Wednesday, January 2, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (01/02/2013): The best episodes of 2012 (part 2)

Looks like Roger Clemens is totally ready for the minors.
This new version of Voltron sucks. (Photo source: Haunted Realm)
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. There's no new column this week due to the holiday season and the lack of first-run programming (only Tron: Uprising and Motorcity are first-run because Disney XD chose to burn off the rest of their episodes over the holidays). The reruns continue with previous reviews of five more of my favorite non-Adult Swim cable cartoon episodes from May to December 2012.

Gravity Falls, "Irrational Treasure" (from August 21, 2012)

Atop a speeding train, President Trembley passionately defends the right of every citizen to be pantsless atop a speeding train because you can totally feel the swift breeze tickling your testicles.
In "Irrational Treasure," Gravity Falls finally delves into a part of its mythology I've been looking forward to: the history of the strange title town where Dipper and Mabel have been forced by their parents to spend their summer vacation. Looking for a way to take mean girl Pacifica Northwest down a peg after she insults Mabel's tastes for quirky sweaters and nacho earrings and hurts her feelings during the town's Pioneer Day festivities, Dipper and Mabel find their ammo when they uncover evidence that Pacifica's great-great-grandfather Nathaniel Northwest, the supposed Gravity Falls founder, was a fraud. In doing so, the Pines twins stumble onto a government conspiracy revolving around the actual town founder, Quentin Trembley (series creator Alex Hirsch), whose achievements were erased from history because of his disastrous term as the eighth-and-a-half President of the United States.

"Irrational Treasure" writers Hirsch and Tim McKeon go crazy with their alternate history of America, which provides hilarious explanations for Abraham Lincoln's top hat (it concealed a giant head that was shaped like a hand), Mount Rushmore (it's in the Easter egg below) and the replacement of Trembley with William Henry Harrison. In the top-secret government film watched by Dipper and Mabel, the Chris Parnell-voiced narrator tells of an out-of-it leader whose nutso behavior--reminiscent of Parnell's Dr. Spaceman character and his non sequiturs on 30 Rock--earned him the moniker of "America's Silliest President" ("He waged war on pancakes, appointed six babies to the Supreme Court and issued the De-pants-ipation Proclamation").

So that means all those slaves Thomas Jefferson boinked were actually frolicing with a pair of little kids? What the what?
The gags about silly presidential behavior and old town laws that allow citizens to marry woodpeckers dovetail nicely with a story about Mabel learning that it's okay to be herself and that weirdness has its advantages. Without her weirdness, Mabel wouldn't have uncovered all the evidence that she and Dipper would use to discredit the Northwests. And without all those absurdist gags and hidden messages (speaking of which, this week's cryptogram--"v. kofiryfh givnyovb"--is "E. Pluribus Trembley") or the entertaining way the show deploys those gags to explore the challenges of growing up as a misfit, Gravity Falls would just be a standard Disney Channel show, as forgettable as the '90s "TGIF"-style live-action sitcoms all over the channel's lineup.


Adventure Time, "Lady & Peebles" (from August 21, 2012)

The recent Adventure Time episodes "In Your Footsteps," "Princess Monster Wife" and "Goliad" seemed to indicate that there's a recurring theme of reproduction and procreation this season. The revelation that Jake's girlfriend Lady Rainicorn (Niki Yang) is pregnant with Jake's raini-pups at the end of the highly entertaining "Lady & Peebles" confirms it.

They still have Polaroid in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo?
(Photo source: The Adventure Time Wiki)
As a new viewer of Adventure Time, I've been digging how I rarely know where a typical episode of this show is headed. Adventure Time's unpredictable nature, a huge factor in why "Lady & Peebles" and a series high point like "Thank You" are such great animated TV, brings to mind The Simpsons in its prime, back when the Simpsons writers started taking stories that would open with Homer and his family at a candy convention, for example, and zigzagged them so that they turned out to be about something else ("Homer Bad Man," that episode that initially took place at a candy con, appeared to be headed towards addressing sexual harassment, but then it morphed into a story mocking tabloid media circuses).

