Tuesday, July 31, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (07/31/2012): Iron Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, Scooby-Doo!, Adventure Time and Regular Show

In a deleted scene, Fred is seen eating Scooby Snacks out of an alley trash bin.
All Hipster Fred can think about right now is where he could score some PBR.
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.

Iron Man: Armored Adventures, which centered on a teenage version of inventor/superhero Tony Stark (Adrian Petriw), quietly ended its two-season run on Nicktoons last Wednesday. The animation on this Canadian-made show isn't bad for a CG-animated show. I like how at the end of the Rooney-soundtracked opening titles--nice original theme, by the way, from Dweezil Schwartzman or whatever his name is--Iron Man quivers like Buzz Lightyear pressing his wrist laser button while he activates his suit's repulsor ray from his palm, which makes it look as if this much younger Tony is still adjusting to the power of his repulsor rays. But the show's human character designs and lighting look cheap and low-res compared to what we see on other CG shows like Disney's noir-tinged Tron: Uprising and Bruce Timm's strikingly lit Green Lantern: The Animated Series.


While I find the look of Armored Adventures to be on the undernourished side, the writing, supervised by story editor Brandon Auman, is pretty decent. Though Armored Adventures is made for an audience that's younger than, say, Young Justice's--hence the de-aging of Tony, James Rhodes (Daniel Bacon) and Pepper Potts (Anna Cummer), who, instead of being Tony's assistant, is Tony and Rhodey's classmate on this show--it isn't as juvenile as I often find the writing on Ultimate Spider-Man to be. In other words, there aren't any anvillicious voiceovers from Tony or forced cutaway gags. I particularly liked Armored Adventures' recent crossover with the X-Men characters, the Auman-scripted "X-Factor," which had Tony and Rhodey coming to the aid of their mutant classmate Annie, who was on the run from Magneto and was revealed at the end of the episode to be a young Jean Grey.

In "The Makluan Invasion, Part 2: Unite!," Armored Adventures' series finale, the battle between Iron Man's allies and the Makluan forces for the coveted 10 Rings resembles the climax of Joss Whedon's The Avengers (this two-parter's team of heroes is the same as Whedon's roster, except it's missing Captain America, Thor and Maria Hill, who's Russian-accented on this show for some odd reason, and in their place is Black Panther), but Auman actually wrote the finale before Whedon began work on his movie. Hulk (Mark Gibbon) surprises his friends by joining them late in battle like in Whedon's movie, but he's a lot different here. He experienced an intelligence boost during his last appearance on the show, so he talks in full sentences (just like on The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes) and would be able to land a job as an ESL teacher. (The most physical side effect of Hulk's added brainpower was a change in skin color from green to '60s comics-era gray.)

Missing from this team are Captain America, who's still a Popsicle, and Thor, who's still trying to pass shop class back on Asgard.
A couple of other major differences between "The Makluan Invasion" and the Whedon movie are the involvement of War Machine and Rescue, Pepper's armored alter ego (which probably pleases female viewers who are campaigning for Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper to suit up as Rescue in Iron Man 3), and due to the low budget, a reduced sense of scale. The Manhattan streets on this show are often empty. Where did all the bystanders go? Without those civilians, the battle between Team Stark/S.H.I.E.L.D. and the title aliens isn't as high-stakes as the one between the Avengers and the Chitauri. Maybe that's also due to the fact that I'm in TV-Y7-land here instead of the PG-13-level alien-invasion drama of the Whedon film or the more morbid turf of a celeb-slaughtering Irwin Allen disaster flick, so I shouldn't be expecting Robert Wagner running around on fire like Richard Pryor or something.

Auman wrote "The Makluan Invasion" as both a season finale and series finale in case the series didn't get renewed. So because Nicktoons has basically cancelled Armored Adventures, the series concludes with Iron Man, War Machine and Rescue flying off into the sunset and eagerly looking forward to their new lives as superheroes whose secret identities are now known to the public, which learns of their unmasked selves after Tony accidentally loses his helmet while escaping the destruction of the Makluan mothership, and Rhodey and Pepper happen to be be unmasked when they retrieve him. Rhodey and Pepper's parents also learn of their children's secret lives and are unusually understanding about their new jobs. I'm surprised that Rhodey's lawyer mother Roberta (Catherine Haggquist) doesn't ask her son something like, "Hey, remember that internship at Matt Murdock's firm? Because in case the superheroing thing doesn't work out... Also, they've got dental."

***

The comedic material on Ultimate Spider-Man is much less cringe-inducing than usual this week. I don't know if it's because Scott Mosier--the Kevin Smith crony and SModcast network co-founder who co-wrote this week's "Beetle Mania" episode and had a hand in several other upcoming episodes--has something to do with it (I don't listen to Mosier and Smith's podcasts, so I can't tell which lines in "Beetle Mania" are ones Mosier would come up with). I actually laughed during one gag (Peter imagines the ambitious, Tara Strong-voiced Mary Jane as the new boss of the Bugle and pictures her with J. Jonah Jameson hair) and enjoyed another that requires the pause button in order to see it (a Bugle news channel ticker posts items like "Snow in July? Storm refuses to comment" and "Alison Blaire's new album goes platinum in the first week," a reference to Dazzler, the mutant pop singer from the X-Men comics).

This green-eyed bandit may be difficult for S.H.I.E.L.D. to defeat, but he doesn't speak, so he'd definitely lose in a battle with that other green-eyed bandit, Erick Sermon.
Again, the C-list villain in the show's cold open, the recurring, bad glue pun-loving nuisance known as the Trapster (Steven Weber), is more memorable than the main heavy, the nearly mute Beetle (Steve Blum), whom Spidey and the S.H.I.E.L.D. trainees must protect both MJ and Jameson from when the armored assassin attempts to attack the outspoken Bugle editor-in-chief at his office building, just when MJ happens to be there to be interviewed by Jameson for a Bugle internship. The main villains on Ultimate Spider-Man have tended to be on the boring and easy-to-defeat side, including this week's uninteresting title foe and the one-note Venom, although the Mark Hamill-voiced Nightmare from the Doctor Strange episode had, for once, some personality and formidableness (he kept everyone in New York imprisoned in their nightmares, which makes that small-town menace Freddy Krueger look like a pussy) and required more than just webbing and brute strength from Spidey in order to be defeated.

