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”

Case Study 71: Mother Up, Episode 3–“Double D Moms”

Original Airdate: November 13th, 2013 on Hulu

Thanks to Netflix, it’s become de rigueur for streaming services to produce their own original programming, and Netflix hasn’t made it easy on its competitors, churning out critically-acclaimed hits like Orange is the New Black and Master of None. Amazon Prime comes in at a distant second for original fare, most notably due to the success of Transparent. But whither Hulu? If Amazon Prime is lagging behind, Hulu has died of a heart attack and is slowly decomposing in a heap somewhere. They had exactly zero shows in AV Club’s top 40 last year and the only Emmy nomination they received was for an election special helmed by the timeless and relevant Triumph, the Insult Comedy Dog. Honestly, the highlight might very well be The Wrong Mans. A network in this position is going to desperately try all kinds of crazy things in the search for the next big hit, including giving Eva Longoria money to star in an “edgy” animated sitcom described in Variety as being like “Family Guy for women.” Gulp.

Strengths

  • Periodically funny. If that sounds like I’m damning Mother with faint praise, it’s because I am. But it’s better than a joyless slog! Most of the jokes that work in this episode center around the near-critical levels of self-centeredness displayed by our protagonist, Rudi Wilson (Longoria, Desperate Housewives.) Here, Rudi tries to get her friend Sarah (Gabrielle Miller, Corner Gas) to loosen up, but after her first day-drinking bender, Sarah professes a desire to “buy drugs, burn things down and hurt people! Hurt them so much!” Without so much as a pause, Rudi cheerfully replies, “Okay! See ya tomorrow.” We get more along these lines from the episode’s subplot, which has Rudi’s ten-year-old son Dick (Jesse Camacho, Less Than Kind) unwittingly imprisoned when he tries to get close to an incarcerated father figure. The prison figures out their mistake before Rudi realizes Dick’s gone. This is exacerbated when she mistakes Sarah’s son for her own. Sarah corrects her, only to get a brusque “I don’t think so.”
  • Breaking up a boy’s club. Look, there’s no good reason for anyone to try and bring more versions of Family Guy into the world. Seth MacFarlane is a cancerous growth on the taint of comedy. But there’s something to be said for an animated series where the morally deficient and hijinks-prone protagonist is a woman, unlike MacFarlane’s crap, or The Simpsons, or Futurama, or Bojack Horseman, or Archer, or that shitty Bill Burr vehicle on Netflix. And many of the other characters are tightass suburban moms! Sure, it may be a hoary cliche to make fun of soccer moms, but at least we’re dealing with a story by and about women. Of course, passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t guarantee quality in and of itself—but Leslie Knope would be proud.
  • Turning around a derivative storyline. South Park famously lampshaded their own piss-poor creative skills by making a big deal about how The Simpsons had supposedly already tackled every good storyline, and Mother had me ready to compare Rudi and Sarah to Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders in Las Vegas. While Mother does retain the device of the milquetoast character going way too far in their indulgence, Rudi proves to be an unlikely voice of reason and moderation. She ultimately brings Sarah back from the edge of total insanity, though she still has to engage in some kind of death-match with cobra venom coursing through her veins. You know, edgy, etc. But this is promising. Rudi reluctantly stepping in to do the right thing shows the possibility of a well-rounded character who isn’t just wacky for wackiness’ sake. Of course, Mother didn’t survive past 13 episodes, so it was all a big waste of everyone’s time.

Weaknesses

  • Tasteless. This is my big problem with “edgy.” “Edgy” could mean that something is interesting, experimental, attempting the never-before-seen. Unfortunately, it usually means “let’s see if we can get away with jokes about children masturbating in public and giving their bullies blood-borne hepatitis.” It can be hard to draw the line between jokes about negligent parenting that play on our insights and observations of the characters and jokes that are just supposed to shock us into laughs of discomfort, because normally people frown on child endangerment. But this is a constant challenge for comedies relying on despicable characters—when do we stop laughing at them and start laughing at their victims?
  • Unlikable protagonist. The protagonists of those male-driven animated comedies I listed above all exist on some continuity between well-intentioned idiocy and petty maliciousness. The further you get down that continuum, the more you’re forced to appreciate the show in spite of its hero, in the spirit of Archer. Mother Up was always going to struggle, but the fact that Rudi’s an asshole doesn’t help. I’ve never understood the TV writer’s penchant for assholes. Don’t we already have enough assholes in our day to day lives?

