Wednesday, January 16, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (01/16/2013): Bravest Warriors, Out There, Bob's Burgers, American Dad and Adventure Time

This looks like a job for Captain Michael Dukakis of Star Command.
"Oh God, the ship's computer put Pluto Nash on a loop! Yellow alert!"
Every Wednesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated shows. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

Over on the YouTube (this must be how Mr. Burns refers to YouTube--as "the YouTube"--like when he tries to relate to his employees by talking about something he watched on "the DuMont" the other day), the Cartoon Hangover channel has been posting since November five-minute webisodes of Bravest Warriors, a terrific new sci-fi cartoon created by Adventure Time mastermind Pendleton Ward. The series follows the adventures--some action-y, others not-so-action-y--of 16-year-old space heroes Beth (Liliana Mumy, which is inspired casting because she's the daughter of Lost in Space's Bill Mumy), Chris (Alex Walsh), Danny (John Omohundro) and Wallow (Ian Jones-Quartey), who's someone we've never seen on Star Trek: a Samoan crew member.

Though Ward isn't as creatively involved with Bravest Warriors as he is on Adventure Time--showrunner Breehn Burns, who's written and directed every webisode so far, is really the main creative force here--the Cartoon Hangover series is full of many of the same elements that make Adventure Time a standout cartoon. Maria Bamford steals the show voicing a side character or two like she does over on Adventure Time, everyone has button eyes and speaks in slangy and bizarre dialogue like the denizens of Ooo do (although it's less stoned-sounding here) and the surreal, rubbery and brightly colored visuals are a feast for the eyes, just like on the other show. The surreal vibe distinguishes Bravest Warriors from slightly more straightforward sci-fi comedy shows like Futurama and Red Dwarf.

"Butter Lettuce," the funniest and most inventive Bravest Warriors installment so far, takes place entirely in a Holo-John, a futuristic bathroom that allows people to play 3-D video games while they're doing their biz. Because they're horny teens, Danny and Wallow mess around with the Holo-John to see what Beth (whose last name, by the way, is Tezuka, clearly a shout-out to Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion creator Osamu Tezuka) would be like if she were more sexed-up. They try to get Chris, who's too shy to act on his feelings for Beth, to join in on their type of fun, but the holo-fantasizing about Beth wearing Barbara Eden's I Dream of Jeannie outfit and Princess Leia's metal bikini weirds him out.

The guys aren't aware that Beth is just like them and has fantasies of her own that she's obsessed with too. So after trying not to get caught by an amusingly disheveled and barely awake Beth when she enters the Holo-John to brush her teeth, they wind up trapped inside her favorite holo-fantasy, a hilarious scenario that involves a spa full of sweaty male unicorn strippers, and are unprepared for the, uh, sweatiness of it all (although the perpetually laid-back Wallow seems to have no problem with it). During "Butter Lettuce," I couldn't help but notice that someone on the cartoon's staff must have remembered how creepy and pathetic most of the Star Trek: The Next Generation holodeck episodes were and decided to humorously comment on the creepiness of those episodes. ("Booby Trap," the one where LaForge seeks engineering advice from a holodeck version of a respected female scientist who dresses like the sister wife from Shameless and ends up wanting to bang her, is especially creepy. That episode is also proof that some of the TNG staff writers had some really fucked-up issues about men of color. The fact that the TNG cast is aware of that, like whenever they mention why TNG's "Code of Honor" planet-of-the-Africans episode was such an epic fail, is one reason to love that cast.)

Beth reassures her mermaid friend Plum that she told the guys to stop bringing sushi to the beachhouse.
Cartoon Hangover touts itself as "the home for cartoons that are too weird, wild and crazy for television," and without a prudish bunch of execs like the suits in charge of the non-Adult Swim half of Cartoon Network breathing down the animators' necks, Bravest Warriors gets to go places Adventure Time attempted to dip its toe in but got in trouble with CN for doing so (like when it hinted that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline were once more than just friends). The title characters are a little older than 14-year-old Finn, so sexuality is a huge part of their lives, and Bravest Warriors doesn't shy away from that, like in the latest webisode, "Gas Powered Stick," in which Danny and Wallow vie for the attention of Beth's hot best friend Plum (Tara Strong), but she's setting her sights on Chris, who would rather hook up with Beth.




"Gas Powered Stick" isn't as sharp as "Butter Lettuce" because it's a little more focused on teen drama, as Burns put it in the webisode's behind-the-scenes featurette. But fortunately, because this is a Pendleton Ward creation, the teen drama is leavened by offbeat humor that, in this case, involves a little teddy bear who speaks like a baritone-voiced Boondocks character (Michael Leon Wooley) and an X-ray vision superpower that Chris--and anyone else who's a 16-year-old kid--is eager to make use of, until it subjects him to unsexy sights he wasn't expecting to witness, like Beth shaving her armpits. I love how Bravest Warriors continually tries to ruin Chris' view of Beth as this perfect, idealized object of affection. It reminds me of a similar thing Ward has said he's been trying to do with the equally flawed Princess Bubblegum over on Adventure Time. He told io9 that "there's so many stereotypical girl characters, and the easiest thing to do is the opposite: girl power, making them extremely intelligent or extremely tough. I just want to make girls that are normal, just like Finn is normal."