Series composer Kevin Manthei's half-orchestral/half-punk score music really stands out this week. He gives MJ a memorable and charming leitmotif for strings that perfectly suits the aspiring journo's persistent yet relaxed demeanor. And then someone in the Disney XD control room apparently got his drank on all Saturday night and was asleep at the wheel because he forgot to squeeze out the Ultimate Spider-Man end credits with one of Chi McBride's "Fury Files" segments for the "Marvel Universe" block, so we got to hear all of Manthei's end credits theme, which Manthei has referred to as a punk tune that "continues the tradition of the classic animated Spider-Man song in terms of being catchy." Manthei wrote it so that someone can easily sing "Spider-Man, Spider-Man" repeatedly over it, much like the late, great Shirley Walker's theme for the Man of Steel on Superman: The Animated Series. I may not always agree with Ultimate Spider-Man's comedic or narrative choices, but it's nice to hear an animated Marvel series step its game up in terms of score music for a change.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Close to "Rome"

Fuck the slapstick. Fran Jeffries' booty is the highlight of the first Pink Panther movie, no doubt.
(Photo source: Poetic and Chic)
"Rome, Italian Style," which I named after one of my favorite SCTV sketches, is an hour-long block I launched on A Fistful of Soundtracks last summer as a way to give some airplay to the badass and lush Rome album, the '60s Italian film music-inspired project produced by superduperproducer Danger Mouse and Magic City composer Daniele Luppi and featuring Jack White and Norah Jones on vocals. Besides the Rome tracks, the 11am block (which airs every weekday except Friday) also features '60s and '70s film and TV theme covers and tracks from outside the film and TV music world that were modeled after '60s and '70s film and TV scores.

The following tunes that I found on Spotify aren't currently part of the "Rome, Italian Style" playlist, but they ought to be.

Jones' new breakup-themed album Little Broken Hearts, which was produced by Danger Mouse, feels like a companion piece to Rome.










Both the Blue Harlem and Lena Horne tracks are covers of "Meglio Stasera" from the first Pink Panther. For some reason, the shots of Selina Kyle atop the Batpod in The Dark Knight Rises made me flash back to the first few seconds of this:


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (07/24/2012): Motorcity, Gravity Falls, Ultimate Spider-Man, The Avengers and Regular Show

'Are you accusing me of phone hacking, Stark? I don't like phone hacking. I LOVE phone hacking!'
A typically serene moment in J. Jonah Jameson's office
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.

According to an angry asian man post last week, at the recent 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, the Hasbro-owned Hub family channel, the home of the surprise hit My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, passed out fortune cookies with racist "Ching chong a-ling long" messages inside (a Hub network exec later publicly apologized for the racist cookies). Isn't the hero of The Hub's Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters, a cartoon I've sometimes covered in this column, a half-Asian kid who has to put up with racist bullying?

I've seen the message inside one of the fortune cookies that's intended for The Hub. It says, 'You're a shitty channel, and you'll get only one fucking hit: My Little Pony.'
Way to be as tolerant as one of your own original shows, Hub. If the channel formerly known as Discovery Kids disappeared tomorrow from my DirecTV channel roster like all the Viacom channels temporarily did during the carriage dispute between Viacom and DirecTV last week, I wouldn't bat an eye, even though legendary voice actor and current Motorcity big bad Mark Hamill is now one of the station announcers. The Hub is now that inessential to me.

Open your fortune cookie, Hub. The message inside says, "In two years, you'll end up being a 24-hour infomercial channel and then totally falter." In bed.

***

Jen's sleeves. That's what first caught my eye during Downtown when the animated sitcom aired too briefly on MTV in 1999.

'Hey, Kool Aid!'
Jen from Downtown
The baggy sweater-wearing Asian American tomboy's overlong sleeves also happened to be the first bit of character business that made me take notice of the distinctive animation style of the studio I later learned was called Titmouse, when studio co-founder Shannon Prynoski wrote on my guestbook (aw, guestbooks--remember those?) in 2004 to tell me she's a fan of my radio station A Fistful of Soundtracks. I e-mailed her back to say I enjoyed Downtown, as well as the hallucination sequence her studio animated for Beavis and Butt-head Do America, and she said she tuned into AFOS late at night while working on a then-upcoming Cartoon Network show called Megas XLR.

After first learning about Megas from her, I became a fan of Titmouse's work and have followed most of the studio's output since Megas, from the occasional Metalocalypse rerun to Freaknik: The Musical and now, the animated version of Black Dynamite and Motorcity. I haven't watched an entire Downtown episode in 13 years (I know that the show can be YouTubed, and its creator, Shannon's husband Chris, found a clever way to make the entire series available to its fans, but I keep putting off re-watching it), and I've forgotten all the dialogue from Downtown since then, but I've never forgotten Jen's sleeves because that's the inventiveness of Titmouse in a nutshell.

Subtle character animation has always been Titmouse's forte, and Motorcity's "Off the Rack" episode is filled with plenty of it, which is why I'm kind of frustrated that Disney XD delayed the episode until last Thursday night. If "Off the Rack" feels like an episode from earlier in Motorcity's run, that's because it's the sixth one produced by Titmouse (we're 11 episodes into Motorcity's 20-episode season), and Disney XD has been airing Motorcity episodes out of order.

Shuffling the episode order is a network business decision I don't always understand. The practice, which I first noticed back when Fox unveiled Batman: The Animated Series' first few episodes in 1992 (the first episode that ever aired, a Catwoman story, was actually the 13th one produced), makes less and less sense in an age when time-shifted viewing is making both the Nielsen ratings system and ratings-driven business decisions increasingly irrelevant. NBC did it with Homicide: Life on the Street in its first season because they didn't think the bottle episode "Night of the Dead Living," one of the earliest episodes that was filmed, would hook viewers like the season's slightly more higher-stakes episodes (like the "Gone for Goode" pilot or "Three Men and Adena") would, so they banished it to later in the season.

Delaying "Night of the Dead Living" was an odd move because I ended up finding that bottle episode (an abandoned baby at the precinct brings out sides of the cop characters we'd never seen before) to be more fascinating and rewatchable than most of the first season's other higher-stakes episodes. This wasn't the last time NBC would eff around with Homicide's episode order. Two seasons later, a similar airdate shuffle resulted in the death of a major character (Jon Polito's conspiracy-theory-obsessed Steve Crosetti) being inadvertently spoiled a few weeks before NBC aired the episode that revealed his demise.

In a less older example, Fox shuffled Firefly's intended order because they wanted to make the Joss Whedon show more appealing to the kinds of viewers they wanted to attract. The network wasn't satisfied with the Firefly pilot as a premiere episode (Fox felt the pilot had too much woe-is-me and not enough derring-do, according to the A.V. Club), so they asked Whedon to come up with a more action-packed premiere. The episode switch didn't pay off. Fox cancelled Firefly a few weeks later due to low ratings, and the show ended up becoming more popular on DVD.

Motorcity isn't serialized like Homicide was, so when Disney XD shuffles episodes around, it's not as disastrous as the Crosetti mishap, but it's still noticeable, like in "Blond Thunder" and "Off the Rack," which throws an intriguing monkey wrench into Julie Kane's efforts to hide her parentage from the Burners while also hiding her allegiance to her freedom fighter friends from her evil businessman father Abraham Kane. Julie's jeopardized double life is the kind of dramatic predicament that usually pops up early on in an action show's run to basically say to the viewers, "And these are the stakes! Stake it up! Stake it up! Stake it up!" (her parentage was revealed in the first episode, and as I said before, "Off the Rack" was sixth in Titmouse's production order). So it's bizarre and off-putting to see Disney XD delay that kind of story (which was written by George Krstic, who, as we saw in "Power Trip" and "Going Dutch," is great at raising the show's stakes) to a point in the season that's later than when Titmouse intended.