So I had no idea that the voice of George Takei would turn up halfway through "Lady & Peebles" in the form of a disembodied heart that's kidnapped Finn and Jake, whom Lady and Princess Bubblegum are trying to rescue. In this episode, Takei reprises his villainous Adventure Time role of Ricardio, the Ice King's talking heart (I haven't seen Ricardio's prior appearance on the show). Because I grew up watching Star Trek, Takei's distinctive voice is like an old friend. When I caught the 2007 Justin Lin mockumentary Finishing the Game on DVD and Takei's baritone made a surprise cameo in a clip of a fake '70s martial arts flick, my brain applauded, and it did the same thing when Ricardio emerged from the shadows with Takei's voice.

Everybody's got a hungry heart, especially the Ice King.
(Photo source: Captain Kabluey Loves You Too)
Takei is kind of underrated as a voice actor (it's no wonder his voice was third in prominence, after Majel Barrett and James Doohan, in terms of multiple speaking parts on Filmation's barely animated version of Star Trek in the '70s). He kills it as Ricardio, who's attempting to build himself a body with sinews he tore off from the body of the Ice King, his other captive. The mildly gross surgery imagery and Lady's unsubtitled Korean dialogue made me realize Adventure Time would never have been allowed to air in its present form on network TV or the Ren & Stimpy-censoring Nickelodeon 20 years ago (I can see a boardroom full of befuddled suits from the CBS daytime programming department saying, "She's speaking nothing but Japanese! Get Pendleton Ward on the line! Can't he give her more lines in English?"). The kind of older-skewing (but not TV-MA-rated) cartoon that Adventure Time is and the weirdness and sometimes disturbing imagery it gets away with could only have been possible on present-day cable.

I can also see broadcast network execs objecting to how PB kicks the shit out of Ricardio so badly he's left with bruises on his face. It's an amusing scene in which PB the gentle science nerd gets to unleash a warrior side as she literally stomps all over a heart, and it's not Finn's this time. The fact that PB fights dirty is yet another hint that this 19-year-old princess might take a turn towards evilness years from now. We've seen her bad temper and her demonic state when she was possessed by the Lich, who had coffee with her in Finn's nightmares in "King Worm" last week, and we've been made aware that her DNA begets evil offspring like Goliad. The show has chosen to have Finn age in real time--and now, it's turning Jake and Lady into parents--so I wouldn't be surprised if it allows PB to evolve into a villainous ruler.

Babies are usually the death knell for a show, but Adventure Time is so weird and so confident in its weirdness that the sight of a bunch of half-canine, half-rainicorn babies crawling around Ooo won't have such a ruinous effect on this show. It's like on The Simpsons. Apu and Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon had eight babies, and look what's happened since then. That cartoon hasn't jumped... no, wait.


Adventure Time, "I Remember You" (from October 17, 2012)

Someone in the A.V. Club comments section astutely noted that Adventure Time is basically "a bunch of fairy tales about mentally ill characters trying to find their way in the Land of Ooo." As a newcomer to Adventure Time this season, I've witnessed a buttload of material about mental illness since I first caught "Princess Monster Wife," the third Adventure Time episode I ever saw and the first one I wrote about. "Princess Monster Wife" had the Ice King behaving like a serial killer and cutting off body parts from princesses to create his new wife. In "BMO Noire," Finn and Jake's robot buddy BMO fabricated for himself a fantasy life straight out of a film noir to keep himself from being lonely. "Princess Cookie" centered on a Candy Kingdom citizen who lost his cool and held a bunch of convenience store customers hostage before finding peace in a mental institution with the guidance and help of Jake, while Princess Bubblegum similarly came to the aid of an equally unhinged character, the Earl of Lemongrab, and attempted to teach him how to improve his social skills in "You Made Me."

