Wednesday, January 9, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (01/09/2013): Bob's Burgers, American Dad, Motorcity, Adventure Time and Regular Show

Thigh will be done.
Cyndi Lauper looks a lot different ever since she started taking up Krav Maga.
"5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" originally started out as a post about the rivalry between Cartoon Network's "DC Nation" block and Disney XD's "Marvel Universe" block. Named after the Paul's Boutique instrumental "5-Piece Chicken Dinner" as a shout to the late Adam Yauch, "Din" turned into both a way to keep the AFOS blog from looking fallow and a writing exercise/endurance test to see if I would break while I made myself write about animated shows I don't usually watch because they're outside my Adult Swim/Boondocks/Venture Bros. comfort zone.

I did end up breaking halfway through the first season of Ultimate Spider-Man on "Marvel Universe" (it's nicely animated by Film Roman, but its juvenile scripts, except for the one for the Spidey/Iron Fist/Doctor Strange team-up "Strange," have paled in comparison to the writing in the Brian Michael Bendis comic it's loosely based on). I found myself busting out my best Danny Glover and grumbling, "I'm too old for this shit," and I gave up recapping USM. (There's a way to bring out the comedic side of Spidey's adventures without coming off as too juvenile. Unlike USM, Christopher Yost managed to do it during the Spidey guest shots he wrote for The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes.)

"I'm too old for this shit" was something I frequently thought while catching for the first time shows like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot and Ben 10: Special Victims Unit, so that's why those cartoons and a few others received Cs from me two weeks ago (and I don't think I'll ever have the patience to sit through The Hub's revivals of My Little Pony, Pound Puppies and Care Bears). But I also discovered cartoons that aren't made with just kids in mind and are equal to high-quality works like two of my favorite shows from the late '80s/early '90s animation renaissance, Batman: The Animated Series and The Simpsons (more specifically, seasons two through eight), the aforementioned Adult Swim half-hour hits The Venture Bros. and The Boondocks and the short-lived Cartoon Network gems Megas XLR and Sym-Bionic Titan.

Before "Din," I was already acquainted with the beautifully animated Young Justice, but "Din" has turned me into a Regular Show fan, and I've started to enjoy the Fleischer Brothers-style, "actually made for older viewers and potheads, but kids, you're welcome to take a toke too" vibe of Adventure Time. And I don't think I've ever seen an action cartoon outside of B:TAS that basically says to young viewers, "It's okay to question corporate America," which is one of the reasons why I fell in love with Motorcity. I initially thought, "There's no way this anti-corporate-world cartoon is going to last on Disney XD," and I was right. Disney canned Motorcity after one season.

"Din" is also a chance to bring an adult, "not every other word in the review is the word 'awesome'" perspective to these kids' cartoons (the A.V. Club has been the only site I regularly read that takes animation seriously and assigns writers who are around my age to discuss these shows in posts that, unlike most other online reviews, have been spellchecked, although in the cases of plucked-from-the-blogosphere AVC writers like Phil Dyess-Nugent of the intriguing Phil Dyess-Nugent Experience blog, you can take the blogger out of the misspelling-riddled blogosphere, but you can't take the misspelling-riddled blogosphere out of the blogger). But as early as the first week, I already complained about having to sit through the annoying commercials on kids' networks (my remote was broken at the time, so I couldn't fast-forward through them).

In addition to the aggravating kids' network ads for nightlights and juice pouches, I've started to grow tired of the kids' networks' haphazard episode schedules. Neither HBO nor FX would yank a 13-episode original series in the middle of its run without warning like Cartoon Network did with its serialized "DC Nation" shows about three weeks into their new seasons. That's because HBO and FX are run by grown-ups, and a grown-up way of relating to viewers is to warn them about the preemption beforehand, not afterward. Also, on some weeks, I've found my Adult Swim/HBO/FX-watching self saying, "Can somebody please swear or actually kill somebody? I think I'm going to fucking lose it."

