Beavis and Butthead

MTV is going to reboot the 1990s animated series Beavis and Butthead, so it’s a good time to revisit the original. Beavis and Butthead got its start at Spike and Mike’s Festival of animation, which is no surprise; it’s weird and disgusting, and really edgy for a time when the edgiest animated series on TV was The Simpsons. The episode that aired at the festival, the pilot, was “Frog Baseball.” The episode labeled 1.01 on the DVDs now available is something different, apparently from about a year later.

The show, as it aired, interspersed short snippets of story with longer stretches of Beavis (creator Mike Judge) and Butthead just sitting on the couch commenting on music videos. The DVDs seem to contain only the in-between stories, which are pretty weak on their own, and not even that funny. (I’m guessing this is an issue with the rights to the music videos.) The couch sections were what made the show different and, dare I say, relatable, to anyone who grew up with afternoons that grew long and boring as summer vacation wore on, in the era when MTV played videos. Who doesn’t enjoy making fun of Milli Vanilli?

The “plot,” to use the term loosely, isn’t important in this pilot. It’s about, well, frog baseball, which is pretty self-explanatory. It gives us a chance to meet these two slacker kids who love blood and hard rock. They wear T-shirts emblazoned with the names AC-DC and Metallica. When the game goes well—well meaning bloody—the characters air guitar anthems like “Iron Man.” Butthead is the ersatz leader of the pair, and Beavis is even dumber than him, if that’s possible. The outdoor landscape is dried out and bleak, and knowing now that Mike Judge tends to set things in Texas… it’s probably Texas.

When they’re back home in front of the tube, nothing else in life seems to matter. There is nary a parent in sight and, in the pilot, we don’t meet any other characters at all. (Later there are various neighbors and classmates, including the inspiration for the spinoff Daria.) The slacker ethos pervades every aspect including the crappy animation. But, for all their apathy, B & B have strong opinions about music. They don’t articulate these opinions with any grace; stuff either sucks or rocks. If it really rocks it warrants lifting one’s hands in devil horns and headbanging. The animation quality actually seems to tick up a notch as the characters’ hair flies back and forth in heavy metal abandon. When, before 1992, did we see an animated character headbang? The videos alternate between terrible and what is now terrible but was then cool. If you ever liked Axl Rose, even a little, you can probably find something to like here.

Futurama

Futurama fans are rejoicing. After being cancelled from Fox, then revived in the form of some straight-to-DVD movies, and given another shot with reruns on Comedy Central, the little animated show that could has returned with new episodes. And we didn’t even have to order any Subway footlongs. In celebration of the return (and the fact that the new episodes are hilarious, at least so far), I thought I would take an overdue look at the pilot episode of Futurama. I read once where someone referred to this as “the perfect pilot.” If not perfect, it’s pretty close.

When Futurama aired it was “the new Matt Groening show.” Fortunately for us and Matt Groening it is nothing like the Simpsons. The Simpsons does its thing—well—and Futurama does its just-as-witty- but-totally different thing. In fact, Futurama is more original. The Simpsons basically took an existing TV formula and animated it. Futurama mashed up situation comedy, science fiction, 20-something slackerdom, political satire and Y2K fear.

In the pilot we meet Philip J. Fry (Billy West), a pizza delivery boy with slouching shoulders and gravity-defying orange hair. His life is as miserable as we, the viewers, have ever thought ours were. He finds out his girlfriend is leaving him as she drives by him in a cab with her new man. He’s good at one thing at least, a 1980s-era video game that allows him to fly through space and shoot stuff. For anyone who ever fantasized that their gaming skills would come in handy in the real world someday, Fry is about to live out their fantasy.

Tonight it’s new year’s eve 1999. A newspaper headline reads, “2000. Doomsayers Cautiously Upbeat.” (It’s these simple little gags that fill every moment of the show with humor and make it worth watching over and over.) Fry, as the victim of a crank call, is delivering a pizza to a cryogenics lab when he falls into a cryogenic chamber set to thaw in 1,000 years. A montage of the next millennium shows us Groening’s satirical prophecies for the human race. New York rises, falls, rises, falls, and rises once more. There are many details worth slow-mo’ing.

Fry finds himself in the year 3000, in an unfamiliar New York City. The future has many of the things you would expect—robots, space travel, and flying cars—and many you wouldn’t. It’s got celebrity heads in jars and suicide booths. One of the funniest and weirdest scenes ever takes place when Fry meets the wisecracking robot Bender. “Well, I don’t have anything else planned for today,” Bender declares, “Let’s go get drunk!”