"I Remember You," Adventure Time's latest short, deals once again with the Ice King's mental instability. While there are funny bits of Ice King nuttiness like the ditty he sings to one of the Gunters to the tune of the "Daddy, why did you eat my fries?" song that Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olsen) created in "It Came from the Nightosphere," "I Remember You" also finds unexpected pathos in the old man's condition and presents a tragic side to these characters that the series somehow manages to pull off whenever it briefly hits pause on the kind of surreal comedy I've come to enjoy from Pendleton Ward's offbeat creation.

Adventure Time revives the lost art of title cards that Warner Bros. Animation abandoned 15 years ago. Bad NFL replacement ref-style call, Warner Bruhs.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
The lunatic king was once archaeologist Simon Petrikov, a human who gained immortality and various other powers from a magic crown that also made him forever mentally imbalanced. As part of his obsession with finding a princess to marry, the king turns to an initially reluctant Marceline for help in composing a song that will make him irresistible to all the honeys. Marceline kindly helps out the king with her usual composing brilliance, but the songwriting session is also a painful experience for her because she's saddened by the king's crown-induced amnesia about his friendship with her when she was a little girl vampire and he was pre-magical--and pre-selfish-and-psychotic-asshole--Simon (who looks a bit like David Strathairn as Dr. Rosen on Alphas, but with longer hair). In the closing flashback where Simon consoles a distraught Marceline with a teddy bear he grabs from the wreckage of a toy store, the episode gives a rare glimpse into the immediate aftermath of the Mushroom War that destroyed Earth, and that morsel of Ooo's murky backstory is also what makes this episode such a season highlight.

Simon's amnesia may hit close to home for adult viewers who know a loved one or elderly friend who's succumbing to Alzheimer's, particularly during the off-putting joyfulness he expresses while singing aloud passages from a letter he doesn't remember writing to Marceline back when the crown was beginning to ravage his mind. "This magic keeps me alive/But it's making me crazy," sings the king, who's joined by a teary Marceline, "And I need to save you/But who's going to save me?"

Damn, Adventure Time, how do you do it? How does your often farty ass morph from absurdist fun (dig John DiMaggio's terrific impression of his former Batman: The Brave and the Bold co-star Diedrich Bader when Jake channels Batman: "Your constant harassment of the female gender makes me sick!") to genuine tragedy so smoothly and without coming off tonally as schizophrenic like a certain bearded king?

And I haven't even gotten to how peripheral Finn and Jake are in this episode yet. Some of Adventure Time's strongest shorts contain very little of Finn and Jake ("Thank You" and now this episode) or don't involve the duo at all (the gender-swapping fan favorite "Fionna and Cake"). With minimal dialogue, "Thank You" followed an unlikely friendship between a Snow Golem and a Fire Wolf Pup that the golem enjoys having around as a pet despite the danger of melting from the pup's touch. That holiday short so captivated Cartoon Network execs (they're not always jackasses, "DC Nation" block fans) that they released "Thank You" theatrically before it aired to make it eligible for the Oscars' animated shorts category that year, although in the end, it didn't make the final list of 10 nominees. Like "Thank You," "I Remember You" is a surprisingly affecting story about friendship that's worthy of being honored with some bling--just as long as it's not a crown that makes its wearer go crazy.


Regular Show, "150 Piece Kit" (from October 31, 2012)

On a very bitchin' Regular Show, an unknown part of park manager Benson's past is unveiled when Hair to the Throne, a metal act that's legendary for featuring "the most epic drum solo in history" on their first album, comes to perform at the park. Because Mordecai and Rigby view their uptight and temperamental boss as a terminally uncool gumball machine, they don't buy a single word of Benson's insistence that he was the uncredited drummer who performed that famous solo, which required 150 pieces of percussion (including a gamelan) and is impossible to re-create. "I heard some guy in Denmark tried," says Rigby, "and his skeleton caught on fire!"

