Thursday, January 31, 2013

30 Rock (2006-2013)

'Thank you, Kermit, for explaining the afterlife to us.'
Tonight marks the end of a series that wasn't supposed to survive when it premiered and was predicted by some in the press to be the NBC show about sketch comedians that was going to fail. NBC's other show about sketch comedians, the high-minded Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was going to take off and become the next West Wing, right?

Seven years later, Studio 60 is a low point in Aaron Sorkin's career that's largely forgotten (except for Sarah Paulson's genuinely funny Holly Hunter impression and that unintentionally funny line that was hurled at Nate Corddry, "Your little brother is standing in the middle of Afghanistan!!!"); 30 Rock reruns are all over both syndication and Comedy Central; and the lunacy and sharply written bits of TV-industry satire delivered by Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, the other 30 Rock writers and Fey's co-stars have been dissected and analyzed in so many think pieces and effusive (and not-so-effusive) blog posts, whether in TV criticism circles or amongst the Jezebel crowd. And the show will continue to be dissected and analyzed long after tonight's series finale. (An example of a 30 Rock-related topic that was discussed within the blogosphere late last season was "30 Rock is racist." I don't think it is. 30 Rock is hardly 2 Broke Girls or Modern Family, where Asian driver jokes are still considered funny on a show that calls itself modern. The Tumblrers who say 30 Rock is racist clearly never saw the first-season episode that raised the question "Is Tracy Jordan a disgrace to black people like Toofer accuses him of being?" Fortunately, that episode dealt with the question in a humorous way instead of morphing into an irritating and preachy Very Special Episode about that subject.)

Hope that's not Donaghy Estate Sparkling Wine that they're drinking.
I think the key to 30 Rock's longevity was its lack of high-mindedness, even during the tedious stretches of episodes that focused on the characters' love lives and must have been what Alec Baldwin was referring to when he recently admitted that the writing in the fifth season once made him say, "I'm going to get the fuck out of here, I'm done." A lack of high-mindedness is always more entertaining than actual high-mindedness, which the one-season fiasco that was Studio 60 was awash with. This anti-Studio 60 didn't put its characters on a pedestal (although Liz Lemon's feats as babysitter to her needy and batshit crazy stars Tracy and Jenna were nearly superhuman and superheroic). 30 Rock didn't think of TGS with Tracy Jordan, the fictional sketch show that Fey modeled after her SNL stomping grounds, as a comedic masterpiece each week (and SNL wasn't the only sketch show TGS was reminiscent of because you could also detect in the fake sketches a hint of MADtv, some All That, a smidgen of In Living Color and a smattering of MTV's Just Say Julie).

Liz and her mostly lazy staff writers weren't curing cancer with their comedy. Almost all the fake sketches we got brief glimpses of were terrible and hacky. The TGS writers' obsession with robots was a parody of comedy writers' obsessions with robots. And omnipresent network exec Jack Donaghy, who was like an older brother from another mother that Liz never wanted but eventually ended up becoming her (strictly platonic) best friend, didn't care about the quality of TGS, as long as the show was making bank and keeping NBC (barely) alive.

As 30 Rock ends its run, TGS is being killed off. But the show-within-the-show is experiencing a fate worse than cancellation: an Axe Body Spray-ish sponsor called Bro Body Douche has taken over TGS and--like the Arsenio-inspired network tinkering that caused Larry Sanders to quit his talk show--the sponsor has turned TGS into an even worse show than the hacky SNL/MADtv counterpart Liz ran for presumably over a decade. The newly rechristened Bro Body Douche Presents The Man Cave barely has any sketches, but it has lots of Spike TV-style bro news, and in what I assume is a jab at NBC's increasingly cheap comedy programs that mirrors Fey's recent not-so-positive feedback on the network's change of direction in scripted comedy, it's all shot in front of a green screen.

