Wednesday, February 27, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (02/27/2013): Bravest Warriors, Archer, Out There, Do's & Don'ts and Adventure Time

Jay is cosplaying as a Zenith TV set for the 1982 Comic-Con. Because the Comic-Con was really big back then. Okay, not really.
I keep misidentifying Out There as Over There, that Gulf War show that starred Sticky Fingaz from Onyx. What I really need to do before writing is... cram! Duh duh duh, duh duh duh. Let the boys be boys!
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.

"Ultra Wankershim," the penultimate webisode of Bravest Warriors' first season and one of the series' strangest installments, marks the return of the enigmatic Emotion Lord (series showrunner Breehn Burns), a cross between a Jedi and a Time Lord. This older and nutty incarnation of Warriors leader Chris travels back to his past to witness the Dawning of Wankershim (also voiced by Burns), the moment in Martian history when Wankershim, the holographic elf from the Warriors' Holo-John who has evolved from hologram to actual lifeform, becomes so large and infinite in size that he absorbs all of humanity and the universe into his "Wankerbeing."

The Emotion Lord visits his teenage self to see if he can score him some boner pills.
The Emotion Lord explains to the Warriors that the Dawning also brings about the end of the universe, but he's not allowed to divulge anything else about the future because doing so could damage the space-time continuum, so he can only help the Warriors to figure out how to save the future on their own. Chris becomes curious about his future with Beth, the fellow Warrior he has a crush on, so he gets his older self to teach him the Emotion Lords' power of seeing visions of future events. The few images of the future that Chris is able to briefly glimpse include the emergence of an evil version of Plum (Tara Strong), the alien mermaid chick who threw herself at Chris in "Gas Powered Stick," and Beth making out with a darkened stranger who appears to be Danny, Chris and Beth's fellow Warrior. Chris also inadvertently receives hints about a grim future for Beth when his older self starts to weep while staring at Beth. To keep himself from ruining space-time, the Emotion Lord makes himself vanish and departs with a phrase he's been repeatedly saying during his latest visit: "It's always been Wankershim."

Here we see Richard Nixon debating John F. Kennedy.
"Ultra Wankershim" may sound like a somber installment that's concerned with advancing the show's mythology and is all business, but the episode doesn't forget to be funny and tosses in silly gags like a play on that old time-travelling term "paradox" and a Martian anchorperson (Maria Bamford) who oozes slime from her face when she speaks, a gross and amusing alien version of Albert Brooks' sweating scene in Broadcast News (except this anchor is unruffled while slime oozes out of her). This first season of Bravest Warriors may be a bit short, but the series compensates for the small amount of webisodes by featuring clever writing, as well as animation that exceeds what we usually expect out of a web series and is equal to the animation quality on series creator Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time. Bravest Warriors has seen the future of animation produced exclusively for the Internet, and it's not crude Flash animation with wonky sound quality anymore.


I knew at some point in Archer's current fourth season that the show would revisit the titular spy's curiosity about the identity of his dad, whose absence from his son's life was one of many reasons why Archer's such a screwed-up man-child. I just never expected the arc to resurface in "Once Bitten," while Archer's poisoned from a snake bite in the middle of a mission in fictional Turkmenistan and hallucinating sketchy and rudimentary flashbacks to his boyhood, with James Mason's Mr. Jordan character from Heaven Can Wait (special guest star Peter Serafinowicz) as his spirit guide. (In a couple of other Heaven Can Wait shout-outs, Archer is clad in Warren Beatty's football sweats from the film, and he finds himself playing Beatty's sax, which Archer clobbers Buck Henry's officious angel character in the head with. You can tell how young some Archer recappers are by their inability to notice the Heaven Can Wait references.)

'Joe, these are our animated counterparts. I like their spunk.' 'Phrasing, Mr. Jordan.'
Archer's mind reimagines his hazy memories about why he is the way he is as clips from '80s HBO fixtures like Beatty's 1978 hit movie and The Natural instead of reimagining them as something more typical of his obsessions, like The Cannonball Run or Gator (although his fevered dreams are full of gator imagery, which is connected to his fear of gators, but does the imagery also mean some part of him believes Burt Reynolds is his dad?). The material about both Archer's past and the mixed-up movie references in his poison-addled state ("What frickin' movie is this? What's next? Mr. Gower slaps me deaf? C'mon, you're all over the road here!") is easily the most entertaining part of "Once Bitten."

Several critics have found the plotting of "Once Bitten" to be flat and underwhelming (I'm not as underwhelmed by it), but even when the storyline may be sort of underwhelming, the dialogue on Archer is always golden:

* Malory: "Look, I don't want to sound racist, but..." Lana: "But you're gonna power through it."