The scummy members of Hair to the Throne have instead given credit for the solo to a drum machine called the Drumotron VI, a move that--what else?--pisses off Benson and spurs him to challenge the Drumotron to a drumming duel on the night of their park concert. Benson could have taken the hair band to court, where many of these musician credit disputes are handled, but that doesn't usually make for engaging animation. When Mordecai and Rigby catch the musicians sabotaging Benson's drum kit, the duo changes their tune about these ex-colleagues of Benson's they once idolized.

The Keith Moon of Cartoon Network
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
Mordecai and Rigby will always view Benson as a dweeb, but like on any live-action workplace comedy where a circle of friends sees an insufferable co-worker getting mistreated by outsiders, they think of Benson as their dweeb and leap to his defense. The duo and the other park workers help Benson to defeat the Drumotron, which, at one point, unleashes spider legs like an evil robot from the 1984 Tom Selleck sci-fi turkey Runaway and leaps onto Benson to try to screw up his solo. Benson's attempt to prove to the concertgoers and the world that the legendary solo was all him, is, of course, the centerpiece of "150 Piece Kit" (why isn't there a hyphen in the episode title?). Mark Mothersbaugh and his able staff of Regular Show composers are the MVPs of "150 Piece Kit," which is filled with enjoyable but not-too-celeb-specific rock industry in-jokes like Mordecai and Rigby's ability to remember the names of everyone in their favorite metal band--except for the bass player's name.

Benson's solo is amusingly absurd ("360-degree ascending sky cage?!," says the Hair to the Throne frontman in disbelief as Benson continues soloing in that very cage) and cosmic in scope. It concludes, of course, with a giant cymbal strike emanating a Star Trek VI Praxis explosion-style shockwave that sweeps through the park and knocks the toupees off the heads of the Hair to the Throne bandmates.

Too bad John Henry didn't have any six-foot-tall bluejays, raccoons or albino Yetis as his friends because they would have totally had his back when he was trying to beat that steel-driving machine.


I speak for everybody when I say it's a good thing this didn't veer into Women in Love nude wrestling territory.
"Coca-Cola tastes like donkey piss, bitch!," says Pops. (Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
Regular Show, "The Christmas Special" (from December 5, 2012)

Regular Show's enormously entertaining half-hour Christmas special, creatively titled "The Christmas Special," ranks somewhere below South Park's introduction of Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, John Goodman's controversial Futurama guest shot as the psychotic Robot Santa, NewsRadio's Christmas episode about Bill McNeal's Santa-suited stalker and Lee Majors' The Night the Reindeer Died as a great piece of unsentimental and irreverent alt-Yuletide TV. Okay, The Night the Reindeer Died wasn't an actual Christmas special, but those two minutes that poked fun at Christmas special excess right at the start of the otherwise not-so-great Scrooged were glorious.

I'm not sure if the Regular Show writers/storyboarders have ever seen Scrooged, but their Christmas special feels like the result of them asking each other, "What if we made a silly, over-the-top Christmas action movie like The Night the Reindeer Died?" As someone who finds the sentimental tone of most holiday TV shows and commercials to be overbearing and lame (and prefers either The Ref, the original Die Hard or any Shane Black-written holiday movie--especially Kiss Kiss Bang Bang--over It's a Wonderful Life as holiday viewing), the unsentimental Regular Show Christmas special is right up my alley. And luckily, the one moment where "The Christmas Special" gets heartfelt is played understatedly: Benson's rival Gene (Kurtwood Smith) glances at a Christmas portrait of himself with his wife and kid--aw, so the ruthless bastard does have a heart after all--while trying to decide whether or not to put aside his differences with Benson and his employees to save both them and Christmas from Quillgin (Thomas Haden Church!), the episode's villain.

