Case Study 74: Wonder Showzen, Episode 7–“Health”

Original Airdate: April 22nd, 2005 on MTV2

Wonder Showzen was the first major TV production from PFFR, a curious alt-comedy concern that Wikipedia characterizes as a “production company/art collective/electronic rock band.” Art collectives don’t usually have TV shows, so the relative success of PFFR is notable: they’ve had five other TV shows get past the pilot stage, mostly on Adult Swim. Adult Swim has proven over the years to be the premier showcase for avant-garde, experimental comedy, with other outlets like IFC, Netflix and Comedy Central struggling to keep up. Showzen would have fit in nicely alongside Tim & Eric, Eric Andre and Scott Aukerman, not to mention the vast world of bewildering YouTube videos. I’ll leave the question of whether or not PFFR has communicated a coherent artistic message in their body of work for others to answer, but for now let’s see how an individual installment holds up.

Strengths

  • Gleefully bizarre. It’s always refreshing to see something no one else is doing, and while alt-comedy might be on the upswing now, Showzen was definitely the only place where you’d see an electric chair electrocuting a smaller electric chair, followed by a smash cut to children threatening to “tear your soul apart” while dressed as Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty and a hot dog. I have to give them points for the chutzpah to put something so insane on television. In fact, a more austere network took a hard pass on Showzen: after ordering a pilot, the USA Network called the result “immoral and antisocial.” I guess it just wasn’t up to the high standard set by La Femme Nikita.
  • Funny. Of course, all the gonzo trappings wouldn’t be worth much if this comedy show wasn’t actually funny. Thankfully, it’s hilarious. Dave Chappelle and Peter Jackson might have had the idea earlier, but Showzen is a pitch-perfect deconstruction of children’s variety programming in the vein of Sesame Street. It gets a lot of its comedic oomph out of being wildly inappropriate for children despite having a cast of child actors. If you like absurdism, you’ll also be delighted. Highlights include a character called “D.O.G. O.B.G.Y.N.,” a genius “man on the street” segment where a child dressed as Hitler asks a man in a cowboy hat whose hat represents more oppression and receives an equivocal answer, and a segment where children are asked “When is it okay to lie?” and respond with things like “Accepting Jesus on death row.” One little girl takes so long to answer that she turns into an identically-dressed old woman. The show’s humor is equal parts unrestrained silliness and pointed leftist satire, which makes for a pretty intoxicating blend, especially if you’ve been raised on The Onion.
  • Special guest star Christopher Meloni. Anyone who’s seen Wet Hot American Summer knows that Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) is capable of leveraging his stern TV persona into absurdist comedy. When you also consider his magnetic performance on Oz, you realize we may have been underestimating Meloni all along. Hopefully he isn’t typecast for all eternity as a police detective who is Taking! It! Personally! Anyway, he shows up here in a public service announcement about the profound dangers of cooties, warning you that cooties could turn your nipples into lips. Well done, Showzen. Well done.

Weaknesses

  • Gross. So the main plot of this episode involves a character named Wordsworth (John Lee) who comes down with a case of the cooties, which takes the form of a highly debilitating disease where the body is covered with oozing sores. A character named Him (Lee) then decides to make a profit by peeling off Wordsworth’s scabs and selling them as a delicious snack treat. This is hardly the only gross thing that happens, either—that dog OB/GYN segment ends in the most disgusting way imaginable. Suffice it to say that whatever you’re imagining right now, the dog segment is more disgusting than that. Among other things, a “dancing animal” segment entails close-ups of a mouse with an enormous tumor. It’s so edgy and in-your-face, man! I like to think that the art world would have held these guys to a higher standard. And, yes, that’s the same art world with Piss Christ and the Virgin Mary/elephant shit combo that got Giuliani so exercised.

Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. There’s plenty that’s deliberately alienating about this style of comedy, but I still feel tempted to binge-watch everything these people have ever made. That’s gotta count for something, right?

NEXT TIME: Get ready for another angry rant about racism as I review Kung Fu!