So the first new "Din" column in 2013 means one major modification. I'm changing the "non-Adult Swim cable cartoon" rule and adding to the always-changing "Din" roster the cartoons I watch more frequently: adult cartoons, whether for the broadcast networks or cable (Archer will return to FX on January 17 and IFC will sneak-preview an interesting-looking new one called Out There on January 22 this week).

Whattup, cursing, sex and grown-up problems.


It took me about a few episodes of Bob's Burgers to get used to the weirdness of female characters being voiced by male comedians (kind of like how a viewer who's never seen The Venture Bros. before catches TVB for the first time and keeps wondering, "Why does that brunette chick sound like a dude?"), but now that I'm no longer distracted by that casting quirk, I consider Bob's Burgers to be the current crown jewel of the Fox "Animation Domination" block. Bob's Burgers creator Loren Bouchard has taken the best elements of his Squigglevision cartoons Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies--overlapping dialogue, great comedic voice acting by performers who weren't previously associated with animation, nicely written kid characters--and put them into a show with top-shelf animation (no off-putting squiggling during this one).

Add to those elements a recurring and interesting art-vs.-commerce conflict between Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) and his business rivals that Bouchard has said was inspired by the 1996 Italian restaurant movie Big Night--plus timeless storylines that deal with the unspoken affection the family members have for each other without getting too goopy--and you have a cartoon that's outlasted the Allen Gregorys and Napoleon Dynamites of the world and, due to its timeless writing, has the potential to age better in reruns than Family Guy's random pop-culture reference gags and the equally reference-heavy and spotty later seasons of The Simpsons. "Mother Daughter Laser Razor" is a great example of the Bouchard show's exploration of the bonds between the Belchers without resorting to those sitcom hugging scenes that made '80s studio audiences go "Awww" and made me want to go shoot myself.

Written by Nora Smith, "Mother Daughter Laser Razor" pairs off two characters who don't share a lot of scenes together--nine-year-old sociopath Louise (Kristen Schaal) and the parent she doesn't favor, the overly perky Linda (John Roberts, one of two male cast members on this show who voices females)--while continuing to explore how Louise's older sister Tina (Dan Mintz, the other actor playing female) seems to have inherited everything from Bob. Those attributes include a lonely and largely friendless childhood similar to the one we saw young Bob experience in "Bob Fires the Kids," Bob's calm demeanor and now, his hairiness.

Here's a deleted scene between Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy from Suburgatory.
At Dad's restaurant, Tina overhears a couple of popular classmates gossiping about another girl's hairy legs and realizes her own legs are equally hairy and susceptible to ridicule, so she asks Bob to take her to get her legs waxed after a couple of failed attempts to have them sheared. Lin was supposed to shave Tina's legs, but Lin, who's been fuming over Louise's frequent hostility towards her, is too distracted and angry to be entrusted with a razor, and as resident weirdo sibling Gene (Eugene Mirman) notes in one of the few observations of his that make any sense, "I don't think you should shave angry."

Lin's misguided solution to getting Louise to like her better is to trick her into taking part in a mother-daughter bonding seminar run by Lin's current favorite mommy blogger, "the Phenomimom," who turns out to be a creepy man named Dakota (Tim Heidecker from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) who holds his seminars next door to a laser-tag fun zone that's more to Louise's liking. Dakota's "Modo Time" methods of getting disgruntled kids to bond with their moms are, of course, pointless and ineffective. They range from lame role-reversal improv games to forcing the kids to re-experience their days as fetuses while trapped inside "vagi-sacks," a.k.a. sleeping bags.