The monkey wrench into Julie's balancing act is the new Safe-T-Suit that Kane has implemented on each of his KaneCo employees, including Julie, who works as an intern for her father and is using her access to spy on his plans. The Safe-T-Suit is the latest advancement in protective wear ("Stability magnets, collar side airbags, safety form parachute pants!"). With just a push of a button on a special ring that's similar to that ring the Flash carries around his red costume in, the suit self-inflates from out of the ring and completely covers the wearer, and then it can easily fold itself back into the ring when the wearer wants to deactivate it.

The T is for tyranny.
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
But because this is Abraham Kane we're talking about here, he's secretly designed the suit so that he can hack into any suit and manipulate via Minority Report-style interfaces the movements of whichever employee is wearing a suit ring, mainly to prevent disgruntled employees from defecting Detroit Deluxe. Kane's external control is like bloodbending on The Legend of Korra, but without the creepy bone-grinding sound FX and the anguished faces in which the victims look like they're on the toilet, taking the world's most painful deuce. When his scanners alert him that a suit has been deployed outside of Detroit Deluxe and inside Motorcity, Kane deduces from the suit's hidden camera footage that a Burner has stolen it, and he activates the external control.

The tyrannical tycoon forcibly summons the Burner back to KaneCo Tower for punishment without realizing that the Burner inside the suit is his own daughter (the camera is--rather conveniently--unable to adjust its own lens so that Kane can see her face). Julie feels guilty over missing out on a recent Burners battle against her evil dad's Sector Enforcer Drones because of the duties that her cover at KaneCo entails. She bristles when Texas questions her loyalty to the Burners and calls her "Miss Deluxe" again like he did in "Ride the Lightning." So she attempts to make up for her absence by heading off to attack the Enforcer Drone factory on her own with the help of her suit's abilities, right when her dad unknowingly bloodbends her.

Claire does her best impression of Missy Elliott in the 'Supa Dupa Fly' video.

'Dude. Calm down, Chuck. It's just a bunch of my fans saying whattup in an unusually clingy way.'
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
The technobabble-heavy resolution to the suit crisis is a bit convoluted. After Chuck helps Texas rescue from external control mode Julie's best friend Claire (the animators somehow work into the mayhem a hilarious, how-did-this-make-it-onto-Disney-XD? shot of Chuck accidentally sitting on Texas' face), Chuck eagerly hugs the girl he's had a crush on, and the hug's disabling of the suit makes him realize the suit can be shut down if its "protection threshold" is overloaded. Wouldn't it be easier to just slip the rings off the workers' fingers and shut down the suits that way? However, the visuals before and after the resolution are some of the most amazing shots this series has ever done. Mike Chilton may despise the sterile city he used to work in, but Detroit Deluxe looks mighty spiffy during the moment when Kane hijacks hundreds of his employees' suits all at once and activates "dive mode" to unleash a swarm of these frightened-looking human missiles on Mike's car Mutt. And then just when I thought the "dive mode" shot of the red flood of KaneCo workers swarming on Mutt was the episode's visual highlight, "Off the Rack" immediately tops it with shots of a Katamari Damacy-style "human ball" that Kane forms out of the workers' bodies to squash the Burners' rides.

Julie tries to steal the NOC list or some shit.
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
Another visual highlight in "Off the Rack" is the aforementioned subtle character animation, especially for Julie (and Claire too, when she expresses her enthusiasm over receiving the suit). Because this is her spotlight episode, Julie does a lot of running around and spying here (she gets to reenact the "Tom Cruise dangles from a wire" heist scene from the first Mission: Impossible movie). I don't know if it's because it's cable and not Saturday morning network TV--so cartoon studios aren't forced to work under production schedules that were stricter back when ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC were in charge of cartoons, and the animation work back then was really cookie-cutter as a result--but this series, particularly during "Off the Rack," is loaded with stunning feature film-quality animation, which was such a rarity to see on the small screen back when I was a Batman: The Animated Series-watching teen.

Claire and Julie are apparently at a Hype Williams video shoot.
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
The Ovation channel has lately been repeating Frank and Ollie, director Theodore Thomas' 1995 documentary about the legendary Disney studio partnership between his father Frank Thomas and his fellow animator Ollie Johnston, and though I'm not a Disney fan, the doc has made me better appreciate the subtle character animation that the duo was known for. Thomas and Johnston's animation style lives on in amusing tics that the Titmouse animators have given to the Motorcity characters, like the self-confident and headstrong Julie's frequent tic of resting her hand on her hip, even when she's in multiple-hologram form when she uses her trusty holographic gadget to confuse adversaries.

"I really dug animating Julie doing spy stuff... and it's made all the sweeter when the action ramps up later ([animator] Ben Li is amazing)," posted Titmouse animator Parker Simmons on Tumblr about "Off the Rack." He added, "Julie is definitely one of my favorite characters to animate when she's in confident sweetheart mode, not schoolmarm mode."

And that's another thing I enjoyed about "Off the Rack." In several episodes, Julie, whose secret double life I've been waiting to get more of a glimpse of ever since the premiere, has done nothing more than act as a schoolmarm to Mike or Texas when she's not engaged in battle or tossing her boomerang at Kanebots, so it's great to see her intensely driven character fleshed out a bit more. We've never seen Julie look frightened before. Kanebots don't scare her. What scares her more is losing control over her double life.

She's also not the screamy type--that would be Chuck--so it's surprising to see her scream for the first time in the series, when her dad hijacks her suit to make her steal Mutt from Mike and drive away to KaneCo Tower at a speed so insanely high it would make David Letterman piss his pants. But Julie quickly learns to keep her cool, and she regains her smile when Mike busts into his own car to help her out and her dad makes her repeatedly punch Mike in the shoulder. Both Julie's nicely drawn expressions while she's trapped inside the suit and the suit design itself made me think of Jen's overlong sleeves.

I didn't figure Julie to be a fan of Balki and the 'Dance of Joy.'
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
It all amazingly ties back to Jen's sleeves.

Waynestrumentals: And now, a different theme from every screen incarnation of Batman, including the crappy or racist versions

(Editor's note: Before we begin, here's what past Batverse comics writer Ed Brubaker tweeted about a certain senseless act in Colorado:

twitter.com/brubaker
My thoughts exactly. Now on to the post.)

A somber moment from The Dark Knight Rises
(Additional editor's note: The themes are in reverse chronological order as a nod to Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan's 2000 breakout film Memento, starting with a new score cue from The Dark Knight Rises as the track that represents the Nolan version of Batman on this post and concluding with music from a delightfully racist '40s Batman serial.)