Case Study 74: Wonder Showzen, Episode 7–“Health”

Case Study 73: Pucca, Episode 26–“Soap Opera/The Choo-Choo Trouble/Pucca Goes Dutch”

Original Airdate: May 14th, 2007 on Toon Disney

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a huge corporation in possession of marketable intellectual property must be in want of a television cartoon. Pucca got her unlikely start in the year 2000 as a character from South Korean animated e-cards. Remember e-cards? Web culture from the turn of the century is so quaint. Much like Hello Kitty, her East Asian comrade in marketing excess, Pucca was a merchandising gimmick before narrative of any kind entered the picture. But great things can come from ignoble beginnings, and the Pucca cartoon is downright charming. It’s the product of an international collaboration between Korean creators, British producers, Canadian animators and American writers. Internationalism: first it brought you the Large Hadron Collider, and now it brings you Pucca. What’s not to love?

Strengths

  • Distinctive visual style. As we’ve seen time and again in this space, animators have a tough line to walk. Ideally they can create a cartoon whose aesthetic leaves a distinct impression. The goal is for someone to be able to take any random frame and identify the source based solely on the art. Of course, this can backfire horribly, because “distinctive” doesn’t automatically translate to “appealing.” But for Pucca, it mostly works! The characters are all about two feet high with oval heads and tiny little stubby arms with no fingers. Backgrounds are colorful and stylized without being too abstract. It’s very well done, and it has the desired effect of cheer and whimsy. Man, if Pucca is anything, it’s whimsical.
  • Original, if outlandish, stories. Cartoons are the perfect showcase for unbridled creativity. You aren’t confined to the limits of the human body and the tightly-budgeted set designer, and kids are generally more willing to accept nakedly ridiculous premises. Pucca takes full advantage of this. In the first segment, a dishwasher named Dada (Lee Tockar, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) discovers Mr. Dishy, a magic genie who lives inside a bottle of dish soap. Mr. Dishy has one very specific power: he can give Dada a makeover, complete with a stylish hairdo, a sharp suit and natty accessories. So what does he use this power for? Why, to impress a woman, of course—namely, snotty mean girl Ring Ring (Tabitha St. Germain, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.) The catch is that he loses his sleek new look the second he gets any kind of dirt, grime or stain on his duds—and there’s a limited number of uses before Mr. Dishy pops like the sentient soap bubble he is. The remaining segments are just as bizarre. In the second installment, ninja Garu (Brian Drummond, Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu) is tasked with transporting an ancient, magical urn across the country. While en route, he has to keep the urn from getting smashed by the sinister Tobe (Tockar.) The strangest story of all is the final segment. The Pucca characters are inexplicably transposed into the Netherlands, where they find themselves under attack from fiendish Belgians led by Tobe. The show doesn’t make a big deal about completely revising the setting, and I’ve gotta say, that fluidity is pretty attractive. It speaks to an inventive and flexible writer’s room. Stories this inspired can really reinvigorate tired narrative cliches—for instance, the “moral” of the dish soap segment is one we’ve heard a million times before: it’s not worth making superficial changes to impress someone who will never appreciate your true self—but everything’s better with a magical soap genie.
  • Unabashedly silly voice acting. The show earned a few belly laughs from me over the course of a half hour, but the overall feel of the cartoon’s sense of humor is greatly supported by its perennially game voice actors. Pucca (St. Germain) and Garu only speak in grunts and squeaks, but everyone else is firmly committed to deeply silly voices. Ring-Ring has a honking Brooklyn accent that rivals Harley Quinn, made all the more amusing by the fact that she’s also supposed to be some kind of Chinese wind goddess. Garu’s mentor Master Soo (Richard Newman, Beast Wars: Transformers) undercuts any whiff of Orientalism with a thick Jewish accent, complete with the occasional “Oy vey!” And you’d be surprised how much comedy St. Germain and Drummond wring out of those grunts and squeaks.
  • Humor. This helps keep the show vital just as much as the unique animation, stories and voice acting. It’s all about the little moments. Mr. Dishy describes Dada as a “sad little man with dishpan hands.” Being a soap genie, it’s only natural that Dishy would take careful note of who does and doesn’t have dishpan hands. The second segment features a couple of goofy references to Thomas the Tank Engine, including an appearance from Sir Topham Hatt* (French Tickner, Barbie in the Nutcracker.) When Hatt reprimands the engine about going too fast, it responds by discharging a cloud of hot locomotive steam right in his big ugly face. It’s Hatt’s “AUGH” that really sells it. And when those angry Belgians shoot cannons full of food at Pucca’s friends, it gives them an excuse to shout, “Look out! HERRING!” I mean, come on. Herring is a perfect comedy food.

