Abed’s Master Key

In case we weren’t already excited enough about the return of Community on March 15, the fine folks at NBC have decided to whet our whistle with some animated shorts. The obvious question: Why didn’t they think of this a long time ago? That animated holiday special in 2010 (has it been that long?) rocked.

The pilot episode of Abed’s Master Key is only a precious minute and 56 seconds long, but to fans so long deprived of a meal, these are succulent little crumbs. The episode just gives us a quick look at all of the main characters–the study group and Dean Pelton–hanging out in their usual spot, the study room that has seen everything from a zombie uprising to some Jeff-Britta coitus. Continue reading

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Archer

You can literally blink and miss things in this pilot*. Watch it twice. Or three times. First just let the absurdity of the situation wash over you, then go back and soak up all the sight gags and the often casually tossed-off hilarious dialogue. Then absorb the animation; it’s amazing, with remarkable depth of field and subtlety of facial expressions. In the scene where Archer is eating breakfast, pause it and just look at the detail of the food on the table; it’s gorgeous.

The first moments of the pilot give you the idea you’re watching something really dark. Our hero, Sterling Archer/code name Duchess (H. Jon Benjamin), is about to be tortured for information by an old guy with a vaguely Russian accent and a golf cart battery. But the female face that appears on the far side of the observation window looks far more intimidating.

Thus we have our set-up. Archer is a super spy who works for his mom (Jessica Walter). As evidenced by their first scene together, they’re a solidly matched in toughness, narcissism, and vitriol.

Acher’s uniqueness is its successful mash up of spy action with workplace comedy. It’s like if the chick from Alias went to work at Dunder Mifflin. At ISIS, we get pithy axioms like, “When your co-workers put food in the refrigerator, that’s a bond of trust.” They worry about expense accounts and break room etiquette.

Natch, there’s intra-office schtuping. Archer used to date machine gun-toting uber-bombshell Lana (Aisha Tyler). They broke up over–you guessed it–his mommy issues. This woman scorned is now with Cyril (Chris Parnell), who has no earthly business dating the likes of her. He is so painfully dull that his scene with Archer is literally the only boring moment of the episode.

Archer is sleeping with the secretary, Cheryl or Carol. He can’t get her name right. Remember that–the joke lasts beyond this episode.

Archer pretends he thinks there’s a mole in the office, as a ploy to gain access to the ISIS mainframe. When he is forced to break in, he reveals how painfully inadequate the company’s security is. It turns out there is a mole in the office and he is only caught by complete accident.

This thing is just packed with oddball lines ranging from the unexplained “that thing with the mayonnaise” to the twice-used “Johnny Bench called.” (Look it up. I had to.)

The pilot gives a taste of what every episode will be about; It’s not that the agents are complete bumbling idiots. That would be too easy. They’re totally cool and skilled, it’s just that their extreme self-interest blinds them to half the stuff going on around them. And they hate each other, but it’s as a team that they somehow win the day.

And, whether Archer loves his mother or hates her, he does so too strongly to be healthy. At any rate, they’re eerily alike from their piercing blue eyes, revealed in the pilot’s first moments, to their peculiar vehemence about ants, revealed in the last.

*This is actually episode 1.1, “Mole Hunt.” There is an unaired pilot available on DVD through Amazon.

Project G.e.e.K.e.R.

You’d be forgiven for having never heard of Project G.e.e.K.e.r., an animated sci-fi series that aired for just three months in 1996. And, you wouldn’t be crazy for thinking that the protagonist kinda looks like a worm; or that he sounds an awful lot like Philip J. Fry. Actually, the only two reasons worth watching this little show are that Doug TenNapel of Earthworm Jim fame created it and Billy West voices Geeker.

The animation is after school quality. After school in the mid-90s quality. We didn’t demand much from our animated series until later in the decade when we started to see more of it in prime time, with shows like Futurama and King of the Hill. Futurama fans watching Project Geeker today may get a brief second of déjà vu; both pilots open with a voiceover by the main character (played by the same dude, you remember) pontificating, “The future…” before explaining things to the audience. (Of course, in Futurama, it’s a goof, as it turns out that Fry is explaining a video game. Have I mentioned that Futurama rocks?)

As with a lot of kids’ shows—I’m assuming kids were the target audience—the premise is explained fully in the opening so the pilot could just as well be any random episode. The plot of this one doesn’t matter. Something about a destruct sequence. The overall plot of the series is that an evil genius, Moloch (Jim Cummings, most recently of Gnomeo and Juliet), is trying to track down the AI he created. The AI is Geeker, or Project GKR, and he wasn’t quite fully baked when he was stolen. Now he is in the hands of a voluptuous cyborg whom he calls Becky but who calls herself Lady MacBeth (Cree Summer, of a million different projects including Dragon Age: Origins). Brad Garrett, who I didn’t even realize has done a ton of animation, plays a big talking Tyrannosaurus who hangs out with them. The trio runs around trying to escape the reach of Moloch, while Geeker shape-changes, getting them in and out of various scrapes.

What else can I say? It’s a kids’ show. There’s a lot of noise and color and predictable jokes. The bad guy talks like a Bond villain. Geeker is kind of loveable, though. He’s one of those unlikely heroes who succeeds by screwing up. Kind of like Jar-Jar Binks. Wait, I said loveable. I don’t know, it’s a weird show. In prime time it could have been edgier and echoed the brilliance of the original Earthworm Jim game.

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 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.”

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.”