I can't wait to see what else is normal about Beth on this show. For instance, what does her face look like when she drops the kids off at the pool?

***

The character design of IFC's Out There, which officially premieres on February 22, is completely--what else?--out-there. (A family of Totoro-faced humans? Button noses on everyone else?) But the show's themes of awkward adolescence and small-town boredom aren't so new and different, and while I wish "A Chris by Any Other Name," the school dance episode that IFC sneak-previewed after Portlandia last Friday, had more than just one or two genuinely funny scenes, there's enough interesting material in Out There's low-key, not-so-broadly-played and nearly melancholy take on coming-of-age humor to make the cartoon worth checking out each week when it begins in February.

I have no idea what they're cheering about. In this sleepy town, it's probably a discount on Slim Jims.
Longtime South Park director and Out There creator Ryan Quincy voices Chad Stevens, an unassuming high-schooler in the small town of Holford and the eldest kid in the aforementioned Totoro-ish family. He's loyal to his new best friend Chris (Justin Roiland, a.k.a. the Earl of Lemongrab from Adventure Time), the class prankster, but he also might be starting to outgrow Chris' antics now that he's getting to know Sharla (Linda Cardellini), whom he has a crush on and is the opposite of Chris: well-behaved, respectful of authority and never getting into run-ins with bullies. Chad's younger brother Jay (Kate Micucci) is even more worshipful of Chris and constantly wants to join in on Chris' pranks and daredevil stunts (speaking of stunts, Chris has an Evel Knievel poster up on his bedroom wall, and both that and the famous Farrah Fawcett poster next to it are hints that this show is a '70s or '80s period piece).

The show is narrated by Chad, presumably when he's several years older, and while the voiceover narration isn't necessary, it's not as overbearing as Peter Parker's narration on Ultimate Spider-Man. There are a couple of left-field casting choices here that I find amusing: John DiMaggio takes a break from his usual party-animal voices (Bender, Jake, Tracy Morgan...) to play Chad and Jay's meek dad, while Micucci is voicing a little boy (and is great at it, like another Out There cast member, Pamela Adlon, was when she voiced Bobby on King of the Hill). The brief glimpse into her character Jay's silly imagination during "A Chris by Any Other Name" (which is the third episode, by the way, not the first) is one of the episode's few genuinely funny bits, and the peeks at his daydreams are something Out There will hopefully make more use of.

***

I don't usually go for tall women with man-hands, but holy shit, did Lana Kane from Archer look smokin' in a Honey Ryder-esque white bikini while co-hosting the Fox "Animation Domination" block this week or what? I will now permanently affix to my brain the image of Lana in the bikini to make the experience of recalling the nude beach scenes in Bob's Burgers' "Nude Beach" episode much more pleasant for me.

On Mother's Day, it'd be dope if FX aired an Archer marathon consisting of the most fucked-up things Malory ever did to Sterling. Greatest show to watch on Mother's Day ever.
Fred Armisen, who drummed for the punk band Trenchmouth before he made comedic, pre-YouTube video shorts and joined SNL, seems to live for playing characters who are awful musicians. Remember Armisen's senile drummer Mackey and his badly timed rimshots ("Mackey on drums, everybody!") or his procrastinating songwriter Garth, half of Weekend Update's Garth and Kat (a bit that Kristen Wiig, a.k.a. Kat, channeled while hilariously presenting with Will Ferrell, in front of a genuinely unamused, grumpy and past-his-bedtime Tommy Lee Jones, at the Golden Globes on Sunday)? In "Nude Beach," the Portlandia star adds another shitty musician to his repertoire: Tommy, a health inspector whom Bob quickly regrets bargaining with after he agrees to allow Tommy to perform his amateur singer/songwriter act at his restaurant. Tommy's tunes drive out Bob's customers, who can't stand being subjected to lyrics like "I’m good at sex, you’re bad at sex!" and "The Itsy Bitsy Stripper climbed up the brassy pole/Down came her legs and wrapped around my soul."

Tommy isn't the only health inspector in "Nude Beach" whose comfort with baring his soul makes people uncomfortable. There's also Hugo (Sam Seder), the rigid inspector Tommy has replaced. Hugo has ditched his inspector job and found happiness baring his soul and more as a nudist in the town's nude beach, a new part of town Bob must brave when he has to save the restaurant by begging the newly liberated, always-unclothed Hugo to become an inspector again. Meanwhile, in a subplot bolstered by Aziz Ansari's welcome return as Darryl (the gamer kid Bob befriended in "Burgerboss") and the Belcher kids' amusing reactions to certain sides of their dad they've never seen before and will never want to revisit, the kids host "nudity tours" in which they sucker classmates into paying for watching the nudists and their floppy wieners through Darryl's telescope.