Next we meet Leela (Katey Sagal), whose job is to program other people with a chip that determines their vocation. Apparently their system is pretty accurate, because it labels Fry as a Delivery Boy. Leela is kinda hot considering she’s got one giant eye in the middle of her head, and there is no denying that she’ll be Fry’s love interest for the series. (We’re told she’s an alien, but a later episode will reveal otherwise.) We also meet Professor Farnsworth, who hires Fry, Leela, and Bender as his new flight crew aboard the Planet Express. And, voila, Fry is a delivery boy again. Context is everything; he couldn’t be more excited. Thus, Fry and the audience are off on a series of adventures.

It is brilliant how Groening can say so much about our own time with a story set a thousand years in the future. Bits of what happened since 1999 are filled in here and there like little warnings. And yet, some things never change. Human beings—and other species as well—will probably have the same neuroses in the future that they have now.

The Clone Wars

In discussing the animated series The Clone Wars, I’ve chosen to treat the movie as the pilot. It functions as one, more or less, but then this series doesn’t need a pilot in the traditional sense anyway. Anyone who hasn’t been living in a Dagobah swamp for the last 35 years has at least a passing familiarity with the Star Wars universe. There are only two signficiant new characters we need to meet here. (For purposes of this analysis I’m ignoring the 2003 TV series, Clone Wars.)

To talk about a Star Wars movie experience you have to start even before the characters appear on screen. At the opening we get the thrill of the “A long time ago…” caption followed by the triumphant appearance of the yellow title logo we know and love (modified with the new title, obviously.) We’re pumped. But instead of a crawl, we get a voiceover reminiscent of a 1940s newsreel. It’s just as boring.

As in the other films, this one doesn’t weigh us down for too long with talk of trade blockades and treaties, although it does start off that way. We jump into the action of battle as Obi-Wan (James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin (Matt Lanter) lead a corps of Clone Troopers against some spindly-legged robots (which look a lot like the robot from The Incredibles).

Once our Jedi heroes dispatch with the enemies they discuss the impending arrival of Obi-Wan’s new padawan. Right on cue, the new character Ahsoka (Ashley Eckstein) shows up–only Yoda has assigned her to train with Anakin, not Obi-Wan, much to Anakin’s chagrin. Thus we get our Reluctant Partnership, staple of cop shows and romcoms.

(I’d like something clarified. Exactly what is the age requirement to train as a Jedi? Mixed messages on this abound throughout the films.)

The first thing we notice about Ahsoka, besides that she looks like the victim of  spray tanning accident, is that she’s really freaking annoying. Sure, she’s supposed to annoy Anankin, but why us? Just thank the Force they don’t mention her midichlorian count.

The other character to be introduced is from a separtist Sinead O’Connor-looking creature called Ventress. There is not much to say about her at this stage except she’s bad.

After Act I we move on to a plotline where the Jedi have to rescue Jabba the Hutt’s infant son. (Which begs the question, how do Hutts reproduce?) It turns out the rescue mission is a frameup by Count Dooku to make it look like the Jedi are trying to kill the mini-Jabba. Padme Amidala comes along to assist. She looks and sounds pretty cool, probably the least cartoony, if that makes sense, of all the characters. There is just the briefest reminder that Padme and Anakin’s relationship is a secret, which sets up lots of possibility down the road for series plotlines. It is when her character is introduced that we get some variety to the action, cutting between her scenes and Anakin’s. You can’t even call it a subplot – the story is pretty much one thread.

So what works and what doesn’t about this pilot? The good: Obi-Wan, a consistently interesting character from all six previous films is back. Yoda looks fantasic animated. And Anthony Daniels as C3PO. The bad: Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu. Doesn’t he have other stuff to work on? Can’t he go away and let us forget that “This party’s over” ever happened?

Possibly the biggest problem with this is that it can’t seem to decide whether it is for kids or adults. It’s like what happened to Return of the Jedi with all the Muppets, and to Phantom Menace with all the Gungin nonsense. The best thing, though is this: After years of hearing about the Clone Wars, we actually get to see the Clone Wars! The show has certainly found success, with season 3 set to begin in fall 2010, and enough merchandise to choke a Hutt.

Neighbors from Hell

I am always up for a new animated series, especially one that is NOT by Seth MacFarlane. (Nothing against him, he just has enough airtime.) Neighbors from Hell is being promoted by TBS as “from the studio that brought you Family Guy,” but is written by Kyle McCullouch (South Park). There is little resemblance to Family Guy. Except for the dog—I”ll get to that.