Liz may have lost her show, which was never really worth fighting for anyway, but she hasn't lost the one part of it that ended up mattering to her more than writing sketches about robots and TV chefs who can't stop puking: looking after Tracy and Jenna and keeping them out of trouble. At the end of last week's penultimate episode, "A Goon's Deed in a Weary World," Liz--whose arc from a few years ago about her wish to become a parent is one of many loose ends from the past that have been tied up this season--and her new husband Criss (James Marsden) finally meet the kids the adoption agency found for her, and in an inspired gag that could have been a perfect series-ending scene, the agency sends her a pair of orphaned eight-year-old siblings: a narcissistic blonde who resembles Jenna and her brother who's literally a brother, a mini-Tracy who's already showing signs of being, as Tracy so proudly and memorably described himself in the first season, "straight-up mentally ill." It's 30 Rock's twisted idea of heartwarming.

The series could have ended right there, and I would have been a happy dude. But there's apparently more business 30 Rock has to attend to tonight. Afterward, we're losing not just one of the best comedy shows of the last few years but one of the best-scored of any genre on TV. Fey's husband, 30 Rock musical director and series composer Jeff Richmond, who, like Fey, hailed from Second City and SNL, continually came up with terrific comedic score music (is it me or is the Modern Family theme a total ripoff of Richmond's 30 Rock main title theme?) and hilarious fake songs like "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" and "Muffin Top." On A Fistful of Soundtracks, you can currently hear some of the Richmond cues that Relativity Music Group released in 2010, as part of a two-disc release that's one of my favorite deluxe releases of anything, simply because of Richmond and Fey's jokey liner notes and the sheet music for compositions like "That's Her," a.k.a. Liz's theme.

The opposite of Kenny G.

The best Jewish novelty song since, oh, I don't know, 'Oy! It's So Humid.'
I'll also miss hearing Jenna's recollections about "the sheik," as well as reading about the cast's off-screen antics, some funny and awesome (Fey's response to Republican bullshit: "If I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a $2 haircut explain to me what rape is, I'm going to lose my mind!"), others not-so-funny and not-so-awesome (Tracy Morgan's clunker of a stand-up bit about gays). Another thing I'll miss about 30 Rock is looking forward to its guest stars each season, even though the stunt-casting didn't always work (who thought it was a good idea to have the not-so-Puerto Rican Salma Hayek play a Puerto Rican?). But a guest shot on 30 Rock became the modern-day equivalent of guest-starring on Batman in the '60s: whether you were Oprah, Steve Martin, Isabella Rossellini, John Cho, Jon Hamm or Elizabeth Banks, you probably got your ass whupped on-camera (or in the case of Ghostface Killah, was forced to drink really shitty wine), but you ended up with lots more comedy street cred afterward. Not bad for a little show about sketch comedians that was supposed to tank.

Tina Fey shows with her thumb and forefinger how tiny Todd Akin's peen must be.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (01/30/2013): Archer, Green Lantern, Bob's Burgers, Tron: Uprising and American Dad

'She is short-tempered, mean and often takes her clothes off for, like, no reason.' That's the same thing Jerry Mathers wrote about Barbara Billingsley in his peer review.
Archer's latest episode recaptures the most exciting part of Skyfall: the scenes where they filled out paperwork.
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.

After Archer's entertaining crossover with Bob's Burgers, the FX cartoon sort of crosses over with another show I love, FX's Justified, by borrowing its star (Timothy Olyphant) and one of its staff writers (Chris Provenzano) for "The Wind Cries Mary." Olyphant, whose comedic chops on Justified are frequently overlooked (even at the A.V. Club, of all places), blends in quite well with the twisted Archer universe while voicing eternal frat-boy Lucas Troy, Archer's previously unmentioned best friend and an operative from ISIS' rival agency ODIN who may not be as trustworthy--or as straight--as Archer deems him to be.

I love it when a show suddenly introduces some important buddy from the main character's past who's never been brought up by the lead before, and then after one episode or, in the case of Steve Buscemi's Tony Blundetto on The Sopranos, an entire season, we never see his ass again. The original Star Trek did it all the time, Jim Rockford would be frequently visited by war buddies we'd never hear from again (and not even on that answering machine of his), that beloved teammate of Sam Malone's who came out of the closet in a tell-all book he promoted at Cheers never dropped by the bar again for another beer and so on. I wish "The Wind Cries Mary" would have poked a little more fun at this old trope of the previously unmentioned BFF, besides making this bestie turn out to be gay for Archer (and no one else). But as usual on Archer, there are so many killer lines from cold open to finish (and also, welcome back, workplace humor that's been absent for a couple of episodes) that whatever gripes I have about the episode end up--like "the life that lived" in the Jimi Hendrix tune this episode cops its title from--dead.