Final Judgment: 6/10. It’s not very good, but it’s head and shoulders above Family Guy. Have I mentioned how much I fucking hate Family Guy?

NEXT TIME: Hey, I liked it when Gundam had giant flying death robots, so I’m sure every anime with giant flying death robots is also awesome, right? RIGHT?! I review Zoids: Chaotic Century!

Case Study 71: Mother Up, Episode 3–“Double D Moms”

Case Study 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Original Airdate: December 14th, 1980 on CBS

Previously in this space we’ve discussed Norman Lear’s groundbreaking classic All in the Family. At the time I pointed out that Family was just the beginning of a cottage industry of sitcoms unafraid to probe political issues across racial, class and gender divides. He made sitcoms about working class white conservatives, rich white liberals, black families with newfound wealth and black families in the inner city. His next idea was to turn his attention to the newly relevant phenomena of single parent households—by 1980 nearly 20% of American children lived in such homes. This led to One Day at a Time, a sitcom about a divorcee raising two teenage girls. Lear had struck gold—Time was a huge hit and eventually ran for nine seasons. Some TV executive out there still thinks the show is relevant, because apparently it’s slated for a Gilmore Girls-esque reboot on Netflix. But is the original worth your time?

Strengths

  • Serious plot. This is one of the things that was refreshing about Lear—he wasn’t afraid to have a comedy deal with serious issues, even if that meant sacrificing opportunities for laughs. His legacy lives on in modern-day comedies like Transparent that relentlessly probe contemporary society while still managing to be funny, to the point where the legitimacy of that show’s Emmy nomination category is endlessly debated. In this episode, we have the protagonist’s mother, Katherine Romano (Nanette Fabray, The Band Wagon) trying to get back on the dating market in light of her husband’s recent death. It wouldn’t be a Lear sitcom if Katherine wasn’t treated as a sensitive, human subject.

Weaknesses

  • Missed opportunities. The problem is that the show doesn’t do anything interesting with what could have been really juicy material. After she makes a pass at wacky neighbor figure Schneider (Pat Harrington Jr.), he turns her down. He consoles her by telling her that now’s her chance to be alone and find out who she REALLY is on the inside. That’s it. That’s the whole show. Now I’m not saying that her self-actualization wouldn’t be interesting, but that’s not what we’re getting here. Instead, we get to watch her get prompted towards self-actualization with no payoff. This is a great example of where the writers could have followed the golden rule of improv: accept the premise provided by the script and expand on it, instead of shutting it down and trying to go in another direction. Why not let Katherine and Schneider have an affair? There’s several different ways that could go. Maybe Katherine’s daughter Ann (Bonnie Franklin) is grossed out by her mom’s newfound sexuality and has to come to terms with that. Maybe Katherine thinks Schneider is more serious than he is and winds up lovelorn. Maybe they discover a problematic incompatibility. Maybe she realizes she’s not really done grieving her late husband. Instead, we’re just teased with the possibility of what could have been.
  • Nanette Fabray. Fabray’s Katherine might be fine as a comedic foil for Franklin’s Ann, but she struggles to stand on her own as the centerpiece of this episode. She’s dealing with complicated emotions like loss, heartbreak and despair. She flirts, she dances, she’s meant to come across as vivacious, but by the end of the episode she’s proclaiming that she’s got nothing to live for. Fabray doesn’t have the range for this and comes across like a stiff product of mid-century vaudeville and musical theater.
  • Primitivist joke. Primitivism is a term most frequently associated with art, but it’s a useful shorthand for a variety of racist thinking not too distantly related to Orientalism. If Orientalism exaggerates and exoticizes Arabs and Asians under the guise of an artistic sensibility, Primitivism does much the same for people living in Latin America and Africa. It casts these people as savage barbarians who are nonetheless spiritually connected to the earth and primal forces of sexuality and magic. It’s one tool out of many that white viewers use to distance themselves from everyone else. Here, it’s deployed in the service of a profoundly stupid joke: Schneider tells an anecdote about dating a “Mayan lass” in the Yucatan who couldn’t participate in a human sacrifice ritual because, thanks to Schneider, she was no longer a virgin. Now, some seven million people still describe themselves as Mayan in the 21st century, and before the Spanish conquest the historical Mayans practiced human sacrifice. Of course, that stopped in the 17th century and no one was throwing virgins down wells in the first place, so this joke isn’t just offensive, it makes no fucking sense in light of the show’s otherwise studied realism. Is it really worth being racist to make another dumb joke about how Schneider is slutty?

