (Bumper Robinson) to help out his grandson (Yuri Lowenthal), who's been bragging about not needing a partner to help him fight alien threats ever since his previous Plumber sidekicks, cousin Gwen (Ashley Johnson) and her boyfriend Kevin Levin (Greg Cipes), left for college.

Of course, Ben won't admit it, but he needs all the help he can get because even though he's become a capable hero like his grandpa due to the Omnitrix, the gadget on his wrist that allows him to temporarily assume the forms of powerful alien warriors, he doesn't have much control over the device. It doesn't give Ben the ability to choose which alien he wants to be, so he has to constantly improvise with whatever form the Omnitrix converts him into. It's like having Clive Anderson on your wrist, except instead of him telling you to act out a visit to the dry cleaner as a cowboy who speaks in questions only, he's turned you into a shape-shifting alien with a body made out of Lego blocks, and he doesn't speak and proceed to badger you with insults about your silly American ways or your short stature.

This wrinkle in the Omnitrix is a nice way of depowering Ben a la The Greatest American Hero because without the glitch, Ben's a boring and way-too-powerful superhero who does everything right. It's more interesting to have Ben figure out how to use new powers like the aforementioned Lego body (this persona, known as Bloxx, is a visual highlight, especially for any viewer like myself who grew up playing around with Legos) than to have him be familiar with his different personas and slip into them with ease.

After only two seasons, Cartoon Network will replace Ben 10: Omniverse with a surefire ratings-grabber: Ben 10: Intergalactic Hoarder.
I don't think I'll be following Ben 10: Omniverse after the conclusion of "The More Things Change." (The only thing about this show I'm curious about is why the opening titles alternate between Ben and his 11-year-old self. My guess is that the Plumbers will be faced with a threat so menacing that it unites Ben with his younger self later in the season.) But I can see why this franchise that was created by (but isn't currently under the supervision of) the Man of Action collective appealed to McDuffie so much. The material is reminiscent of the innocent Silver Age superhero comics McDuffie emulated in his most lighthearted work for Milestone (rest in power, McDuffie and Milestone). Speaking of Man of Action...

***

I keep complaining about how frequently self-satisfied Spider-Man is on Ultimate Spider-Man, but at least he's a scientific genius, and his brains have saved his ass and his teammates' asses several times on the show, including during this week's "Snow Day" episode from writers Rich Fogel and Man of Action. Spidey's actually not the most obnoxious member of the S.H.I.E.L.D. trainee team. That would be egotistical dumbass Sam Alexander (Logan Miller), a member of the Nova Corps and Spidey's alpha male rival (blame executive producer Jeph Loeb for Sam, a Loeb creation who first appeared in comics form just last year).

Does Nova have any redeeming qualities like Spidey's scientific acumen? Not really--other than his energy blasts, which Spidey the science geek determines are the best way to defeat this week's villain Sandman (Dee Bradley Baker). Buckethead's not even a likable dunce like Texas over on Motorcity. (He has an irrational fear of bunnies that would be more amusing if it weren't copped from Anya from Buffy.) Sam's a smarmy, Slater from Saved by the Bell-esque dick whom Spidey and the other teammates are too kind and accommodating to. Spidey ought to leave a piece of Parker poop in Nova's helmet as prankish payback for actions like the mistake made by N to the Izz-O, V to the Izz-A in "Snow Day."

When Spidey, Nova, White Tiger (Caitlyn Taylor Love), Power Man (Ogie Banks) and Iron Fist (Greg Cipes) are forced to report to Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) for a training session on a snow day, the teens decide to ditch Coulson's session outside in the rough winter weather. They pack their swimsuits and fly off to a tropical island that Sam chose from the S.H.I.E.L.D. database because he thought the database description of the island as "Classified" meant that it's a classy island.

How's it possible that this fool's both a Nova Corps patrolman and a S.H.I.E.L.D. member?

Way to sneak in a schlong onto Sandman, Marvel Animation. Well done, folks. Thanks for the disturbing image.
The island is classified because Coulson and Nick Fury banished the shape-shifting Sandman to that spot for being such a dangerous menace on land (he's much less formidable when he's lured away to the sea). The agents exiled Flint Marko so long ago that--in the episode's only good sight gag--Fury rocked an Afro and Coulson rocked a ponytail when they apprehended him. If it weren't for Nova and his stellar reading comprehension (and the team is also to blame for letting Nova pick the island), Marko wouldn't have been Wrath of Khanned and set free from his isolated prison.