This pilot takes no time at all to introduce the premise: a demon is assigned by his boss, Satan, to transfer to Earth where he will infiltrate and bring down an oil company called Petromundo. We’ve seen the misfit-family-moves-to-new-neighborhood premise before. What makes this one a bit different is that all of the information Balthazar Hellmanneighbors from hell and his family have about Earth comes from watching television. So, we know we’re in for tons ‘o references. What I don’t get however, is why there is a 20-year delay on shows getting to Hell. I mean, it’s not England. They are watching Growing Pains, Alf, and The Cosby Show. That’s not the only thing that is out of date…

Characters are introduced with no unnecessary fanfare or backstory. The main character, Balthazar, has a wife, a son, a daughter, an uncle, and a dog that talks and seems smarter than the rest of the family, ala Brian Griffin. He winds up being the dues-ex-machina that undoes the mess the family finds itself in, and we can surmise that will be his ongoing role.

It is too perfect that this show is hitting the airwaves right now, as the villain (not Satan mind you, the real villain) is an oil company. The company is devising a giant drill that will bore to the center of the Earth, ostensibly disrupting life in Hell. Apart from that coincidence, some of these jokes seem like they have been gathering dust for a while. A demon tortures a damned man by making him listen to Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did it Again.” How old is that song? We’ve also got some jokes about Ugg boots and Criss Angle. The funnier jokes are the ones without an expiration date. Balthazar walks into the house to find bodies all over and inquires calmly, “Tina, did you kill the neighbors?”

The story seems headed for a quick resolution as Balthazar plots to destroy the engineer who is in charge of getting the drill up and running. Toward the end we find out what will give the premise an excuse to last past the first episode; the fact that Balthazar—aw, shucks— likes the guy he needs to destroy. There is also a racist neighbor how apparently practices beastiality with her poodle, and another who’s addicted to Valium. But, um, where are the TV references? The writers teased us with the possibility of Kirk Cameron jokes and there’s not a one.

The animation style is refreshing. (i.e. It doesn’t look like a Seth MacFarlane show) It’s stylized, and deceptively kid-friendly.

This pilot is all over the place. It has the feel of having been revised and rewritten to within an inch of its life. Not sure if that’s the case, but we’ll see where it goes.

The Oblongs

I think this animated show was on the air for a couple of weeks before it was cancelled. The story goes that it was actually cancelled mid-episode in Australia, because the network got so many outraged calls. It has recently resurfaced on Cartoon Network (and it’s available on DVD), so I thought I’d revisit it.

The first image we see as the pilot begins is a clean-cut man stepping out of a huge, fancy house. He reads the headline of his newspaper, Rich Get Richer, and smiles. Then he flushes his toilet and we, the viewer follow along a pipe down the side of the hill to where the sewage empties into a cesspit. This show is not about the rich people.

One by one, we meet the members of the family living at the bottom of the pipe. Bob Oblong (Will Ferrel) rises and shines. He is very cheerful for a guy with no arms or legs. He notes how cute his wife, Pickles (Jean Smart), is. She has no hair and wakes up still drunk enough that she’s not sure where she is. There are teenage conjoined twins in the shower. Bob reminds them to be thankful for their extra buttock. There’s a daughter who has something that resembles a cross between a penis and a pickle growing out of her head. We know the younger son, Milo, is the real focus since he’s introduced last. He’s busy sawing the foot board of his bed. We’re not told the exact nature of his ailment, but one eye is bigger than the other and he attends a special school. Where he needs a muzzle. Is this ridiculous enough yet? No? The cat smokes. Before you can even process any sense of plotline you are almost overwhelmed with over-the-top, bizarre images. You might be offended, if there were time.

As we head out to the bus stop it only gets worse. Everyone in this valley is some kind of mutant. The kids who go to “normal” school have too many abnormalities to take in at one glance. There are about four of them in assorted shapes and sizes, who hang out with Milo.

At the factory where Bob works he is surrounded by more valley freaks, and the rich guy from the opening, Mr. Climber, is his boss. Bob’s job is using his mouth to screw tops onto bottles of poison. (“The poison tastes different today,” he notes matter-of-factly.) The boss tells Bob that he has filed too many health insurance claims, and if he files any more he will lose his coverage. So, when the twins get in an accident, the family can no longer afford to send Milo to public school. There’s a pretty tasteless joke where the doctor is informed that the boys are conjoined twins. “Oh,” he says, “then it’s not as bad as I thought.” The jokes are like that; so out of left field you can’t help but laugh, tasteless as they may be.