Brittany Wakefield
Brittany Wakefield
(One more editor's note: Here on Blogger, I don't like to publish posts that don't contain a lot of text. That's what Tumblr is for. But I haven't had time to write so much text to accompany a Bat-load of Spotify and YouTube embeds, so Brittany Wakefield, a neighbor of mine who's a part-time beautician, volunteered to step in and provide the accompanying text to get more writing experience as preparation for the essay-writing portion of her GED test, even though she'd rather write about something called The Bad Girls Club, which she tells me is her favorite show. By the way, unlike a certain beautician who went on to become one of the modern-day Batverse comics' best writers, Brittany isn't familiar at all with Batman.)

In 1932, DC Comics began publishing the adventures of the world's first openly Jewish superhero, Ira Batman. By day, he was rich nightclub comedian Bruce Bruce, who played all the black rooms and some white rooms. By night, he suited up as Ira Batman (or The Batman, which is much less Jewish, or in later years, simply Batman). He chased after criminals to avenge the double murder of his Uncle Ben and Aunt Bernice. Ira's popularity in the funny books led to lots of screen versions of the Caped Crucifier, including the Christian Bale movies, which have come to an end with The Dark Knight Rises.

'Tastes great!' 'Less filling!' 'Tastes gre...'
I'm sure I'll be texting during The Dark Knight Rises when I see it, but if there are at least two or three action scenes that aren't boring, then I'll totes take a break from my texts to look up at the screen and peep what's going on. In the Bale movies, Ira is referred to by other peeps as the Dark Knight because he could barely move around in his armor and had trouble removing it when he had to pee, just like a knight:


I don't know what Justice League: Doom is. Jim, do you know what that is?

(Editor's note: No, I've never watched it. I'm behind on the DC animated movies because I quit Netflix about a year ago. Netflix, wha happen?):


Batman: Year One flashed back to Ira's first year as a crimefighter. OMG, Ryan from The O.C. voiced Ira! I lurve him!:


Okay, I've seen Young Justice a few times, but only because Superboy's cute. Ira shows up sometimes in this cartoon, just to deliver buttloads of exposition to Robin and his peeps:


In Batman: Under the Red Hood, Ira fights someone named the Red Hood. If it's anything like that time Christina kicked Julie's booty on TBGC, then I'm on board:


In 2010, Ira appeared in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Again, I don't know what that is. Jim?

(Editor's note: No clue either, Brittany.):


Ira teamed up with Superman in the cartoon movie Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and its sequel Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. In the clips I FF'd through, Superman sounded a lot like Pete, that cute but really old doc on Private Practice:


A few months after The Dark Knight ruled the summer, Cartoon Network premiered Batman: The Bold and the Beautiful, in which Batman was the CEO of a high-powered fashion house:


A week before the release of The Dark Knight, Warner Bros. Animation dropped Batman: Gotham Knight as a straight-to-DVD cartoon tie-in. Instead of a dark knight, in this movie, he was a Gotham knight, which meant he could barely move around while wearing a buttload of mascara like Criss Angel:


The cartoon movie Justice League: The New Frontier imagined Ira in the '50s, just like how J-Biebs dressed like a '50s dude at the NRJ Awards. OMG, J-Biebs was so cute when he slicked back his hair that night!:


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (07/17/2012): Motorcity, Gravity Falls, Kaijudo, The Avengers and Regular Show

A thight for Thor eyes
The forecast calls for a 75 percent chance of "thy" and "thou."
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.

Abraham Kane, the crazed businessman/scientific genius who makes life a living hell for the Burners and the denizens of Motorcity, doesn't appear in every episode of Motorcity and is absent during "The Duke of Detroit Presents..." I'm assuming Kane is holed up in a KaneCo lab, working on some new threat against Motorcity, like government cheese embedded with cheese mites in nanite form that are programmed to sicken ghetto dwellers' stomachs.

Kane's off-screen period of inactivity is driving Mike Chilton bonkers because he doesn't have anything to fight against--that is until the Duke of Detroit sets traps for him and his team to create action-packed footage for the new reality show the Duke is producing about the adventures of the Burners. In addition to being a junkyard owner and much-feared underworld figure, the Duke apparently wants to be Mark Burnett as well.

Bawitdablah.
(Photo source: Hair Nets and Dog Food)
In the episode's best running gag, Texas, currently obsessed with "getaway gang movies" he's been watching on a gizmo that appears to be a cross between Google Glass specs and an iPod Touch, struggles to come up with punchy action movie-style one-liners for the reality show cameras, but he tanks every time. He sounds exactly like anybody who's tried too hard to be funny and witty on Twitter. None of the Burners has the patience in this episode to tell Texas that you can't try to be funny. You're either born that way or not. The masterminds at Titmouse are clearly the former.

***

Linda Cardellini in 2011, far from freaky or geeky
Linda Cardellini
Gravity Falls' "Inconveniencing" episode shows why getting former Freaks and Geeks star Linda Cardellini to voice the Pines twins' teen friend Wendy was brilliant casting, and it makes me wish Cardellini did more animation (other than this series and a recent Regular Show guest shot). On Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's classic show, Cardellini played Lindsay Weir, an unhappy math nerd who ditched the uptight and competitive mathlete crowd and found kindred spirits in her new friends, James Franco's underachieving burnout Daniel Desario and his pack of mischievous and much-maligned "freaks."

This time, Cardellini plays the charismatic Daniel figure who brings into her crowd a couple of newbies: Mabel and Dipper, who's got a crush on the older Wendy and lies about being 13 instead of his actual age of 12 to attempt to impress her. Because there are much less things for teens to do on Friday night in a small and secluded town like Gravity Falls, Oregon than there are in suburbs like the Detroit burb where Freaks and Geeks was set (and also because this is a TV-Y7-rated Disney Channel show, so the drugs and sex are kept off-screen), Wendy and her friends, including sullen musician/wanna-be artist Robbie (T.J. Miller), Thompson (episode co-writer Michael Rianda) and Tambry (Jessica DiCicco), break into the Dusk 2 Dawn, an abandoned convenience store that's rumored to be haunted. Dipper and Mabel tag along and discover the wonders of food fights and purloining junk food without paying for it and getting caught (even though it's 17-year-old junk food, which, judging from the kids' unperturbed reactions, doesn't taste like it's 17 years old).