Linda and Louise re-create Face/Off, although I don't remember Nicolas Cage running around with bunny ears.
Because Bob's Burgers is a very good cartoon as opposed to a sloppy one like The Simpsons' fake Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show that sets up the presence of a fireworks factory and then fails to utilize it as a gag, "Mother Daughter Laser Razor" makes it to the fireworks factory when Louise frees herself and the other kids from their hellish seminar experience and leads them to escape to the laser-tag fun zone, where Louise and Lin finally end up bonding over laser guns aimed at an enraged Dakota. If this were The Young Ones, the anarchic Louise's love of destruction and criminal activity would make her Vyvyan. Between the attraction to laser-tag and her enjoyment of Bob's favorite spaghetti westerns in "Spaghetti Western and Meatballs," I wouldn't be surprised if this mini-Vyv grows up to become an action movie director, just like how Gene is bound to become either a hacky morning zoo DJ or a hacky stand-up and Tina is headed towards becoming either a chef like her dad or an essayist penning Paul Feig-esque best-sellers about her awkward adolescent experiences.

The kid characters are the best part of Bob's Burgers. That's mainly because they--particularly the nutty and over-enthusiastic Gene--talk and behave more like real kids who don't really know much about the world outside the restaurant and the playground and less like precocious Huey Freeman-style stand-ins or Mary Sues for their adult creators (although Aaron McGruder's use of Huey as the voice for his politics on the Boondocks cartoon works quite well for that show).

My favorite example in this episode of the Belcher kids being such kids--other than Gene's desire to get a scrotal wax despite not fully grasping how painful it likely is--is a quick gag that's easy to miss, and a lot of them can be easily missed due to the overlapping dialogue that's distinguished Bob's Burgers from The Simpsons and the Seth MacFarlane cartoons. When Louise tries to back out of mother-daughter time, she communicates to Lin her reluctance to spend time with her by using break-up lines she's overheard from either dozens of break-up conversations between couples at the restaurant or break-up scenes in rom-coms: "Look, I think we should spend some time apart. I'm just not really looking for something serious right now. You understand--I mean, yeah, it's gonna be a little awkward, you've got some of your stuff at my place, we live together..." "I think we should spend some time apart" are words I hope I'll never have to say to Bob's Burgers.


I prefer the MacFarlane-produced American Dad (which isn't run by MacFarlane but by co-creators Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman) over the show MacFarlane is better known for and has been more creatively involved in, Family Guy, for several reasons. One of them is because Family Guy doesn't have Patrick Stewart entertainingly pissing all over his fatherly, buttoned-up image as Captain Picard and Professor Xavier almost every week as the voice of Avery Bullock, the batshit crazy boss of CIA agent Stan Smith (MacFarlane, who also voices Roger the alien), like in the latest American Dad episode, the enjoyable "Finger Lenting Good."

Psychotic Avery should never be around cleavers, just like how another Patrick Stewart character, Picard, should never be around mambo music. That brief mambo dancing scene in Star Trek: Insurrection made me uncomfortable, man.
Avery presides over a Lenten pact where the Smiths must rid themselves of their worst vices for all of Lent. For instance, Francine (Wendy Schaal) has to give up smoking, while wimpy teen Steve (Scott Grimes) has to avoid weeping, which Steve can barely keep himself from doing when, in the funniest non-Avery-or-Roger-related gag, Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane, Seth's sister) and Stan sing aloud "Nothing Compares 2 U" to make Steve crack. The first Smith who succumbs to his or her vice has to sacrifice a finger to Avery, who reveals that he wears a bracelet made of severed fingers ("I started collecting when I was in Vietnam. Two summers ago. I was on a sex tour. Did not get laid, had zero game. Just kept... cutting off fingers."). Between Avery episodes like this one and Kate Mulgrew's frequent scene-stealing on NTSF:SD:SUV:: as Kove, Paul Scheer's eyepatch-wearing boss/ex-wife, I've gotten a kick out of seeing post-Kirk Star Trek captains make the space-time leap to absurdist comedy. Your move, Sisko.