Now that Milo has to transfer, the episode takes on a new-kid-at-school storyline. Like the Karate Kid before him, he falls for one of the popular girls, and gets beaten up by the popular guys. But the story is familiar for all of five seconds. It turns out the popular girl is an alien. She removes Milo’s brain for a quick look-see and then sends him on his way, smitten and outfitted with a tracking device.

We learn that Pickles is from the Hills, but relocated for love. She has a rival in Pristine, a mother of one or more of the popular girls. The popular girls come in a package deal; they all dress and talk the same and have the same name, Debbie.

The fun of this show is how sickeningly cheerful the Oblongs are in the face of adversity. They express worry and frustration at their day-to-day problems, but they don’t dwell on their big problems – the really big ones that are in your face the whole time you’re watching the show. Even the people from the Hills, although they think the Valley dwellers are icky, seem to have adapted to this way of life. That kind of juxtaposition makes the jokes spring up all over the place, like whack-a-moles. If you can get your head around how freaking weird this show is, it’s absolutely hilarious.

Spoiler alert. Milo doesn’t get the girl. His goth little friend burns down his club house, and thinking Milo is dead, the alien girl vaporizes herself.

Memorable quote: “I think I’ll hang around for a while and poke my first love’s remains with a stick.”

Sit Down Shut Up

This is a loveable little show that flies under the radar. When it disappeared from the Fox Animation Domination line-up after only a few episodes, I thought it been canceled for good, but then it turned up at midnight on Saturdays. Guess it was too offensive for prime time viewing. I don’t see how it’s any worse than Family Guy and American Dad; in fact it skips the cheap fart jokes and goes for the more nuanced vulgarities.

Before you even watch an episode, you can expect great things based on the cast; Kristin Chenoweth, Jason Bateman, Kenan Thompson, and Will Forte, for starters. If the cast isn’t enough to grab you, the animation should be. The show uses hand drawn animation against live action backdrops. It messes with your head a little at first, and almost allows you to forget you’re watching an animated show.

So the pilot opens with a road sign telling the audience this is Knob Haven, FL, population 9,334. It is, the sign says, “As pretty as a picture except for the people.” And below that, “You get used to it.” Okay, I had to pause the video to read all that, but that’s the kind of little joke that is buried throughout for those willing to look.

Within seconds we have a nutsack joke—although English teacher Ennis Hoftard is referring to an actual sack of nuts. Ennis wears a bicycle helmet all day. Each of the eccentric teachers at Knob Haven High School is introduced by his or her yearbook entry, with name, subject, and catchphrase. Each is a loser of the highest order, in his or her own colorful way. There is simply too much wackiness flying out of this show to keep up in one viewing. Watch it at least twice.

There is a new principal (Kenan Thompson) at KNHS, a no-nonsense African American woman who—like most of the other characters—isn’t in it for the love of the kids. Her catchphrase is “No.” She announces to the teachers that heads are about to roll. The budget is being cut since the school performed badly on No Child Left Behind standards. The lone ray of sunshine in a bunch of perfectly miserable people is Miracle Grohe (Kristin Chenoweth), a neo-hippie/creationist single mother on whom the sun always seems to shine. Natch, one of the other characters, the P.E. teacher, Larry “I don’t like to say my last name” Littlejunk (Jason Bateman), has a mad crush on her.

There is a drug scandal, in which some unidentified pills are confiscated from a student’s locker. Miracle, the science teacher, asks God to tell her what kind of pills they are. Sue figures, if they should happen to be steroids, she can use them to enhance the skill of the football team and therefore, alumni donations. Only they’re not steroids, the vice principal, Stuart “I need a catch phrase” Proszakian, takes them, and, well… things go awry.

It is refreshing to see high school life viewed through the eyes of the adults. This has been attempted here and there, as with the canceled Miss Guided, and on Glee, but I have never seen it done with such joyful irreverence. (Actually, if Sue Sylvester finally gets fired from William McKinley High she should take the first bus to Knob Haven.)

In addition to being ROTFL ridiculous, the show delivers a bit of social commentary, with its references to public school funding and a joke about the current U.S. political climate. Where it really pushes the envelope is with its near constant references—with varying degrees of subtlety—to student/teacher sex.

Larry: “I always ending up blowing it, like the stupid P.E. teacher that I am.”

Stuart: “I could never even get my P.E. teacher to do that.”