Final Judgment: 3/10. Norman Lear’s work is always interesting, but this is not the best specimen. Hopefully Netflix can rehabilitate this apparently beloved IP for the 21st century.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that Eva Longoria had an original animated series for adults on Hulu? Come back next time as I review the unfortunately named Mother Up!

Case Study 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”

Original Airdate: February 7th, 2015 on Starz

First things first—I’m sorry it took me so long to get this review posted! Black Sails is exactly the kind of super-plotty serialized drama that’s the most difficult to cover in this space, although of course super-plotty serialized dramas are hotter than ever. Yes, I watched each and every minute of the first eleven episodes of Black Sails and I came out the other side with only a few cutlass wounds and a venereal disease to show for it. I also found that it wasn’t exactly the kind of show that lent itself to binging. If I’m going to watch eleven hours of nautical-terrorism-themed chess I’m certainly not going to make them consecutive hours. Anyway, Sails is an attempt by Starz to keep producing questionably relevant “historical” dramas after Spartacus: Blood and Sand went off the air in 2013. It’s also an attempt to get anyone to care about a Starz original series. It’s looking like it didn’t succeed: at the end of this season Sails is getting put in dry dock. For those of you wondering—no, this is not the pirate show with John Malkovich. That would be the hastily cancelled NBC vehicle Crossbones. One more fun fact before we get into the pros and cons: Sails is part of the Treasure Island Universe! Yes, everything has a universe now, even 19th century novels. What this means in practice is that three of the characters can be found in the novel. On the other hand, an equal number of characters are based on actual pirates with varying degrees of legitimacy in the historical record, so this all amounts to a definite sense that no one involved is taking either history or Robert Louis Stevenson too seriously.

Strengths

  • Intricate power struggles. This may be the main reason why people watch plot-heavy prestige dramas, and Sails certainly delivers. Everybody’s got an angle. The overarching plot of these episodes concerns the efforts of a crew of pirates led by one Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) to haul in the Score Of The Century. The big problem with that is that Flint is by turns secretive and murderous and is constantly finding himself in danger of mutiny or worse. It also means that people who aren’t on his crew have a hard time trusting him. Here, he butts heads with the bloodthirsty Charles Vane (Zach McGowan.) Vane has recently taken control over the fort protecting the pirate haven of New Providence Island, but for the moment he’s more preoccupied by a pissing contest with the even more bloodthirsty Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy, Alexander.) Why should Vane care about Low? Well, Low’s creating problems for the island’s chief fence of stolen treasure, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and Vane’s still carrying a torch for her. Speaking of old flames, Flint also has a semi-secret lover: seemingly respectable lady about town Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes.) She isn’t so interested in the Score Of The Century. Instead, she wants Flint to go straight and beg for acceptance back into polite society. Barlow also helped Guthrie’s well-connected father go into hiding, and here we see Eleanor negotiate with Barlow to try and salvage some of her father’s few remaining relationships. Then there’s the trio of Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz,) Anne Bonny (Clara Paget, Fast & Furious 6) and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy.) They’re currently managing a whorehouse and personal romantic entanglements, but you know what they’d rather be doing? Finding the Score Of The Century. Vane extracts information about Low from Max in return for repairing Rackham’s reputation. It’s certainly fun to watch all the gears turn and there’s genuine suspense in wondering who’ll come out on top and how. The only downside is that all the Machiavellian machinations can take the place of actual substance. But if you want a complicated plot? They’ve got a complicated plot. It may be a little unfair to say the show elides substance entirely. You could make the case that all this is an extended lesson on how to fail or succeed at leadership. Flint has an instinct for tactics but struggles to manage his crew effectively. John Silver (Luke Arnold) Is charismatic and manages to ingratiate himself with a wide array of parties, but circumstance is frequently weighted against him. (Of course, we all know that Silver will eventually be a big success, so in some ways Sails is really all about his rise to power.) Eleanor is apparently supposed to be about 19, which is a big fucking stretch, but nevertheless, hers is a story about a young woman struggling to hold onto power in an old man’s world. And of course, Vane and Low rule by dint of force. However, this isn’t a theme explored in this episode explicitly but rather in the series as a whole, and more pointedly elsewhere at that.
  • Action! Michael Bay is an EP on Sails so it was easy to predict that it would feature thrills, chills and/or spills. In this episode they’re parcelled out sparingly but to great effect. Both moments involve Vane—when we first see him, he’s engaging in a swordfight with a crew member for practice and so we the viewer can enjoy a swordfight. This is just an appetizer, though. The big climax has him straight-up decapitating Low after some close-quarters combat. Anyone coming into a pirate drama is going to be expecting cutlasses and cannonballs, and while there’s more to be found elsewhere in the series, there’s also more to come: the cliffhanger has us poised for a violent confrontation between Flint’s men and Vane’s.