Wendy was ironically wearing hunting caps before Portland like totes ripped her off.
(Photo source: Stuff I found on the internets)
The kids' fun at the Dusk 2 Dawn comes to an abrupt end when they realize the rumors about its history of corpses and ghosts are true. Chalk outlines of corpses are uncovered, and the haunted store traps the teens inside and attacks them one by one (Tambry gets sucked into the smartphone she won't stop texting into, while Thompson becomes trapped inside the screen of a "Dancy Pants Revolution" machine). The elderly couple (Ken Jenkins from Scrubs and April Winchell) that ran the Dusk 2 Dawn died 17 years ago inside the store from a simultaneous heart attack caused by their intense hatred of rowdy teen customers and their "newfangled rap music" (which contained offensive lyrics like "Homework's wack, and so are rules/Tuckin' in your shirt's for fools!"), so the owners' ghosts are retaliating against any teen who trespasses.

And this is why I don't trust a product with a name like 'Smile Dip.' It transforms you into Mr. Sparkle.
The highlights of "The Inconveniencing" include that amusing little parody of clean-cut '90s rap, the novel placement of Poltergeist-style gags in a 7-Eleven setting and the recurring acknowledgement of the crappy economy without directly referencing it in dialogue (Grunkle Stan's Mystery Shack gift shop doesn't seem to be attracting any customers). But I wish the end credits' hidden messages weren't merely snatches of earlier dialogue (by the way, this week's cryptogram, "rqzdugv drvklpd!," is "Onwards, Aoshima!," which Mabel said to her flying dolphin during her sugar-induced hallucination) and were actual clues about something--like that hot dog-shaped shadow hovering over Wendy's lawn chair on the Mystery Shack rooftop during "The Inconveniencing"'s cold open.

Does that noisy flying shadow have anything to do with that muffin-shaped explosion Robbie spray-painted on the town watertower? Did that explosion come from a UFO Robbie saw? And why aren't there more Disney cartoons that make their viewers think and play detective like this?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A little Knight music: The second Batman: The Animated Series soundtrack from La-La Land is even better than the first

A good day to Die Fledermaus
As Christopher Nolan wraps up his immensely popular live-action version of Batman with next week's release of The Dark Knight Rises, La-La Land Records is revisiting the "dark swashbuckler" sound of the Nolan movies' small-screen predecessor, Batman: The Animated Series, with the label's second collection of the landmark show's score cues by the late Shirley Walker and her staff of skilled composers.

In 2008, when La-La Land released the first B:TAS soundtrack (highlights from this two-CD set can be heard during A Fistful of Soundtracks' "AFOS Prime" block), I wrote, "Though this release is loaded with over two hours of music, it's missing Walker's memorable Catwoman theme from 'The Cat and the Claw, Part I,' the first B:TAS ep that ever aired, Carl Johnson's lively score from the excellent 'Beware the Gray Ghost' ep with special guest voice Adam West, and [Michael] McCuistion's Lawrence of Arabia-style epic score from the 'Demon's Quest' two-parter, which gives me hope about a Volume 2 from La-La Land."

Volume 2 is finally here--the first few copies are being sold at La-La Land's booth at this weekend's San Diego Comic-Con before the four-CD set becomes available on Thursday--and cues from "The Cat and the Claw," "Beware the Gray Ghost" and "The Demon's Quest" are indeed on the album. After taking a look at the abbreviated Volume 2 track listing that the World's Finest fansite posted on its blog, the batch of B:TAS eps that are represented on Volume 2 is more impressive to me than the first volume's, even though one of those eps is the abysmally animated and extremely kid-friendly "I've Got Batman in My Basement," widely regarded as the series' worst ep and derided by lead B:TAS showrunner Bruce Timm, who told Cinefantastique magazine in 1994 that "I can't even watch ['I've Got Batman.'] It's the epitome of what we don't want to do with Batman."

"The Cat and the Claw," "Beware the Gray Ghost" and "The Demon's Quest" are joined on Volume 2 by series high points like the Emmy-winning Mr. Freeze revamp "Heart of Ice," "Feat of Clay," "Almost Got 'Im" and "Harley and Ivy," an ep that's even more popular than "Heart of Ice." Penned by "Heart of Ice" writer Paul Dini, the sharply written first-time pairing of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, who are referred to in Dini and Chip Kidd's 1998 coffee table book Batman: Animated as "the Thelma & Louise of the supervillain set," was so popular it spawned a 2004 DC miniseries from the trio of Dini, Timm and their fellow New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series staffer Shane Glines and tons of steamy Harley and Ivy fan art by Glines and many others.

Glines recently posted his character designs from a Harley and Ivy animated series that failed to get off the ground in the early '00s. You'd have to be either really, really stupid or brain-dead to say no to a Harley and Ivy animated series.

'Eww, my God, Becky, look at her butt.'
Sure, she's hot as fuck, but you wouldn't want to lasciviously nibble on her green thumb. Her body's been so mutated that her hand might morph into a tentacle and suffocate you or do unspeakable stuff to your rectum.
Maybe the person who said no to the Harley and Ivy spinoff is the same network executive who rejected "Harley and Ivy" as the first ep to air during B:TAS' brief run on Fox's nighttime lineup in the middle of its first season.

"We wanted ['Harley and Ivy'] as our first prime time show, and Fox was going to run it. Then a Fox executive saw it and said, 'What the hell is this? Batman's not in this episode. He's only in it at the end? The whole episode is two girls running around in their underwear. There's no boy appeal here,'" recalled Dini to Cinefantastique in 1994. "I said, 'Well maybe not any boys you know.'"

'Lesbians! Lesbians!'--Sherman Klump's brother
Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn in a scene from B:TAS' "Harley and Ivy" episode that's too unappealing for boys (Photo source: World's Finest Online)
The largely comical and nicely crafted score for "Harley and Ivy" was provided by Walker, McCuistion, future Justice League main title theme composer Lolita Ritmanis and Peter Davison, a different Peter Davison from the British actor who starred as The Fifth Doctor on Doctor Who. The late Boyd Kirkland, who directed "Harley and Ivy" and came up with the fan-favorite scene where the duo responds to a car full of douchey catcallers in classic Gotham Girl fashion, was proud of the layout work on "Poison Oakey" and her new sidekick (and possibly lover) that was done by the Japanese studio TMS, one of many foreign studios that Timm's creative staff farmed out the animation work to.

And now, Harleen Quinzel presents 'How to Respond to Catcalling.'
(Photo source: World's Finest Online)
But sometimes, there were episodes that didn't meet the B:TAS staff's expectations like "Harley and Ivy" did. When "The Laughing Fish," which is also part of the second album, came back to Timm's crew with animation by the Korean studio Dong Yang that Timm found to be underwhelming, he turned to Walker and asked her to do with her score what Dong Yang failed to accomplish with the kind of animation Timm wanted for his more-menacing-than-usual vision of the Joker in "The Laughing Fish."

Their teeth are so yellow they spit butter.
(Photo source: World's Finest Online)
"I asked her to make ['The Laughing Fish'] sound like a horror film. Not a forties Boris Karloff film, but like Aliens or The Exorcist, with really dissonant, nonmelodic music," said Timm in the Batman: Animated book. "At the time I had just read a piece about Psycho and it never dawned on me before, but there are no woodwinds or brass in that film. The entire score is done with strings. And I started thinking that might be kind of a neat thing to do with this show, just play everything stripped down and haunting.