As Seinfeld once said, there's good naked and bad naked. This is what Seinfeld had in mind when he brought up the latter.
I'm not much of a fan of Hugo as a character or a nudist, but having him sing "You're the Best" from the original Karate Kid off-screen and off-key during the episode's climactic Nudecathalon montage is an inspired touch. (Between the Nudecathalon montage and Happy Endings' long-delayed "Kickball 2: The Kickening" episode, Sunday night was a grand night for '80s sports movie sendups.)


In "Nude Beach," the kids receive less screen time than I usually prefer on Bob's Burgers. But the episode makes up for their reduced screen time with gags like a strange restaurant worker hygiene video hosted by The Wire's Andre Royo, who voices himself, and Bob's resigned and horrified reactions. Those reactions of his are always a reliable source of laughs, whether it's from being forced to hang out with the insane Tommy or having to compete in the increasingly awkward-for-Bob Nudecathalon during a sequence that made me realize, "Hey, 'You're the Best' works quite well when it's paired with the horror genre."

***

Over at the A.V. Club, the American Dad recapper noted that Francine's discomfort with Roger's schemes and his enjoyment of cheating his way through life during "The Adventures of Twill Ongenbone and His Boy Jabari" is a little hard to swallow, especially because the show is in its eighth season, and by now, Francine should be used to his schemes or not so gullible about them (I think the fact that she's never seen him create rainbows made out of his own piss until now is more hard to buy). As someone whose exposure to American Dad has been limited to its standout Christmas episodes, an Avery story or two, a rerun of a Spring Break episode that a Twitter friend worked on, a rerun of a Mexico-based episode that's made me stay away from horchata and the last couple of weeks of first-run episodes, I'm not so familiar with Francine's frustrations with Roger.

So I enjoyed "Twill Ongenbone," in which the alien schemer attempts to show Francine that he's starting to understand her point of view about the value of hard work in the only way he knows: by faking the discovery of a Third World tribe that's actually being played by a bunch of black Hollywood actors he's hired to help maintain the ruse. One of those actors turns out to be Cuba Gooding Jr., who's voiced by a surprisingly game Wayne Brady.

The tribesman is saying, 'You should really do something about these split ends.'
However, the B-story in "Twill Ongenbone" ends up being funnier than the Francine/Roger stuff. Steve has to interview Stan for a history class assignment, and his dad's nonchalance as he gets overly detailed on his cell to Steve about having sex with Francine, killing people and being depressed is an inspired bit of dark humor. (Between Stan's descriptions of Francine in the sack and the ass tattoo that she angrily flashes to Steve at the breakfast table, Steve has seriously been scarred for life. He and Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts' home-schooled teen son in Movie 43 have a lot to talk about.) I especially like how every time Stan's monologuing to Steve, he's in the middle of lunch and is so blasé about his disturbing thoughts, as if he's Jennifer Jason Leigh in Short Cuts, totally expressionless and changing diapers while talking dirty to pervy phone-sex customers.

I took drama class in high school, and I had to frequently leaf through paperback collections of comedic and dramatic monologues from movie scripts (almost all of those monologues were from Neil Simon comedies or, of course, Sidney Lumet flicks). Do book companies still do those kinds of books? Because there are a couple of batshit crazy monologues from Steve's psycho dad during "Twill Ongenbone" that I would love to see turn up in one of those books.

***

On Adventure Time, Finn creates a disguise--bald, mustached "Davey Johnson"--by shaving off most of his hair, dyeing the rest of it with molasses and changing his voice, in order to hide from the spotlight that comes with being a hero and celebrity to the Candy Kingdom. But this new self ends up being a bigger problem than the loss of privacy when "Davey" takes over Finn's personality and mistakes Jake for a robber and sends him to jail.

Did the Mushroom War wipe out therapists in addition to mankind? This episode would be six minutes shorter and Jake would be spared from prison if Finn just spoke to a shrink. I'm surprised that the Candy Kingdom doesn't seem to have any shrinks, because someone--maybe a cupcake or lollipop with a degree in psychiatry--needs to deal with the angst or trauma the candy people experience every time they're under attack, whether it's by the dragon that Finn saves them from at the beginning of the episode, a pissed-off cookie, the Lich or the American Dental Association.

This looks like the 'after' photo of that bald restaurant customer from Sesame Street if he went on a diet after deciding to stop eating at that restaurant where that batshit crazy waiter named Grover works.
"Davey" isn't really a standout Adventure Time installment--"BMO Noire" is a more imaginative short that also involves split personalities--but BMO's teary sorrow over Finn shaving off his blond locks is amusing, as is the throwaway gag of one of Finn's fanboys falling for his disguise, despite nitpicking (in front of another fanboy who's cosplaying as Finn, in what has to be a reference to the show's fans at Comic-Con) over the flimsiness of the disguise ("Thought it was Finn, on account he's wearing Finn's exact clothes"). That is such a nerd, man.

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