Weaknesses

  • Sexual harassment comedy. This dates back to Pepe Le Pew and Kermit and Piggy on The Muppet Show, but it’s not cute. Pucca is forever trying to win the affections of Garu. She follows him around. She goes to great lengths to speed up the train so he can deliver the urn on time. She chases him. She tries to kiss him. You see, it’s funny because she wants to get physical with him but doesn’t have his consent. Haw haw! Do you really want your kids getting the message that doggedly pursuing someone and kissing them against their will is funny and charming? And this isn’t an incidental occurrence—it’s so central to the brand that if you do a Google search for Pucca, this is the first image you see. This is the image on the Pucca Wikia article about “Pucca and Garu’s Relationship.” Look, Pucca doesn’t talk, which is fine, but it means we have to figure out what her character is like based on the actions she takes. It’s hard to conclude that her main characteristic is anything other than “sex offender.”

*Let’s take a brief moment out of your day for a fun fact about Sir Topham Hatt. Even though his name is Sir Topham Hatt, the title of his Wikipedia page is “The Fat Controller,” a phrase that sounds like it was ripped straight out of some alarming fetish porn.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. Overall, this is pretty damn charming and I’d be happy to binge-watch Pucca with a small child any day of the week. Just couple that marathon with a stern lecture on consent and boundaries and you’ll be fine.

NEXT TIME: I’ll put aside the endless torrent of wacky cartoons in favor of a wacky alt-comedy parody of wacky kids’ programming: Wonder Showzen! As long as it’s wacky, dammit.

Case Study 73: Pucca, Episode 26–“Soap Opera/The Choo-Choo Trouble/Pucca Goes Dutch”

Case Study 72: Zoids: Chaotic Century, Episode 10–“The Mountain of Dreams”

Original Airdate: June 11th, 1999 on Tokyo Broadcasting System

It’s been almost a month! I took a break for the holidays, but I’ll tell you upfront that Zoids was terrible and the sooner I never have to think about it again the happier I’ll be. Nevertheless, I’ve been avoiding writing about it. You’ll soon understand why. The only fun thing about Zoids is saying the word “zoids.” I’ll now take a few questions from the audience.

Q: Wait, what? What is a zoid? Or zoids? I don’t even know whether or not I should be using the singular here.

A: Zoids got their start as model-kits that allow you to build plastic models of fearsome robots. They generally take the shape of quadruped animals.

Q: And this is a show of some kind?

A: Boy, is it ever! In fact, Chaotic Century is only the first installment. There are THREE OTHER SHOWS!

Q: So this is yet another media empire solely designed to give the appearance of depth to shiny toys, in the vein of Transformers, G.I. Joe, Lego Star Wars, or Max Steel?

A: Yes, but don’t hold that against Zoids, because there’s plenty of other reasons to hate it. Great things can come from questionable source material, and there’s at least one good movie based on a toy license.

Q: Didn’t you already talk about some show that had giant fighting robots?

A: Yes, but giant robots are all over the anime world, and they’re clearly not all created equal. They’re part of a genre known as “mecha,” and while sci-fi and manga about giant robots has been around basically forever, they made their first big impact on televised anime in the seventies on a show called Mazinger Z. Since then, it’s been a trope of anime in a deeply-rooted way that you don’t see much of in Western sci-fi.

Q: Why is this a thing, though?

A: This is something you might need an expert on Japanese culture to understand, because mecha-love isn’t exactly confined to the pulp margin, judging by the prevalence of giant robot statues as public art. And while thrilling robot-on-robot action in cartoons leaves me feeling pretty neutral, giant robot statues are awesome in the way only monumental architecture can be.

Q: Will you please pedantically acknowledge the distinction between robots and mecha?

A: Yeah, robots are autonomous machines but mecha have limbs and are controlled by human pilots from within. Can I start complaining now?

Strengths

You know, I was starting to think I’d never write a 0/10 review again, but we’re in luck today, folks.