"There's a full symphonic orchestra in there, but a lot of the earlier cues are just moaning violas," continued Timm. "From the first moment the Joker shows up, even though he's acting funny and wacky, Shirley has the strings doing something really strange. They're not playing his silliness, they're playing the underlying threat of what he's doing. It kicks the scene up a notch in terms of tension. It's one of our most unusual scores and it works really well."

Timm's simpatico working relationship with Walker and her composing team was a reason why the music on B:TAS was so effective, even when it wasn't present in several scenes.

"In animation, it's real typical to want the music to be there to sort of cover up the holes and make you feel like there's no air and no space," said Walker to Cinefantastique in 1994. "I think part of the visceral success of the Batman show is the fact that we put you on edge by making you uncomfortable with silence occasionally. It sets the show apart from a lot of the cartoon music that's being done."

Shirley Walker (1945-2006)
Shirley Walker
Even though through my copies of Warner Bros.' B:TAS DVDs, I can easily check out the B:TAS scoring team's work on "Harley and Ivy," "The Laughing Fish" and the other Fox-era eps that are represented on the La-La Land compilations, it's much nicer to be able to hear the cues in their purest form, sans sound effects. Volume 2 also comes with eight different versions of the opening and closing title themes for B:TAS, which was the first of WB Animation's various Batman series (the next series will be the CG-animated Beware the Batman, which I, a Pinoy viewer, am especially looking forward to because the Dark Knight is being voiced by Pinoy actor Anthony Ruivivar from Third Watch). As a fan of Timm's "Dark Deco" take on Batman, I can't wait to get my slightly dark but not-quite-Deco mitts on Volume 2, another musical memento of a classic show that raised the bar for both small-screen American animation and small-screen animation scoring.

Friday, July 13, 2012

"So fine with your pretty hair": Why the Let's Do It Again theme, Batman's "Electric Chair" and "Pyramids" are among my current favorite summer songs

Hottest impression of Grover Washington Jr.'s photo on the back cover of the Mister Magic album ever.
Listen to most of the following tracks together on Spotify.

Many have declared the song of the summer to be Carly Rae Jepsen's frequently covered "Call Me Maybe." But I'm not a 13-year-old girl, so my idea of the song of the summer is a little different. For my money, it's a toss-up between the sinuous "Pyramids" by the recently self-outed Frank Ocean (with John Mayer on guitar at the end), the controversial-with-Christians "Amen" by Meek Mill, Drake and Jeremih and "Sunshine" by Little Dragon.

"Pyramids" sounds like it's about both Cleopatra's past life in ancient Egypt and her reincarnated form as a present-day Vegas stripper. But then part of me thinks the references to "a thief out on the move," "they have taken Cleopatra," "she's working at the pyramid tonight" (which can double as a euphemism for sex) and a motel room with out-of-date technology ("Top floor motel suite twisting my cigars/Floor model TV with the VCR") are metaphors for the subjugation and corruption of African culture by white people. Cleopatra isn't just a woman the song's narrator lost. What the narrator wants back is his culture.

Okay, I don't know what "Pyramids" is really about, but it all sounds so smooth and fantastic I don't care. It's what I think a great summer song should be: hypnotic, dope as hell, frequently discussed or dissected and open to interpretation (the Okayplayer boards and Rap Genius are loaded with many ideas of what Ocean's singing about). Ocean's nearly 10-minute banger had me at the bass line at 0:54.



And then there are great summer joints that aren't lyrically deep. They're mindless but enjoyable because of their mindlessness--like "Amen" off Meek Mill's Dreamchasers 2 mixtape. The sacrilegious track's comparisons of skirtchasing to church would make my deacon father hate it. That's partly why I like it.



But then a few weeks ago, the Swedish band Little Dragon got an entire Daily Show commercial break all to itself and premiered its new single "Sunshine" on TV in a full-length video sponsored by Absolut Punch vodka, and the single immediately started duking it out with "Pyramids" and "Amen" for the song-of-the-summer spot. I've heard a couple of Little Dragon tracks before--"Nightlight" is featured in a Potholes Podcast mix I've bumped dozens of times on iTunes--but the entrancing "Sunshine" is the tune that made me finally dig the band's sound. I was also surprised to learn from the "Sunshine" video that the lead singer isn't a black chick.



Here we see Yukimi Nagano starring in a community-theater production of Our Town as she sips from an invisible bottle of coconut water.
Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano
If I had to put together a summertime mixtape much like the excellent Summertime mixtapes by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Mick Boogie, "Pyramids," "Amen" and "Sunshine" would join a mixtape that would include Elvis Costello's anti-summer classic "The Other Side of Summer," the Gap Band's "Outstanding" and--because this is a blog for a film and TV music radio station and I need to find a way to somehow tie this post to original film and TV music--the Staple Singers theme from Let's Do It Again and Prince's "Electric Chair" from 1989's Batman.

Like The Fresh Prince in "Summertime," I enjoy how "girls are dressing less." But I'm not much of a fan of the season's oppressive heat. When I'm in a grumpy mood during summertime, nothing captures my mood better than Costello's apocalyptic Beach Boys parody ("From the foaming breakers of the poisonous surf/The other side of summer/To the burning forests in the hills of Astroturf/The other side of summer").


When I'm in a far less dystopic or snarky mood, "Outstanding," which is part of Jazzy Jeff and Mick Boogie's second Summertime mixtape, the Curtis Mayfield-produced Let's Do It Again theme and "Electric Chair" are among my jams. I'll always associate summer with those three tracks.


The Let's Do It Again theme didn't drop during the summer--the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby buddy flick was released in October 1975, and the theme topped the R&B and Hot 100 charts a couple of months later--but it's a very summery tune I was first exposed to not in its original form but as a hip-hop and R&B sample. It got tons of airplay in the summer of 1993 via Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" remix and Xscape's "Just Kickin' It" remix.

With his shades and beard in Let's Do It Again and his sweaters on The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby is basically responsible for the look of so many annoying Williamsburg hipsters.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (07/10/2012): Tron: Uprising, Motorcity, Gravity Falls, Ultimate Spider-Man and The Avengers

ISO horny.
Olivia Wilde vamps it up as Jordan in the Disney remake of The Great Gatsby.
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.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Transformers Prime have been more satisfying than their much-maligned live-action counterparts, and Tron: Uprising has joined them as another example of an animated show that's superior to its live-action counterpart, thanks to its best episode yet, "Isolated." The story puts the spotlight on the animated Tron: Legacy prequel's most compelling creation so far: Paige, a lieutenant in evil General Tesler's army whom Tesler has assigned the task of hunting down Beck, a.k.a. the masked Renegade.