Ultimate Spider-Man excels at animating battles between the team and shape-shifting villains like Sandman. Now if only the show would give these baddies as much personality as they've given to annoying little Chibi Spidey.

The team tries to stop Sandman from stealing the Genesis Project.

***

'BMO Noire' sounds like the name of a '90s hip-hop producer.
Props to Adventure Time for converting to black-and-white for its "BMO Noire" homage to detective noirs and fully committing to it, unlike a recent episode of the live-action Disney Channel sitcom Shake It Up! that flashbacked to the '50s. The sitcom was black-and-white for a couple of minutes before it trotted out the annoying little brother character to object to guest star Anita Gillette's character retelling her '50s experiences in black-and-white. Then Shake It Up! caved in to the little douche's demands.

Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward doesn't care if you find his show too weird and off-putting or too fond of genres that the youngest viewers aren't familiar with, like the noir genre. That's because like other creators of the best animated shows or films, he's not making Adventure Time just for those kids. If any of them don't get a kick out of "BMO Noire," then somewhere, someone who digs The Big Sleep and Kiss Me Deadly will.

This title card is red hot like pizza supper.
(Photo source: The Adventure Time Wiki)
As someone who loves the 1946 Big Sleep (despite its confusing conspiracy plot) and delights in the weirdness and nihilism of Kiss Me Deadly, I enjoyed seeing Finn and Jake's Korean-accented robot friend BMO (Niki Yang) imagine himself as a Philip Marlowe-style private eye while trying to find Finn's missing sock. In "BMO Noire," we're subjected to many of the typical devices that define the noir genre, from the hard-boiled voiceover narration to the femme fatale, but because this is Adventure Time we're talking about here, the show throws in an offbeat touch to distinguish this noir spoof from other noir spoofs. The animal suspects in BMO's case can't talk, so BMO steps in and does the talking for them.

It's a detective story in which the gumshoe is basically talking to himself the whole time. Completely nutso? Hell yeah. It's also inspired. It feels like the 2007 Johnnie To/Wai Ka-Fai masterpiece Mad Detective, but without the high body count, the self-mutilation or the severed ears.

He's tired of getting bullied by the other portable gaming devices for being only 8-bit.
Nothing on the soundtrack in "BMO Noire" is as catchy as John DiMaggio singing about bacon pancakes, although the jazzy score layered with Adventure Time's customary 8-bit synths is a nice touch. Someone on SoundCloud took last week's "Bacon Pancakes" number, which was written by storyboarder Rebecca Sugar, and amusingly remixed it so that it contains a muted filter a la Drake producer Noah "40" Shebib.



***

While Adventure Time tackles the noir genre, Regular Show channels war movies (and at one point, the psychedelic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory boat ride sequence) in "Prankless." A collapsing-mattress prank by avid prankster Muscle Man that's meant for Mordecai goes awry and injures elderly man-child Pops (Sam Marin), the park owner's son with a lollipop for a head. Muscle Man feels so much remorse that he renounces practical jokes for good.

The green-skinned groundskeeper's retirement from pranks means trouble for Mordecai and Rigby's nameless park. As park manager Benson (also Marin) points out, without Mitch, the park becomes vulnerable to pranks masterminded by the rival park and its ruthless manager Gene (Kurtwood Smith). The Archie Bunker hat-wearing East Pines park manager is a walking and talking snack chip vending machine, while Benson is a walking and talking gumball machine.

Like I've said before, what sort of drugs are these Regular Show staff writers on?

Anyway, East Pines attacks Mordecai and Rigby's park with barrages of water balloons, whoopee cushions and tomatoes and sends planes to drop cherry pies on them. Expired bologna is the weapon of choice for Skips, the Mark Hamill-voiced white Yeti who talks like a cross between Harvey Fierstein and a Jersey plumber, while Mordecai and Rigby opt for Saran Wrapping the East Pines toilet seats. But they're unable to defeat Gene and his troops without Mitch the ultimate prankster by their side.

Regular Show's Full Metal Jacket-style promo art for 'Prankless' hinted at senseless bloodshed on Cartoon Network, not unlike the way CN killed Sym-Bionic Titan.
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
What other show would have Smith guest-star as a villainous vending machine? Maybe Futurama. But on Regular Show, Smith isn't voicing a robot. He's voicing a human... who's a vending machine. I love how there's no explanation on Regular Show for why snack machines get all the park managing jobs in America. It's probably because of the propensity for overachieving that they inherit from their hardass soda machine parents.

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