Weaknesses

  • Pointless, parsimonious flashbacks. This season has us spending part of our time watching Flint’s backstory in London slowly, slowly unfold. Once upon a time not long ago, Flint was a Royal Navy Lieutenant assigned to a special project with the goal of rooting out piracy in the West Indies. Instead, he ran off with his boss’s wife, aka Mrs. Barlow. This is all well and good, but I take exception to the structure. Each episode in season two, we’re treated to one or two scenes of his old life. This might be okay if they were thematically relevant, but there are no real themes here. Instead we’re getting a slow drip of something not all that interesting. If we must get the long version of Flint’s origin story, why not put it all in one episode, where we could actually get immersed instead of just getting jerked around between the exciting events of the present day and the tangentially relevant recent past?
  • Gratuitous girl on girl action. If there’s one thing pirate ships full of sweaty, lonely, drunken men are known for, it’s lesbian sex. Look, I’m always glad to see queer characters on television, but I don’t think the pairings between Eleanor and Max or Max and Anne are intended for queer audiences. Every episode of this show involves bare breasts. Many episodes feature the sight of a mons pubis. Sure, pirates aren’t famous for their decorum, but if there’s going to be a bacchanal, let’s make it equal opportunity, hm? We managed to go eleven episodes without any men having sex with men, but three out of the four female characters have gotten down with each other. Many scenes are set at the brothel run by Anne, Jack and Max, but the conspicuous naked women are never accompanying naked men. Apparently, later this season we learn that Flint fucked both Barlow and her husband. Good progress! Unfortunately, it’s still a demerit from this episode.
  • Solving problems with sex. Look, I understand the temptation. It ties up plot threads and we get to see boobs, because those are so hard to find pictures of in 2016. But it makes otherwise powerful characters like Eleanor seem flighty when she’ll throw down her convictions and best judgment to hop onto Vane’s dick just because he chopped off somebody’s head, and if Jack, Anne and Max are going to form a happy little triad, what was the point of setting up a love triangle between the two of them in the first place? All I’m trying to say here is if you’re going to take away time from sword-fights and manipulation, it had better be for either meaningful character development or thematic richness, not so I can watch every single woman on this show make orgasm faces.

Final Judgment: 7/10. Sure, it’s fun while it’s happening, but when you take a step back it’s pretty unfocused. Where is all this leading and why should I care? In the first few episodes of this show, it seemed like they wanted to develop a story about pirates on the margins of the world stage staking a claim to legitimate statehood. That really could be a fascinating story. Instead, it feels like we got caught up in an endless power struggle. It’s satisfying in some ways, but these are ultimately empty calories.

NEXT TIME: I return to the collected works of Norman Lear as I review One Day At A Time!

Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”

Case Study 68: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere–“Episode 3”

Original Airdate: November 26th, 2004 on Channel Four

He’s not well-known in the US, but in Britain Peter Kay is a bona fide comedy star. His 2010 stand-up comedy tour holds the Guinness World Record as the most successful comedy tour of all time, with 1.2 million tickets sold, and he’s been the star of a staggering amount of television shows and specials, although since this is Britain we’re talking about, his total amount of air time is still dwarfed by something like Everybody Loves Raymond. Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere is a spinoff of Phoenix Nights, a sitcom about a working men’s club in Northern England. In the final episode of Phoenix, the club’s doormen go on the run in an RV after a wacky misadventure. If there’s one thing TV loves, it’s a wacky misadventure, so they continue apace in Nowhere.

Strengths

  • Peter Kay as Max. The show isn’t riotously funny, but I can understand why Peter Kay’s career has been such a success. Almost all of the laughs come from his portrayal of Max, a bumbling and oafish but well-intentioned lowlife. It’s the little things that do it—the affection when he calls Paddy a “melon,” the indignant squawks of “How dare you!?,” and the gormless look on his face when everything goes wrong. This episode contains an inexplicably serious storyline, and Kay does credibly well with the dramatic fare. At one point Max straight-up launches into song, and Kay’s singing voice isn’t bad! For Kay, it’s quite a tour de force for a 22 minute sitcom.
  • Restrained and reasonably sensitive portrayal of dwarfism. This episode deals with Max running into his ex-girlfriend Tina (Lisa Hammond,) and she’s a little person. For a show with a distinctly vulgar sensibility, this isn’t played for laughs. No one feels the need to remark upon it and there are arguably no jokes at her expense. I say arguably because at one point Tina tells Max that she’s secretly given birth to his child. Max blurts out, “How tall is he?” He quickly corrects himself. I think this is really more of a joke about Max being a dumbass, but I also don’t have dwarfism or, indeed, any physical disability, so feel free to contact me and tell me if you feel differently about this exchange or Tina’s portrayal in general. Either way, it’s a damn sight better than Life’s Too Short.

Weaknesses

  • Crass. It tells you something about a show’s sense of humor when the very first thing that happens in a given episode is someone farting. Shortly thereafter, Max accidentally soaks a traffic cop with a bucket of urine. Later, a party-goer sings an angry song about being pressured into a vasectomy. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I don’t love this kind of humor. I prefer it when comedy reflects psychological, social and cultural foibles, or when it’s just flat-out absurdist surrealism. Everyone farts. Regardless of what Louis CK says, it’s not intrinsically funny. The piss joke is a little better because the director employs the classic comedy technique of conveying the awful situation (the piss-soaked bobby) and cutting away before we see the fallout.
  • Gay panic. I watched two episodes of this show and they both feature jokes about the protagonists cringing as people confuse them for lovers. Wikipedia tells me that this is also a central plot point in a third episode. Look, this wasn’t funny when it happened 9 million times on Friends and it’s not funny now. Maybe you could make a mealy-mouthed argument similar to the one I just made about Tina and say this is really a joke about their insecurity in their masculinity, but I’d just rather not have to spend the time making excuses.
  • Attempt at serious dramatic storytelling. The two episodes I watched were a study in contrasts. One was a shaggy dog story about trying to steal a plasma TV, and the other was about Max coming to terms with the fact that his ex has moved on—despite the fact that she secretly had his baby. It’s not a felicitous marriage of sitcom and soap opera. It doesn’t help when the show doubles down on this with a maudlin scene featuring Max singing the entirety of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” while giving Tina pointed looks. I mean, she could have left the room after the first verse. That would have given us more time for actual jokes. There is eventually a high comic resolution to this story when Max and Paddy abduct a school bus full of children in an effort to get closer to Max’s newfound son. Of course, the kid isn’t even on that particular bus. I’m not sure that’s worth trying to get the viewer invested in Max’s love life, though.

Final Judgment: 5/10. It turns out there’s a reason Nowhere fever hasn’t spread around the globe.

NEXT TIME: On the one hand: Pirates! On the other hand: A Starz original series…I review Black Sails.

Case Study 68: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere–“Episode 3”