Original Airdate: December 15th, 2012 on Nickelodeon
Everyone loves a good fish-out-of-water story, so the “mild-mannered humans hide a secret space alien” trope is one we’re apparently destined to return to again and again. Every generation has its own version of this: My Favorite Martian. Mork & Mindy. ALF. When I was in my teens, I got to personally witness the straight-faced dramatic interpretation, Kyle XY. By now, those returns have aggressively diminished into the form of Marvin Marvin. Instead of Robin Williams, we have the equally manic and overbearing YouTube celebrity Lucas Cruikshank (Fred: The Movie.) Cruikshank is one of legions of teenagers and young adults who have become the Tiger Beat set for the 21st century while you weren’t looking. The reason you weren’t looking is because this all happening on YouTube, whereas you can’t even keep up with The Americans and Transparent. No shade intended: you probably also don’t listen to One Direction records, either. Teenyboppers gonna bop. But Cruikshank briefly was able to translate his YouTube success to actual TV shows and feature films centered on his character Fred, who is meant to be an obnoxious six year old. If you’re like me, obnoxiousness is not one of the traits you look for among the fictional characters to spend your vanishingly rare leisure time with, and many adults did not find Fred especially endearing. Nevertheless, Nickelodeon gave Cruikshank another show, one that the usually fannish TVTropes notes “gained negative reviews from critics and viewers alike.” Marvin ended after one season and Cruikshank was shown the door by Nickelodeon. It may or may not be a coincidence that he came out of the closet shortly thereafter. The queer leftist in me wants to make the case that he’s gotten blackballed because of his sexuality, but the TV critic in me looks at this show and has some real fucking doubts, let me tell you.
- Decent child actors. Let’s give some credit where credit is due, here. Usually child actors are terrible, as the Mary-Kates and Beavers of this world can attest. It would seem that the people doing the casting at Nick managed to avoid this pitfall. Marvin the alien’s host family includes a young son named Henry (Jacob Bertrand, Rise of the Guardians,) who is very believable as the scheming younger brother, and while his sister Teri (Victory Van Tuyl, Magic In The Forest) is played unremarkably by Van Tuyl, Teri’s friend Brianna (Camille Spirlin) is also a treat. Marvin is a comedy with absolutely no funny moments, but Bertrand and Spirlin come closest to successfully selling ice cubes in a volcano, especially when compared with the adults in the cast, who miserably phone it in and mentally update their resumes as they watch the sword of cancellation dangle above. Kids are just more innocent, I guess. Falling somewhere between is Cruikshank. His performance is the same one-note hyperactivity you can see in any of his videos, but his energy could theoretically work with even remotely amusing material. It’s a shame the writing is so terrible, because “high-energy, goofy space alien” is the role he was born to play. Most normal sitcoms would require too much range and depth, but this could have been his sweet spot.
- Dreadfully unfunny. Generation War was funnier than this. Hopefully, we can find something instructive in its profound lack of humor, though. You see, all of the alleged merriment stems from that classic staple of comedy, the Wacky Misunderstanding. Hey, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, Neil Simon AND Three’s Company, it should be good enough for me, right? Well…Good comedy can come from lots of places. Observation. Commentary. Strong characterization. Slapstick. Absurdism. Sheer novelty & originality. And, yes, sometimes comedy can arise out of a wacky situation. Without those, we wouldn’t have “situation comedies.” But the wacky situation can’t be so wacky that it takes us out of the action entirely, and that line is already getting pushed with the whole undercover space alien premise. The wacky misunderstanding we’re confronted with here involves Marvin learning what an expiration date is, seeing an expiration date on the driver’s license of Henry and Teri’s grandfather Pop-Pop (Casey Sander, Grace Under Fire) and assuming that Pop-Pop will get moldy and have to be discarded. Because Pop-Pop is an asshole, he takes advantage of Marvin’s confusion and extracts favors and free labor accordingly. Because this is Marvin Marvin, no comedic dividends are forthcoming. (Sample: Pop-Pop makes Marvin cart him around in a rickshaw. “I always wanted to see the top of that mountain.” Hilarity, thy name is Pop-Pop.) But I wonder if there’s any possibility that this tired-ass setup could ever have been funny. It’s possible that all those other sitcoms I mentioned already extracted the meagre laughs available from this dumb premise. Maybe they could have leaned harder on “expiration as death” and had Marvin start digging a grave? Or some kind of Logan’s Run thing? Or maybe the writers of Marvin Marvin were just doomed from the start. The really crazy thing is that this is only one of three Wacky Misunderstandings in this episode. Teri and Brianna get romantically involved with a pair of twins and everyone ends up covered in purple paint. Look, just because Shakespeare did it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for basic cable. The third misunderstanding comes into being when Marvin realizes what Pop-Pop is up to and devises a revenge scheme whereby he tricks Pop-Pop into thinking he’s brought Marvin to death’s door, with the payoff being that Pop-Pop drinks a milkshake made of disgusting foods. This show makes a New Yorker cartoon look like a George Carlin routine.
- Out-of-touch. There’s just one example of this, but it’s gratuitous. Teri and Brianna approach Henry to help them devise a scheme to get back at those two-timing twins (Josh & Caleb Pryer, Future Problems.) Henry will help, but his fee is “$20 in arcade tokens.” Whaaat? He explains that “They’re untraceable! And because I’m a kid.” Yeah, a kid in 1985, apparently. I like to imagine that this was a Bitcoin joke in the original draft. It wouldn’t be any funnier, but at least it wouldn’t have unmasked the writers as childless fifty-somethings. Did they transfer over from Grace with Casey Sander?
Final Judgment: 2/10. It was certainly a joyless 22 minutes, but it wasn’t an active affront to the senses, so it’s not quite eligible for the Hall of Infamy. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too nice.
NEXT TIME: I continue my coverage of space aliens by reviewing Roswell!