What kind of sick bastard would want to pump ZZ Top full of lead?
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
In addition to bringing back Smith as Gene, the anthropomorphic vending machine who manages East Pines Park and waged a prank war against Benson and his park in "Prankless," "The Christmas Special" features Ed Asner reprising his role from the Will Ferrell vehicle Elf as Santa, but here, he plays Kringle as a hoverboard-riding action hero. It's not exactly a new riff on Santa, but Asner, an animation veteran who especially shined during his villainous Superman: The Animated Series and Boondocks guest shots and his starring role in Up, kills it.

The "Christmas Special" plot has an injured Santa turning to Mordecai and Rigby for help after he and an important item he's been carrying both fall from the sky and crash through their garage. St. Nick has been trying to stop Quillgin, a disgruntled elf who used to design toys for his workshop, from getting his hands on the item, an invention Quillgin created and Santa rejected for being too unsafe. It's an empty red gift box that can conjure up anything that's desired most by whoever opens the box, and Quillgin invented it to eliminate the need for Santa and destroy Christmas forever. He used dark magic to build the box, which turns whoever opens it evil, and in a plot point straight out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Santa entrusts Mordecai and Rigby with the task of destroying the evil box once and for all. Skips tells the duo that the only way to destroy the impervious box is to throw it into a lava pit that happens to be located inside an abandoned mine shaft on the other side of East Pines Park (I've always wondered which big city Regular Show takes place in, and the amount of snow that covers both parks during this episode automatically disqualifies it from being a coastal California city).

Cue the Inception 'BRAAAAHM' music.
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
The gang's quest for the lava pit allows Regular Show to riff on Inception's snow-based action sequences (which, in turn, were riffs on the ski chases in On Her Majesty's Secret Service) and the climactic tests of wisdom in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When Pops volunteers to wrestle a bear as part of the series of booby traps the gang must conquer to reach the lava pit, that's where you know this Christmas special is a keeper. I also like Mordecai's growing frustration with the Last Crusade-style obstacles as he groans, "Aw, what? Another slide?"

The amount of Indy and Back to the Future references that series creator and "Christmas Special" co-director J.G. Quintel and his crew inserted into the episode signifies their love for '80s Spielberg--but not the usual highlights of that era of Spielberg. The quest for the lava pit marks the second time Quintel's crew has referenced the Last Crusade climax. As the Topless Robot blog noted in their "11 Nerdiest References in Regular Show" list while praising the show's Last Crusade-inspired gags during the "Eggscellent" episode, "As far as Indiana Jones parodies go, most writers have the tendency to parody the opening from Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy is running away from the boulder, as comedically hackneyed as it is... But it takes a real nerd to find humor in the last scene of The Last Crusade when Indy must choose and drink from the true Holy Grail."

Here we see Jennifer Love Hewitt about to work her handsy magic on a snowman in a special Christmas episode of The Client List.
(Photo source: Regular Show Wiki)
Regular Show is rated TV-PG--that's like between a PG-13 and an R during the hours of Cartoon Network programming before Adult Swim takes over--so the Regular Show crew often toys with the censors, trying to see how far they can go in terms of cartoon violence and references in the dialogue to sexuality. At one point in "The Christmas Special," you can sense the crew's delight at toying with Standards and Practices when Rigby considers pulling a prank on East Pines where he would mess around with the carrot nose of one of the rival park's snowmen. Rigby's prank is disrupted by the alarm he tripped by grabbing the carrot, but we all know where he was about to place that carrot. So "The Christmas Special" isn't quite as filthy as South Park's Mr. Hankey episodes or as dark as Futurama's Robot Santa stories, but it's a lot of fun. All that's missing is the presence of a certain action icon who's become a favorite go-to guest star in recent years on shows ranging from Community to Human Target: The Night the Reindeer Died star Lee Majors. Otherwise, to borrow the words of The Night the Reindeer Died's network promos, Yule love it.

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