Weaknesses

    • Bizarre, hideous Zoid animation. For the most part the animation here is bland and unremarkable, but whenever a Zoid does something—which happens kinda often—it calls attention to the fact that for some reason they made a decision to render them in this hideous quasi-3D style that has aged terribly and is more 90s than Smashmouth. See also: Steel, Max.
    • Terrible dubbing. Why do people do this!? It’s much easier to accept the character’s mouth movements not being in time with the dialogue than having to listen to terrible voice acting! I suppose I’m being charitable in assuming that dubbing is the problem here and that the actors are just rushing to fit the line in the three seconds that the characters’ mouths are open. It’s entirely possible they just hired wretched voice actors. See also: Mysterious Cities of Gold.
    • Not enough world-building, too much asinine, nakedly expository dialogue. There’s always a fine line to walk when it comes to making sure you’re on the same page as your audience. If people are disoriented because they don’t know what’s supposed to be happening, it means they can’t react in any kind of useful way. You can’t make a positive impression on a viewer if they can’t clear the entry barrier. You also don’t want to insult your viewer’s intelligence and ruin subtle moments by stating the obvious. No attempt is made to explain the nature of Zoids, or the fact that the show is set in a distant galaxy, or what happened in a recent war. The show isn’t particularly inclined to elaborate on its unusual setting, which is weird, because it’s doing all the work of establishing a new setting. The model-kits didn’t come with any kind of narrative, so it’s more or less a blank, mech-filled slate, and yet the setting makes zero impression because it gets no love from the writers. Instead we get moments like when our hero Van (Matthew Erickson, Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch) encounters a mad scientist named Dr. D (Dave Pettitt, Highway Thru Hell). D is frozen inside a giant person-sized ice crystal. Van announces, “He’s frozen!” Yep. He sure is. So glad we spent a line of dialogue establishing the infuriatingly obvious instead of doing or saying anything remotely interesting.
    • Missed opportunities for interesting action scenes. Presumably the only reason you’d watch this is because you want to watch exciting robot battles. For an action show about Zoids, this episode’s Zoid exposure level proves surprisingly scanty. The highlight is a set piece where Dr. D lures Van and charismatic bad boy Irvine (Mark Gatha, Mobile Fighter G Gundam) into a minefield full of a dormant scorpion army dedicated to protecting what was once a military supply post. This could be a great scene: our heroes are outnumbered and surrounded by medium-size enemies that could press their advantage by coming in fast and hard. Van and Irvine’s Zoids are powerful, but bulky and with no short-range protections. How would this fight go? We’ll never know, because it’s quickly set aside so we can hear more about the wacky old scientist. Normally I’d prefer prioritizing story over exciting robot battle action, but this is a particularly dumb story.
    • Forced sentimentality. Dr. D’s grand quest is to use mad science to make it snow in the otherwise warm climate where we lay our scene. He’s determined to recreate a treasured childhood memory. After some initial friction, everyone starts working together to help the weird old man control the weather. It looks like that’s impossible and kind of stupid, but WAIT! It snows after all! But here comes the surprise twist—D’s technology wasn’t responsible. The power of belief, or love, or community, or some other nonsense like that, is REALLY what made it snow. Sickeningly sweet and totally vacant. Zoids is absolutely brazen about the fact that this meaningless little interlude has nothing at all to do with the overarching plot—Van and Irvine think that D has information about the MacGuffin, but he only pretended to because he’s a manipulative dick. Hooray!
    • The premise of this show makes no sense. The emotional heart of the show is Van’s relationship with Zeke. Zeke is a very special kind of zoid called an “organoid.” Zeke looks like a person-sized T-Rex and acts more like a Pokemon than the other robots. Look, gluing giant robots to collectible monsters doesn’t actually constitute a new idea, much like duct-taping a dildo to a banana isn’t something you can patent. The most distinctive thing about the zoids is that they’re shaped like large mammals. Why? Who knows. Does this have any practical implications? Not really. So why watch Zoids instead of the millions of other mecha shows? Well…

Final Judgment: 0/10. What a colossal waste of time. If anything, it’s more evidence that animation tends to extremes: it encompasses some of the best shows on television and more than its fair share of the worst.

NEXT TIME: Another important lesson: I’ll never run out of weird cartoons. I review the cutesy South Korean animation hit Pucca!

Case Study 72: Zoids: Chaotic Century, Episode 10–“The Mountain of Dreams”