* Archer to an injured Ray: "Are you shitting me? Bionic legs, and you lifted with your back?"

* Everyone's hatred of Lana, the agency's voice of reason, and her "self-righteous clomping" in "Once Bitten" seems to be building towards either a future office mutiny against Malory led by Lana, who questions Malory's actions in this episode, or the Truckasaurus-handed spy's departure from ISIS (and switch to ODIN?). Insane but sometimes lucid Cheryl/Carol's mini-monologue to Lana about the latter's self-loathing is so terrific (and is responsible for one of many excellently animated expressions from Lana this season) that I've included it word-for-word: "Please, if you really cared, you'd resign, but there's no way you ever will because you're just counting the days until, her face bloated and yellow from liver failure, she calls you to her deathbed and, in a croaky whisper, explains that Mr. Archer is totally incompetent and that you, the long-suffering Lana Kane, are the only one qualified to run ISIS, and you weep shameful tears because you know this terrible place is the only true love you will ever know... What? Oh my God, was I talking?"

Holy shit-snacks, indeed.
* A barely conscious Archer (to Cyril and Ray), while reacting to the arrival of the fur-hatted Turks: "Hey, check it out, Fred and Barney, we're at the Water Buffalo Lodge!"

* Cyril to the Turks, whom he thinks want revenge for the camel he accidentally ran over with Archer's Jeep (in, as usual on this show, extremely gory fashion): "No, I had the right-of-way!"


There's more feathered hair here than in an old Bon Jovi video.
IFC's Out There takes place in the early '80s (dig the poster of the 1982 version of Swamp Thing on a kid's bedroom wall in the "Great Escape" pilot) and follows the lives of 15-year-old loser Chad Stevens (series creator Ryan Quincy) and fellow misfit Chris Novak (Justin Roiland), who's been dying to run away from home ever since his single mother Joanie (Pamela Adlon) shacked up with Terry (Fred Armisen), a sleazy New Age hippie Chris despises. Luckily, like the similarly Reagan-era-related--and equally melancholy--Freaks and Geeks, whose star Linda Cardellini is also a regular here, the coming-of-age cartoon doesn't bombard us with tiresome "look how goofy the '80s were" jokes and concentrates instead on a more timeless subject: the hardships of being a teenage misfit, especially in a time when conformity was favored above all else because of the country's turn towards conservatism, and there were no PSAs, YouTube videos or documentaries that decried bullying and reassured the bullied with sayings like "It gets better."

In "The Great Escape," Chad and his new friend Chris bond over their frustrations with school bullies and their hatred of Holford, a Midwestern suburb that's so lifeless and bland that in "Quest for Fantasy," the hot dogs at Chad and Chris' regular hangout, the Gulp-N-Go convenience store, are Joanie's idea of adventurous and loungy cuisine ("As far as fixings go, I say stick with those high in vinegar content. The onions here, they even sort of tingle like champagne."). The Gulp-N-Go is also where Joanie first met Terry and fell in love with him when, according to her, he killed a scorpion that was crawling on her back and then vowed to protect her forever. Due to Terry's constant braggadocio and implied ease with being surrounded by drugs, I wouldn't be surprised if the scorpion was something Terry hallucinated while on acid or shrooms. Most of Out There's funniest moments involve these delusions everyone outside of the pragmatic Chad has about their lives, whether it's Joanie, Terry, Jay (Kate Micucci), Chad's daydreaming little brother who thinks he's an alien, or Chris. In "The Great Escape," Chris' elaborate plan to escape Holford involves hopping onto "a magical balloon to an exotic new land teeming with breastled women" (not "breast-led," but "breastled," which rhymes with "nestled").

Roiland's shrill Earl of Lemongrab voice from Adventure Time seeps through whenever Chris gets shouty or when Roiland's other character in "Quest for Fantasy," a compulsive liar named Grump, lisps about how he can sneak Chad and Chris into a rumored nudie mag photo shoot so that they can see their first live naked lady. The best moment of "Quest for Fantasy" is a tiny bit of character business where Paul (John DiMaggio), the Gulp-N-Go clerk who scolded Chad and Chris for attempting to steal a nudie mag from his store, cringes when he overhears Rose (Megan Mullally), Chad and Jay's mom, promising to Chad that she and her husband Wayne (also DiMaggio) will be as honest as possible when talking to him about the birds and the bees. I take it that Paul suspects that Wayne and Rose's talk will somehow either turn out not so smoothly or will end up degenerating into a screed against masturbation. So in the show's great little way of saying "fuck off" to the terminally annoying Parents Television Council, Paul changes his mind about the nudie mag and secretly slips it into a newspaper for Chad.