Mike's not sure if he can stand another whiff of Kane's dragon breath.
(Photo source: unseendaydream)
Like the best final episodes of shows that were taken from us too early, "A Better Tomorrow," the dramatic conclusion of a two-part season finale that's ended up being Motorcity's series finale, functions as a fine summation of what the show wanted to do (in Motorcity's case, it's to blow stuff up) and say (any time corporate America offers you utopia, never be afraid to question it) while also trying not to leave too many threads hanging. Otherwise, we would have been left with a colossal, Heroes season one finale-style letdown. However, one thread is left hanging, and it's my only disappointment with "A Better Tomorrow": after the show made such a big deal about Burners leader Mike's connection to his helmeted nemesis Red (Eric Ladin) in "Vendetta," we never learn Red's identity.

I'm sure Motorcity creator Chris Prynoski and his Titmouse studio would have loved to have had a second season where I assume Red would have been unmasked (and the writers already had tons of story ideas for season two, as Prynoski and writer George Krstic revealed when they posted photos of writers' room index cards with story ideas written on them). But after being burned--no pun intended--by MTV's cancellation of Downtown and Cartoon Network's cancellation of Megas XLR, Prynoski and Titmouse were already prepared for the worst. So they devised "A Better Tomorrow" so that it could double as a series finale, in case Disney--which never really understood how to market and promote the kind of older-skewing animated gem it had in Motorcity---chose to Old Yeller the show.

The Three's Company writers' room board was equally intricate and complicated. Every index card on the board said, 'A wacky misunderstanding.'
In "A Better Tomorrow" (that title's an '80s John Woo shout-out, which tells you how great the Titmouse staffers' tastes in Hong Kong cinema are), Kane gets his just desserts and is defeated by the Burners and the various gangs of Motorcity, who put aside their differences to save their hometown from Kane's Genesis Pod detonation device. Also, Kane's daughter Julie heeds her dad's advice about how leadership requires making hard decisions and makes the hard decision of rejecting her dad's empire once and for all. Then Mike and the Burners meet at Antonio's, order a platter of onion rings to the tune of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and are disrupted by an abrupt cut to black.

Okay, that last bit didn't happen, but Red letdown aside, Motorcity leaves the airwaves the same way it entered them: kicking and screaming and blowing terrifically animated stuff up while subversively biting the corporate hand that fed it.

Mike blinds Kane with a well-timed J.J. Abrams lens flare.
(Photo source: unseendaydream)


"Jake the Dad," Adventure Time's introduction of Lady Rainicorn and Jake's new (and rapidly maturing) puppies, Charlie, T.V., Viola, Kim Kil Whan and Jake Jr., is mostly filler--too many birth episodes of comedy shows basically are--but it's not without Adventure Time's typical offbeat touches. They range from whatever the hell BMO is doing to Finn at the end of the episode (it looks like Finn is being joystick-boarded) to amusing side characters like a befuddled fox in the forest who mistakes Jake Sr. for a baby (and is voiced by episode co-writer/storyboarder Tom Herpich) and of course, Jake Jr., a female pup with a guy's name, an ass-face, a knack for juggling both English and Korean and the unmistakable pipes of special guest star Kristen Schaal.

Lady and Jake's kids speak Korean like Lady does, which means Jake will have to run to the store for some jars of Gerber Kimchee.
(Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
The episode also contains nicely subversive messages about parenting: overprotectiveness, paranoia and fear amount to nothing; most parenting manuals are bullshit; and it's better to let kids figure some things out for themselves than to be all up in their grill 24/7. While overprotective dad Jake underestimates the intelligence of his kids for most of "Jake the Dad," the episode itself entrusts viewers to figure out its messages about parenting rather than preaching those messages to them like the worst '80s cartoons used to always do.