'On my signal, begin!,' says Paige. Yeah, I hate how I remember word-for-word dialogue from '80s Lazer Tag ads.
The straight-arrow Beck's evolution from mechanic to hero has been a less interesting arc than Paige's desperate bid for her ruthless general's respect, which has put her in competition with Tesler's supercilious right-hand man Pavel (Paul Reubens) ("Isolated"'s "previously on" segment amusingly counterpoints narrator Tricia Helfer's recap--"Tesler rewards Paige's hard work with praise"--with a montage of clips of Tesler and Pavel both belittling Paige). "Isolated" reveals why Paige chose to work for Tesler and ties her backstory to Quorra (Olivia Wilde, reprising the most interesting character from Tron: Legacy).

Trapped on a slowly disintegrating island with Beck and forced to work with her enemy (and if Tron: Uprising lasts past a season, inevitable love interest) to find a way out before the rock sinks into the sea, Paige flashes back to her time as a hospital medic. Back then, Paige dabbled in composing instrumental music, even though as another character told her, she's not "programmed" to be a musician.

Her instrument reminds me of the Tenori-on used by electro artist Little Boots in the viral video for her track "Stuck on Repeat":


(Someone on the Tron-Sector fansite forums noted that Paige's instrument is a variation on the Tonematrix, a sweet music-making tool that will prevent you from getting anything else done for a couple of hours.)

Paige was once encouraged to pursue music by Quorra, whom she briefly befriended when Quorra brought in to the medical center Ada (Meagan Holder), a friend of Quorra's who was injured while escaping the genocidal purge of the ISOs that was ordered by Grid dictator Clu. Introduced in Tron: Legacy, the ISOs were a race of advanced beings who were unique in The Grid for not being programs and were an accidental but miraculous creation by software genius Kevin Flynn.

Quorra watches Paige demonstrate her skills at playing the old Milton Bradley game Simon.
Clu, Flynn's evil clone, resented his creator's attachment to the ISOs and considered their humanity an imperfection, so he derezzed all of them, except for a few ISOs who managed to survive Clu's attacks, including Ada and Quorra, who, to evade capture, hid ISO markings on her skin from the medics. Paige's greatest quality as a soldier--her loyalty to whoever is her superior--is also the reason for her tragic flaw: her inability to question anything that appears to be wrong, whether it's whatever lie Tesler tells her or the lies about the "crooked and dangerous" nature of the ISOs that Clu's forces have spread across The Grid.

Paige too easily accepted as truths those lies about the ISOs, so when she spotted Quorra's markings, she considered snitching on Quorra's whereabouts to the authorities. However, Paige didn't go through with the snitching. Her medical center co-workers did. Later, when Paige awoke from being knocked out by Quorra during her escape from Tesler's guards (she believes that Paige betrayed her, so I'm betting Wilde will resurface later in the season for Quorra's inevitable battle against Paige), she discovered her medical center staff was massacred.

The aftermath of the attack was where Paige first encountered Tesler, who told her that her co-workers were derezzed by Quorra and Ada and offered her a spot in his army as a way to seek her revenge. Paige doesn't know that Tesler lied to her and was the one who derezzed her co-workers right after they reported Quorra and Ada to him (he deemed any program who came into contact with ISOs to be too "contanimated" by them).

Wilde's guest shot is a treat for those of us who enjoyed her performance in Tron: Legacy. Quorra's love for the works of Jules Verne, her curiosity about the world outside The Grid and her wish to see an actual sunrise helped keep the film from becoming a way-too-chilly-and-dull sci-fi actioner, and even though those character touches bordered on Manic Pixie Dream Girl Syndrome, Wilde did a nice job bringing to life those aspects of her character. In "Isolated," Paige's music brings out in Quorra the same kind of curiosity she expressed about Verne and the Flynn family's non-digital world.

An even more surprising credit in "Isolated" than Wilde's name belongs to André Bormanis, who scripted the episode and whose name is familiar to those of us who pay attention to the credits of sci-fi/fantasy shows--he's a veteran of Legend of the Seeker and the Star Trek spinoffs. That era of Trek when Bormanis served as a writer and science consultant can be a chore to watch because of the later spinoffs' overreliance on the same kind of impenetrable technobabble that makes the first Tron film a chore to watch too.

Bormanis takes a crucial and less irritating element of the writing on those Trek shows since the '60s--incorporating past and present real-world issues into the Trek heroes' missions--and brings it to "Isolated." The racially tinged treatment of the ISOs parallels both the harsh treatment of illegal immigrants in Arizona and the persecution of Jews, right down to the ISOs' markings (although those are birthmarks instead of prisoner number tattoos imprinted by their captors).

If you derezzed the virtual setting of The Grid and the terms "program," "ISO" and "derezzed," the flashback portion of "Isolated" could easily be a story about a medic in a Nazi-occupied part of Europe who discovers the patient he's befriended is a Jewish refugee and is faced with the dilemma of turning the refugee in to the authorities. The episode's final scene poignantly shows Paige clinging to one of the few remnants of both her old life and her humanity, as she secretly reactivates the old melody that used to automatically play on her instrument. All this is pretty weighty stuff for a Disney XD show.

Both "Isolated" and last week's episode, "Identity," which deepened the previously boring character of Tron himself ("Tron isn't a character, he's an impossibly virtuous program," complained the A.V. Club about the 1982 movie's screenplay in 2010), have shown how far the Tron franchise has come from the flat writing and convoluted, barely-comprehensible-when-you-were-a-kid gibberish about programs and their "users" that characterized the first movie. Tron is evolving into a more relatable and mature--as well as far less technobabble-plagued and far less alienating--franchise. It's like the live-action Star Wars franchise in reverse.

***

I first learned about LARPing culture--an aspect of many sword-and-sorcery-obsessed nerds' lives these days that I had no clue about and am still kind of clueless about--from the hilarious Paul Rudd movie Role Models. My education about LARPing continues with Motorcity's "Ride of the Fantasy Vans" episode, where Chuck's secret life as a LARPer is outed while he and the other Burners search for a pair of younger LARPers (Jake Short from The Disney Channel's A.N.T. Farm and Tyrel Jackson Williams from another Disney cable sitcom, Lab Rats) who vanished from the streets of Motorcity.

LARPer than life
(Photo source: all aboard the idiot wagon!)
The underground city itself has seemed rather underpopulated and underdeveloped as a setting despite the visual sumptuousness Titmouse brings to the setting each week ("What exactly do the kids who don't drive around in cars do to entertain themselves in Motorcity?" is one of several questions about old Detroit that have been nagging me lately). Fortunately, "Ride of the Fantasy Vans" remedies my concerns about the underpopulated setting by focusing on a subculture of Motorcity that doesn't involve the other Burners, the car gangs, the Duke of Detroit's vaguely criminal empire or the Terra eco-terrorists.