Stray observations:
* Ringtone gags in sitcoms always suck, but somehow, only Archer manages to make them work. Archer's choice of "Danger Zone" as his ringtone is as predictable as his frequently ridiculed choice of sidearm.

* I enjoyed this line Archer utters to himself because I once considered enrolling in the two-year Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont and then Googled small-town Vermont and thought, nah, that hood's not for me: "Vermont has liquor stores, right? Yeah, they have to. It sucks there."

* Pam: "So why are these damn peer reviews so hard?! Only like 10 people work in this whole goddamn chickenshit outfit!" That'd be dope if Pam punctuated one or two other lines this season with mic drops, using the same battered-looking mic she dropped at the end of that "chickenshit outfit" line.

Here we see a young Dick Cheney practicing how to shoot classmates in the face.
* Archer: "There's, uh, there's kind of a lot of blood down there." A dying Lucas: "Said your mom."

* Lucas: "I only did it because I wanted us to be together. Forever." Lana, off-screen: "Called it!" Off-screen, two-to-three-word asides about someone's sex life have been a favorite comedic device of mine ever since NewsRadio once built a great running gag out of Catherine thinking Lisa was trying to seduce Dave for new office supplies, so she continually goaded Lisa on to shake her stuff for Dave.

* Whoever drew Lana's expression during the episode-closing awkward ride home after Luke's half-finished deathbed confession deserves some sort of nod for Outstanding Achievement in Animating Appalled Expressions.

Lana will never look at suntan oil the same way again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (01/23/2013): Archer, Dan Vs., Tron: Uprising, Robot Chicken and Regular Show

Archer's complaint to the waiter about the drink in his hand is fucking glorious: 'Sour mix in a margarita? What is this? Auschwitz?'
Lana's body was modeled after an Atlanta-based flight attendant's, while her bad temper was modeled after Steven Slater's.
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.

Episodes like "Fugue and Riffs," Archer's wildly funny and violent fourth-season premiere, are exactly why I wanted to expand "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner" to include adult cartoons at the end of last year. "When the new year approaches," I asked myself, "do you want another year of sitting through Ben 10 reboots that cause your attention to wander or awfully written Ultimate Spider-Man episodes, or do you want to put that part of your time to better use, like covering adult cartoons that are more up your alley and are worthier of discussion and analysis?"

"Fugue and Riffs" is the kind of adult cartoon episode I should have been focusing on in the first place. It's another sharply written story involving ISIS agent Sterling Archer's ongoing conflict with his mother/boss Malory (Jessica Walter), and it contains a brilliant crossover with lead voice actor H. Jon Benjamin's other current cartoon, more semi-nudity from Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) and esoteric references that are funny simply because they're so damn esoteric (British spy hero Thomas Elphinstone Hambledon! Manning Coles, the duo that created Hambledon! The star of Shazam! Émile Zola!). You won't see Spidey cracking a joke that's a nod to Zola's "J'accuse" letter during Ultimate Spider-Man, that's for damn sure.

'Sorry, kids. Shootouts wasn't exactly what I meant when I said I was gonna make this place more like McDonald's. Gene, you got a barrel of acid I could borrow?'
(Photo source: Brain Explosion)
The season premiere opens with Archer tending the grill at the exact same titular restaurant from Bob's Burgers, Benjamin's other show, while surrounded by the Belcher kids and Linda (John Roberts, the only Bob's Burgers voice actor reprising his role), who gets to berate Archer with one of the various insulting nicknames that have become one of the Adam Reed cartoon's trademarks ("Well, excuse me, Ike Turner!"). Instead of appearing in their more familiar character designs from Bob's Burgers, Tina, Gene, Louise and Linda are awesomely redesigned to blend in with Archer's '60s comic book aesthetic.

I like how the cold open strings us along into thinking Archer is undercover as a burger joint owner as part of some ISIS op, until it becomes clear that it's no op and he has no memory of his life as an ISIS agent, although a few pieces of that life remain. They include fighting skills, which Archer puts to use during a badass and extremely gory restaurant confrontation with KGB assassins straight out of A History of Violence, his literary tastes (he dubs the restaurant's newest burger "a Thomas Elphinstone Hambledurger with Manning Coleslaw") and his metrosexual side ("What I am gonna do is find out who this Archer jerk is... I'm also probably gonna do a spa weekend").