Nobody listens to terrestrial radio anymore, so TV shows with existing song-heavy soundtracks like Regular Show have supplanted the oldies stations on terrestrial radio as the place to be first exposed to certain classic rock or rap tracks. Some critic said Regular Show was where his kids first took notice of Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" when the "Weekend at Benson's" episode used it in a montage. One of Regular Show's many charms is how its music montages have been introducing to a new generation of viewers some great older tunes ("Mississippi Queen") and others that are not-so-great (last season's Emmy-winning "Eggscellent" went with Bonnie Tyler's overplayed Footloose anthem "Holding Out for a Hero"). These aren't wack Kidz Bop cover versions. These are the actual tunes, which must have cost J.G. Quintel and his crew a Skips-size arm and a leg.

Aw yes, the Pac-Man font, where an E looks like an L that got knocked up by Blinky or Clyde.
(Photo source: Calvin Wong)
The latest Regular Show short, "TGI Tuesday," picks a great oldie for its big dance montage: "The Ballroom Blitz," the infectious glam rock classic by Sweet. I'm glad Regular Show opted for Sweet instead of Footloose again. As Secret Six and Batgirl comics writer Gail Simone once said on Twitter, "Has there EVER been a movie that is as much of a love letter to whiteness as the original Footloose? Holy crap. WHITE."

"Let's Hear It for the Boy" or some other toothless Reagan-era dance track from Footloose wouldn't have suited an episode that has Jaleel White guest-starring as the ghost of Daryl, a breakdancer with a Kid from Kid 'n Play hairdo who died in 1985 (the hairdo is more 1990 than 1985, but who cares?) and whose crew challenges Mordecai, Rigby and Eileen to a dance-off. The duel requires a track with a sound that's a little harder than Footloose, like either "Apache," Sheila E.'s "A Love Bizarre," an actual song from 1985 and one of my favorite Prince-produced joints, or "The Ballroom Blitz."

The prize is control of the Parkside Lux, the park's abandoned ballroom, which Daryl and the ballroom ghosts' leader, a Prince lookalike named Johnny Emp'r'r, won't relinquish to Mordecai, Rigby and Eileen (who, by the way, gets to deliver the episode's best line: "*SIGH* These burritos taste like failure") unless they win the dance-off. Mordecai and his friends need to use the Parkside Lux in order to throw Margaret a last-minute going-away party on her last night of freedom before she concentrates on her studies and transfers to a new college. Her last free night falls on a Tuesday, which means all the clubs in town are either reserved for Tuesday night shindigs like shuffleboard and women's bridge night or closed on a night that's not exactly known for awesome things going down. The only venue that's left is the Parkside Lux.

Usually on Regular Show, confrontations between the park workers and supernatural forces end in TV-PG-level comedic violence, but the confrontation in "TGI Tuesday" ends on a gentle and wistful note that's pretty rare on this show. Back in 1985, Johnny and the breakers got distracted and partied so hard while trying to put together a rad party for their equivalent of Margaret that they ended up dead (the reason for their deaths is left unexplained for what I presume are TV-PG-related reasons, but Alex, I'm gonna go with "What is too much nose candy?"). The ghosts realize how deeply Mordecai cares about Margaret and that he shouldn't be forced to repeat the mistake they made--missing out on the best party ever--so they grant Mordecai and his friends permission to use the Parkside Lux. "TGI Tuesday" is more of a dancey and heartwarming episode than a hilarious one, but once in a while, a break from anarchy and mayhem is welcome on Regular Show, especially if it calls for younger viewers to get schooled in some killer older music along the way.

'Margaret, you're not going anywhere!'--the retarded brother from What's Eating Gilbert Grape


  1. I think these type of so called cartoons are terrible examples for children! I just tuned into Bob's Burger and learned about cooking "Meth"! Then heard a woman being called a "whore"! This is at 6pm you know darn well children will be watching.

    1. How about a hand for the Phenomimom, everybody? The Phenomimom, everybody! It warms my heart to see know-it-all mommy bloggers of indeterminate gender dropping by my blog to lecture me about that 6pm show "Bob's Burger."