"Ride of the Fantasy Vans" contains more expository dialogue than usual, like in a sequence where a LARPer recalls one of Chuck's battles as "Lord Vanquisher" and a flashback to Jacob's partnership with a much younger and thinner Abraham Kane. But the episode's glimpses into LARPing culture, the casting of unapologetically nerdy stand-ups Brian Posehn and Blaine Capatch as LARPers (all that's missing from the guest cast is Posehn and Capatch's friend Patton Oswalt) and the series' recurring thread of Chuck's struggles with his cowardice (which will resurface in a slightly more dramatic fashion in the "Fearless" episode later this season) are so enjoyable I don't care.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (07/03/2012): Tron: Uprising, Motorcity, Gravity Falls, Ultimate Spider-Man and The Avengers

Maybe this gnome shouldn't be wolfing down Skittles while suffering from stomach flu.
I felt the same way after having to sit through an episode of The Killing, except it didn't look like rainbows.
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. And yes, this week, they're all shows that aired on Disney channels. As Motorcity creator Chris Prynoski said to USA Today, it feels like Disney is a good place to be for small-screen animation right now. Even when the jokes don't land (*cough*Ultimate Spider-Man*cough*).

Tron: Uprising's "Identity" episode introduces a Kryptonite-style Achilles heel that's new to the Troniverse: if a program in The Grid is separated for prolonged amounts of time from the identity disc that's supposed to be always attached to the back of his or her suit, he or she will experience temporary periods of amnesia before permanently losing his or her memory and turning into one of The Grid's "strays." And that's the predicament Beck (Elijah Wood) faces when a Black Guard security check on lightrail passengers' discs allows a thief (Adam DeVine) to trick Beck into losing his disc.

Because Beck's frequent memory glitches make it difficult for him to function as the new Tron, the real Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) re-assumes his own identity and must help his protégé retrieve his disc in the black market on the sleazy streets of the city of Pergos. They're joined on their search by Lux (Lake Bell!), a white-suited warrior program who at first appears to be helping Tron and Beck. But she's actually trying to capture Beck for her evil employer/lover Cobol (Sons of Anarchy's Mark Boone Junior), who procured Beck's disc from the thief so that he can deliver Beck and others like him to General Tesler's army, where, without their discs, they'll be repurposed as soldiers.

Scarecrow tries to save Mrs. King.
"Identity" undoes one of the Tron franchise's biggest flaws--the title character is its least interesting and most underdeveloped character--by allowing Boxleitner to express more emotion as Tron than he ever did in live-action during the two Tron movies. The episode further develops the mentor/protégé relationship between Tron and Beck, who doesn't like how distant and chilly his mentor acts towards him when his disc is stolen.

We learn that Tron's reluctance to treat Beck as a friend and call him one stems from the time Tesler's superior Clu betrayed both Tron and Kevin Flynn to take over The Grid, which was shown in a flashback during Tron: Legacy. Tron blames his former friendship with Clu for causing both Clu's despotic rule and his own current torture-scarred condition, but in the end, Tron realizes that his reluctance to trust another program again could also endanger Beck's life. Identifying Beck as his friend ends up being the only way to save him from permanently losing his memory and being converted by Cobol into one of Tesler's grunts.

The B-story once again centers on Beck's friend Zed (Nate Corddry), whose growing resentment of the Renegade--whom he doesn't know is Beck--has attracted the attention of Bartik (Donald Faison) and Hopper (Paul Scheer), programs who are working for Tesler's lieutenant Paige (Emmanuelle Chriqui). She, Bartik and Hopper are trying to form a task force to hunt down the Renegade. The possibility of Zed joining them and betraying his friend is too easily resolved in this episode, which fares better with its A-story about Tron, Beck and Lux.

The other highlights of "Identity" are a thrilling point-of-view shot where the camera follows Beck as he accidentally deactivates his light cycle in mid-air and crashes into an office building--God, I wish this show was in 3-D--and Bell's guest shot, even though her character is on the underdeveloped side. So the mournful wordless singing and slow motion that attempt to accentuate the tragedy of Lux's sacrifice at the end feel kind of unearned for a character we barely got to know during "Identity."

I love me some Bell ever since she's displayed great comic chops as one of TV's most vacuous doctors on the hilarious Childrens Hospital and has become unafraid about nudity on both that show and How to Make It in America. Of course, Bell's character doesn't show her software on Tron: Uprising, but it's nice to see that this show is starting to make an effort at baring the souls of its previously chilly lead characters a little more.

***

Penned by Megas XLR co-creator and Star Wars: The Clone Wars writer George Krstic and directed by Prynoski, "Going Dutch" is Motorcity's inevitable zombie episode, but what the show does with the zombie genre is the most interesting and novel twist on zombies on a sci-fi action show since a pre-Shield Shawn Ryan transformed racist LAPD officers into the undead in Angel's "Thin Dead Line" episode back in 2001.

Instead of spreading a zombie virus through bites or Community-style tainted meat, Motorcity introduces a virus in the form of nanites that embed themselves into human flesh. We realize it's not a typical zombie virus when it infects not just humans but also machines, particularly the Burners' constantly trembling robot assistant Roth, which is transformed into an even more trembly, spider-like monstrosity straight out of John Carpenter's The Thing. The nanites are, of course, another invention masterminded by Abraham Kane. Donald Trump is a troglodyte in a shitty combover compared to the Burners' scientific genius/industrialist nemesis.

'And now, back to Style Wars 2162 on Ovation 3-D.'
(Photo source: wait, was that slutty?)
"Going Dutch" gives ample screen time to a previously underwritten character--in this case, Dutch, the Burners tinkerer who built Roth and looks after the team's rides--and has him save the day. That leaves Julie as the Burner we know the least about, other than she's Kane's daughter, she works at her father's corporation to spy on his plans when she's not in Motorcity and her favorite gadget can create holographic duplicates of anyone or anything (when's her spotlight episode coming?).

Dutch returns to Motorcity from a vacation away from the Burners that Mike recommended to the burnt-out mechanic--for a creative workaholic like Dutch, a vacation is concentrating on his mural artwork--and discovers the city is under attack by zombies, including the Burners, who have been infected as well. His knack for bringing to life the silliest of ideas, like a pre-infected Texas' pre-credits suggestion to an artist's block-afflicted Dutch that he should paint "a dragon shooting like some lasers out of its eyes," ends up being the key to putting a stop to Kane's virus (and Texas helped save the day too without knowing it).

My favorite moment in "Going Dutch" isn't zombie-related. What's up with this series and its allergy to awkward exposition? It continually finds clever ways to avoid having its characters deliver unnatural-sounding expository dialogue like on other action cartoons. Motorcity's latest remedy for the infectious writers' disease of clunky exposition is a wordless sequence that's worth freeze-framing and is even cleverer than the flashbacks in "Vendetta" because it details Dutch's backstory through his artwork, which is fitting for a character who enjoys expressing himself through art and technology.