Is it wrong that that’s funny? Maybe, but Sit Down Shut Up doesn’t give you enough time to dwell on it, since it’s on to the next bit in the time it takes to slam a kid’s head in his locker door.

Favorite teacher catchphrase:  Willard Deutschebog (Henry Winkler) – “If I believed in reincarnation I’d kill myself tonight.”

Clone High

I’ve realized that, although I love animation, I have yet to write about any animated series on this blog (except for a couple of mentions in this entry on my favorite pilots).

I started thinking about why this is. There are a couple of characteristics that make animated series a little different from other series in the pilot department. Animated series tend to have more emphasis on the plot-per-episode than on a longer story arc. In other words, nothing much changes episode to episode. Bart Simpson has been in fourth grade for 20 years, for chrissake. So the pilot is not necessarily distinguishable from later episodes.

Also, animated series are often based on existing properties, like comic book or film characters, who don’t need a lot of introduction. There are some obvious exceptions to this, like Seth MacFarlane’s brain candy or earlier, Futurama (great pilot).

I couldn’t decide what animated series to start with, but then I happily discovered a little show from the creator of Scrubs, Bill Lawrence, called Clone High. There were 13 episodes, which aired during the 2002-03 season on MTV, and it still airs in Canada, according to www.clone-high.com.

It’s the first day back at a high school where all of the students are young, contemporary versions of historical figures. There’s Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte), Joan of Arc (Christa Miller, Mahatma Ghandi, John F. Kennedy (Chris Miller), Cleopatra (Nicole Sullivan), and—you gotta love this—two Elvises, one young/thin and the other old/fat. Already you know by the wackiness of the premise this show is going to be different, as well as irreverent. In the first moments we get a crude sexual joke from JFK, and a drug use bit from old/fat Elvis, and learn that Ghandi is a lech. The animation looks a bit like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends with the sharp angles and bold outlines.

Each character falls into a high school social category. JFK is a handsome jock, Abe Lincoln is a gangly nerd, Joan of Arc is a down to earth do-gooder, Cleo is the popular chick, etc. There’s a love triangle: Joan likes Abe, who likes Cleopatra. (Who wouldn’t, right?)

The principal, Dr. Scudworth is pulling the strings. He is visited by someone from the military and we learn, in case it wasn’t obvious from the title, that the students are clones. They were created by the government, though we’re not yet told why. The pricipals office comes equipped with test tubes and other mad scientist paraphernalia. And he’s nuts.

There are lots of whimsical little details, like the diner where they hang out is called the Grassy Knoll. Van Gogh calls the school suicide hotline.

The episode plot has to do with Abe supplying a keg of non-alcoholic beer for the Big Party, but it appears the real story will be the aforementioned love triangle. We’re also told that Marilyn Manson will make an appearance next week. If the pilot is any indication, this show is funny, edgy, and has plenty of room for political commentary. I’m hooked, and can’t wait to watch the remaining episodes.

Memorable line: “Hey man, Ghandi’s anti-violence, not anti-comedy.”

Lamenting Cancelled Shows

Image from Cheezburger.com

There are lots of lists floating around out there of TV shows that were cancelled before their time, but it does seem that Fox is responsible for a disproportionate number of them. Family Guy has alluded to this trend at least twice (I expect they’re already writing jokes about the cancellation of The Cleveland Show, but more on that later.) Topless Robot recently posted their list of the 20 Greatest Show Cancelled by Fox Before Their Time.

I have not seen all of the shows on the list—I don’t even remember a couple of them—but that’s part of the fun in lamenting cancelled shows. You feel a certain sense of ownership when you can say you just loved a show, and most people have never heard of it. Case in point, Wonderfalls, which ranks #7. This was a brilliant, clever, funny show by the guy behind Dead Like Me and Pushing Daises–other brilliant, cancelled shows. (Oh, Bryan Fuller, you’re so misunderstood.) Given that it only aired for four weeks before being pulled, it’s understandable that it is little remembered. There were 13 episodes filmed, though, and they are available on DVD. A post on the Wonderfalls pilot is high on my to-do list.

I have to wholeheartedly agree with Topless Robot’s # 1 and 2 picks, Firefly and Futurama, respectively. Both had fantastic pilots that pulled the viewer into a whole new world. Both lived beyond cancellation, Firefly as the film Serenity, and Futurama in a series of straight-to-DVD movies and a forthcoming reincarnation on the Cartoon Network. And any Comic-Con attendee can tell you both of these properties inspire mad loyalty from fans. So check back here in the future for posts on all three of these kickass shows.