The Out There kids re-create the Abbey Road album cover.
Paranoid Wayne, who runs an optometry practice, misinterprets his eldest son's hijinks with his new friend as a druggie phase. Wayne's anti-drug shtick, which stems from his shame over his own sordid pre-'80s past as a drug-crazed hippie, is the least original part of the pilot. South Park, the show where Quincy cut his professional teeth, handled the hypocrisy of the overzealous anti-drug crowd more cleverly early in its run, when it had Mr. Mackey lose his job after being wrongfully accused of stealing a sample of marah-juh-wana while teaching a class about drug prevention, and his depression from joblessness ended up driving him to booze and drugs.

A far more original aspect of Out There is the offbeat character design. Instead of being regular-looking but stylized humans like on all the Fox "Animation Domination" shows and even South Park, everyone in Holford has claws and paws for hands and are dog-faced with button noses like the characters on Goof Troop, while the males in the Stevens family are fur-faced and resemble the Little Critter character from Mercer Mayer kids' books. (Quincy cites Charles Schulz, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Richard Scarry as his stylistic influences in interviews, but I also see a bit of a Mayer vibe in the Stevens males' character designs.) It's an interesting choice that perfectly suits Out There's theme of life as an outcast, and I especially like how there's no "some meteor arrived and mutated everybody"-style explanation for the characters' animalistic look during the show.

If only someone told Quincy to be equally minimal with older Chad's Wonder Years-style voiceover narration in the pilot and the third episode, "A Chris by Any Other Name," because like the worst kind of narration, it tends to state the obvious. However, Chad's off-screen narration is less distracting and exposition-y during "Quest for Fantasy," and hopefully, Quincy will minimize it even more in later episodes. (Instead of over-explaining what you see on screen, the best kind of narration is either mostly unreliable, like in Alexander Payne's Election, or only partially related to the action on-screen, like on Burn Notice, where icy, distant and secretive Michael never refers to himself, his friends or his mom and describes the action only through spy tips or lines about how the intelligence community operates, except for in the first season, back when Burn Notice creator Matt Nix hadn't quite figured out Michael's narrative voice yet. So during reruns of the Burn Notice pilot, when you hear Michael remark off-screen about how much his mom irritates him, it's as off-putting as hearing the anti-profanity Omar curse in an early episode of The Wire.)

Unnecessary bits of narration aside, Out There is an intriguing work-in-progress, much like Chad and Chris themselves, who bumble their way through adolescence like anyone else who's been a teen but perhaps didn't grow up with fur covering their faces.


Who would win a staring contest? These kids or the kids from Margaret Keane paintings?
Do's & Don'ts: A Children's Guide to Social Survival, the most popular animated series on the Shut Up! Cartoons YouTube channel, is a streamlined and hilariously dark spin on an old type of comedy bit that's been done in cartoons by the late Tex Avery (who was born 105 years ago yesterday, by the way), Kentucky Fried Movie and SNL Digital Shorts: a fake documentary short or instructional film that's factually inaccurate or completely useless. In each three-to-four-minute webisode of Do's & Don'ts, a '50s educational filmstrip-style announcer (Luke Adams) gives the same group of kids (voiced by actual kid actors) amusingly horrendous advice about topics ranging from getting into the rap game ("If you confront a lyrical writer's block, feel free to liberally toss around expletives like fuck, shit, cock, cunt and the N-word.") to finding a place to hide a corpse ("The swamp is a fair option, popular among party moms and naughty nannies.").

The announcer also provides silly "facts" about homosexuality, which he revealed was measured by modern science in "Lamberts" (as in Adam Lambert), and anime, this week's subject. I don't consider myself an anime fan, but I grew up on Star Blazers and Robotech and was enthralled with Cowboy Bebop when it first aired on Adult Swim in the early 2000s, so "Anime" is one of my favorite Do's & Don'ts installments because of its jabs at anime clichés ("Anime is notorious for dedicating full episodes to high-octane staring contests") and pervy anime fans.

The webisode manages to poke fun at anime without resorting to tired (and very '80s) "You ever notice how Asians do this and Asians do that?"-type racial humor like Drawn Together did in the episode where its Ling-Ling character tried to whitewash himself. (Drawn Together's attempt to speak out against racial self-hatred was really just a lame excuse to reinforce some more Asian stereotypes. Great racial humor challenges these stereotypes, but by remaining funny and never getting preachy. Examples include Blazing Saddles, ego trip's Big Book of Racism!, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and the stand-up act of Totally Biased staff writer Hari Kondabolu. Bad racial humor does nothing to challenge stereotypes. Examples include that Drawn Together episode and any Asian stand-up whose entire act is either just a laundry--no pun intended--list of the differences between Asians and everyone else or just a rehash of Margaret Cho's impression of her mom).