It turns out that two months ago, Archer developed amnesia due to a moment of extreme stress and ran away to a new life as a seaside fry cook named Bob. He married Linda and apparently became her second husband, which makes me wonder what happened to the original Bob in this universe (Alex, I'm gonna go with "What is dead?," and because much of this show's humor thrives on kinky or freaky behavior, I wouldn't be surprised if Linda has been remolding Archer Vertigo-style to look more like Bob). Both ISIS and the KGB are after Archer for different reasons: Malory assigns Lana, Cyril (Chris Parnell) and Ray (Reed) to stage a fake run-in with the KGB in front of Archer to try to jog his memory and get him back to the agency, while bionic villain Barry Dylan (Dave Willis) sends more KGB assassins to eliminate Archer.

Part of the fun of "Fugue and Riffs" is trying to figure out the stressful moment that triggered Archer's amnesia. We're given a clue early on when Malory complains that her son hates seeing her be happy, and when the catalyst is revealed at the end to be neither a bomb explosion nor a Bourne Identity-style, ISIS-sanctioned attempt on his life, but something far less action-y--Malory's wedding to Ron Cadillac, the most successful Cadillac dealer in the Tri-State Area--it makes perfect sense within the neurotic, wracked-by-mommy-issues world of Archer. In a great bit of stunt-casting, the show has recruited Ron Leibman from The Hot Rock and Friends, as well as Walter's real-life husband, to voice Malory's new hubby, who's won over everyone at ISIS during Archer's two-month absence and whose presence this season is bound to reignite an old thread from a couple of seasons ago: Archer's search for his biological father. (Archer reportedly begins to form a bond with Ron in the new season's fourth episode. I can't wait to see if Reed, who's obsessed with the movies of one-time Archer guest star Burt Reynolds, will toss into that episode a reference to The Hot Rock or Leibman's other '70s crime-genre cult favorite, The Super Cops.)

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.

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.

10 Best Original Song Oscar contenders on Spotify that don't suck (so that means neither of them will probably get nominated)

'Rock and roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world'--Patrick Carney of The Black Keys
On December 11, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released its list of 75 original songs that are eligible for the Oscars' Best Original Song category. Only 32 percent of these potential nominees are on Spotify. Adele's "Skyfall," a song I've been streaming on AFOS and a Bond theme I've grown to better appreciate after realizing how well its lyrics tie into two of the film's key scenes involving Judi Dench's M, and the original songs from Django Unchained and Will Ferrell's all-Español Casa de Mi Padre are among the 68 percent that are inexplicably absent from Spotify.

Of the 32 percent, the following 10 tracks are the only potential nominees on Spotify that I like, which means neither of them will turn up in tomorrow morning's Oscar nod announcements because "Lose Yourself" from 8 Mile aside, the Academy never nominates any original tunes I like. I must be the only film geek who doesn't care for the Oscars and is more interested in IFC's Spirit Awards, a far less up-its-own-ass and tedious movie award show. I really hope the NBA All-Star Game takes place during Oscar Weekend again this year. The All-Star Game festivities made for great Oscar counter-programming.

1. The Black Keys and RZA, "The Baddest Man Alive," The Man with the Iron Fists
2. Julie Fowlis, "Touch the Sky," Brave
3. Sunny Levine featuring Young Dad, "No Other Plans," Celeste & Jesse Forever
4. The Arcade Fire, "Abraham's Daughter," The Hunger Games
5. Beck, "Looking for a Sign," Jeff, Who Lives at Home
6. The Bootleggers featuring Emmylou Harris, "Cosmonaut," Lawless
7. Mychael Danna featuring Bombay Jayashri, "Pi's Lullaby," Life of Pi
8. The Crystal Method featuring Martha Reeves and The Funk Brothers, “I’m Not Leaving,” Re:Generation
9. Florence + the Machine, "Breath of Life," Snow White & the Huntsman
10. Jordin Sparks, "One Wing," Sparkle


Except for Life of Pi, I've seen neither of the films these songs hail from. That biopic starring Jessica Chastain as Lucy Lawless looks interesting.

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.