Sean Connery may be retired, but Do's and Don'ts continues to come up with ways to put him in the silliest fucking outfits since that diaper he wore in Zardoz.
"Anime" also continues Do's & Don'ts' best running gag: what sort of situations will Do's & Don'ts creator F. Ryan Naumann place Sean Connery's disembodied head from the original 1963 From Russia with Love movie poster in this week? His head has been pasted onto a hair band rocker, a Native American, a Fabio-like gym douche, an anchorman and a magician.

He's the Criss Angel of this shit. So he's the king of wearing gallons of manscara?
This week, 007 is again a magician and is also seen spanking a monkey literally. Little touches like Connery's cameos and the subliminal gag in the "Rap" webisode are why Do's & Don'ts is a highlight of the Shut Up! Cartoons channel, but, like the announcer says in "Anime," if you get bored with Do's & Don'ts, move on to hentai.


Adventure Time has been having an incredible two weeks of first-run episodes. The engaging "Bad Little Boy," the show's second episode about Finn and Jake's gender-flipped counterparts, the immensely popular Fionna and Cake, was a season highlight last week, and now "Vault of Bones" follows "Bad Little Boy" as another season highlight, functioning as both a great character piece about Flame Princess (Jessica DiCicco), Finn's current love interest, and a fun homage to tropes from both video games and D&D. (My older brother, who used to be a D&D fanatic, once tried to get me into role-playing games when I was younger. I didn't care for role-playing games back then, and I still kind of don't, although Key & Peele's D&D sketch--in which a thug is forced by his nerdy cousin to join him in playing it, and the initially reluctant thug, who chooses the moniker of "Kanye the Giant," ends up enjoying D&D his way--and now Adventure Time have made me understand why role-playing games appeal to so many.)

When Finn first encountered Flame Princess, she was volatile and unstable--a literal hot mess--and understandably so after the Flame King (Keith David), her intimidating father, imprisoned her for so long to keep her from hurting others with her flames, at the urging of Princess Bubblegum. Since then, the time FP has spent with Finn and Jake has mellowed her out and improved her social skills, although as we see in "Vault of Bones," when Finn takes his girlfriend along with him on a dungeon quest for treasure to help her clear her mind and keep her away from her omnipresent dad's evil influence, a bit of her naughty and mischievous streak remains. (By the way, Jake stays home during the episode and doesn't get to do much, but it's amusing to see his maternal side as he brews chamomile tea for Finn and FP and then chillaxes alone with a cup of it like a lady in a General Foods International Coffees ad.)

Finn loves playing with fire and he don't wanna get burned.
The dungeon scenes in "Vault of Bones" nicely echo every experience an avid gamer or D&D head has had introducing his favorite pastime to a newbie like his girlfriend or somebody who's similar to the thuggish cousin in the Key & Peele sketch (FP: "Boy, this place is creepy!" Finn: "Really? I feel like it's trying too hard."). Finn's method of carefully prowling through a dungeon comes into conflict with FP's more impulsive preference for destruction and intimidation, which leads to a bit of good cop/bad cop humor when Finn and FP encounter a lazy and stammering skeleton who possesses some intel about the treasure (FP wants to burn him alive, while Finn's less aggressive method for getting info from the skeleton involves shouting at him to do the splits). I especially like how the skeleton sounds like a bored amusement park employee and isn't really in the mood to get into character and play along with the dungeon's grim ambience.

Like how the skeleton must have felt a long time ago, FP grows bored with dungeon-questing and its many rules, and in an interesting sign of maturity, Finn realizes he's been too domineering throughout their adventure together and agrees to let FP try things her way. FP's powers especially come in handy when Finn winds up in genuine danger during an attack by a legion of slimy creatures known as Goo Skulls. It becomes clear that when Finn and FP merge their methods together so that one doesn't dominate the other, they make quite a team (kind of like how, as Adventure Time regular Tom Kenny recently noted to the L.A. Times about the show's preference for recording Kenny's co-stars Jeremy Shada and John DiMaggio together in the same room, "there's really no substitute for having a bunch of people around a mic, and riffing with each other and playing off each other").

And when FP is given the opportunity to obliterate the Goo Skulls' big boss at the end of the quest, instead of reducing the biggest and baddest Goo Skull to ashes, she takes a cue from Finn and makes the leader do the splits--kind of like how on Justified, Raylan has been learning that there are other ways to take down criminals besides killing them. But FP is still a bit behind Raylan in terms of being civilized, as we hear when Finn realizes that "maybe next time, we should just go to like a farmer's market," and in the episode's funniest line, FP adds, "And burn it."

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