Original Airdate: November 9th, 2016 on CBBC
Aardman Animations had been cranking out stop-motion claymation cartoons since the 1970s—you may recognize their work with Peter Gabriel—but they only really hit the big time when director Nick Park’s short film Creature Comforts won an Oscar. That same year saw the debut of A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit at the Bristol Animation Festival. This was the beginning of a franchise of lucrative and beloved Wallace and Gromit cartoons, including a feature-length film in 2005. Aardman also brought us the classic kids movie Chicken Run, and, yes, a movie based on Shaun the Sheep. Shaun first appeared in A Close Shave, a Wallace and Gromit adventure that won an Oscar of its own in 1996. Aardman is like the Pixar of Plasticine, except they’ve been out in these streets for a hell of a lot longer than John Lasseter and company. Since 2007, Aardman’s been cranking out scads of 7-minute cartoons about Shaun for the BBC’s children’s programming channel. How does it compare to other animated short subjects?
- Animation style. Okay, the aesthetics haven’t changed much since Comforts, but the animation looks better than ever. One of these shorts entails more than 10,000 individual frames, which means hours and hours of painstaking work, and the folks at Aardman didn’t skimp on the details. You can never see the strings here and it’s surprisingly easy to disappear into the pastoral world of Shaun despite the admittedly distinctive array of bulbous heads, thick brows, gapped teeth and ridiculously huge noses on dogs.
- Cute. So anything with dogs and other domestic animals gets brownie points from me right out of the gate, but this is one of those purportedly comic affairs where the comedy comes from the most gentle of observations and decidedly sedate hijinks. This short involves an escaped convict posing as a sheep to avoid scrutiny from the police. He walks on all fours and uses pilfered socks to imitate the black ears of a sheep and it looks pretty silly. A small child might find the whole enterprise intrinsically amusing for this reason.
- Dialogue-free. It’s an interesting move by the people at Aardman to have each episode of Shaun offer a soundtrack with music, sound effects and absolutely no talking. Sure, there’s baa-ing, and barking, and grunting, all of which makes perfect sense if the protagonists are sheep and dogs. Strangely, even the humans don’t speak, though they emote in a kind of nonsense language akin to the dialogue voiced by the characters in The Sims. This makes the show more accessible for international audiences or for pre-verbal children, and it’s a welcome change of pace from the hackneyed or too-clever-by-half dialogue that pours out of lesser children’s fare. Of course, there are trade-offs…
- Insubstantial, even for something seven minutes long. There’s not a lot happening here in terms of story. A jailbird escapes to the farm, poses as a sheep and gives himself up when he realizes that the nameless farmer might eventually kill him for food. Of course, the farmer isn’t going to kill anyone—I feel fairly confident that this is the kind of farm where sheep are only used for wool—but the convict doesn’t know that. You could get a lot of comedy and story out in seven minutes, but it looks like Shaun doesn’t have that kind of stamina 143 episodes in, if it ever did.
Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. It’s light-hearted, sweet and very hard to dislike, but it’s also not very memorable and it doesn’t have much of the distinctive wit that made Comforts and Wallace & Gromit so successful.
NEXT TIME: Did you know that The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three separate spin-offs? Did you know that these include a wildly successful drama starring Ed Asner, pictured here trapped deep inside the uncanny valley? That’s right, baby—come back later for Lou Grant! It won 13 Emmys!
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.
- 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.
- 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!
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?
- 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.
- 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!
Original Airdate: October 9th, 1976 on ABC
Out of all the entities in the intellectual property storehouse of Hanna-Barbera, the crime-solving Great Dane named Scooby-Doo has had the most staying power. There have been twelve different iterations of the animated series, including one that’s still on the air today, as well as countless feature-length animated movies, not to mention the live action movies with the hideous CGI dog. Seriously, Snoop Dogg turning into an actual dog in that music video looked more credible. There’s also the predictably large swath of merchandise and cash-in attempts, including actual Scooby Snack dog treats, a Scooby Doo-themed version of Clue, and for some reason a Scooby Doo stage play. Sadly, tonight’s case study demonstrates that a higher-profile Hanna-Barbera product doesn’t make for higher quality.
- Paying tribute to literary heritage. When I saw that this was going to center on the Headless Horseman, I felt confident that it was going to be a watered-down, half-assed public domain bastardization that would make Washington Irving spin like a whirligig. While Scooby is half-assed in all things, this was a surprisingly thoughtful adaptation of the classic story. The show makes an intriguing intertextual move by establishing that the Scooby-verse exists within the fictional context set up by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The horseman’s story is traced not to Irving but instead to Ichabod Crane, the ancestor of one Beth Crane (Janet Waldo, The Jetsons), a friend of the Scooby Squad that only exists for the purposes of this episode and this episode only. Beth faithfully situates the Horseman’s origins within the Revolutionary War—as in the story, the Horseman is said to be a luckless Hessian decapitated by a stray cannonball, and this is almost certainly the only Hanna-Barbera program ever to discuss Hessians. Because there’s a glimmer of uniqueness and originality in this part of the storyline, Scooby viewers may be tempted to track down the source text. Of course, they might after doing that be tempted to never watch this show again, but either way, points for being bookish.
- Sparingly amusing. Scooby is ostensibly a comedy, but the laughs are few and far between. Here are the three funny things that happen in this episode. Number one: We begin the action at a Halloween party hosted by Beth, who is dressed as Snagglepuss. Hooray for synergy! Number two: At one point, the characterically craven duo of Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Don Messick) faint due to fright. Scooby’s dimwitted country relation, Scooby-Dum (Daws Butler, The Jetsons), sees this state of affairs and also pretends to faint, appearing to think that this is what they’re all doing now. Ho ho ho. Number three: At various occasions, the dogs get their noses touched, bopped or poked, resulting in a comical honk sound effect. This concludes the list of funny moments in this episode of Scooby. You might be saying, “Wait, none of those were funny at all!” Well, now you can imagine what the rest of the episode was like.
- Scooby-Dum. I know some of you stopped paying attention the second I brought up this hick. Yes, that’s right—the good people at HB decided they needed to spice up the action by introducing another dog, even dumber and less articulate than the original dog. Clearly they didn’t learn from this mistake, as the execrable Scrappy-Doo was still three years away from being born into existence wet with the amniotic fluid of Satan’s bride. S. Doo is already hard enough to understand and his conversations with S. Dum prove nigh incomprehensible. Dum has little to offer besides hammy mugging and a bumpkin-ish approach to the unforgiving world of confidence men dressed up as movie monsters from the thirties. Wikipedia grimly notes continuity errors amounting to a “dubious lineage” for Dum, and I figured that these errors were born of a critical lack of interest on the part of the people who had written 40 episodes of this particular flavor of Scooby, but it turns out that there’s inconsistency even within this specific episode, with Dum being referred to as both Scooby’s brother and his cousin. I’m going to choose to interpret this as evidence that the Scooby line is rife with incest, which goes some way towards explaining why the Scoobies are critically stupid despite their sapience.
- Flaccid “mystery.” Look, I love a good mystery. Even when I was a kid I loved a good mystery. Scooby acts like it’s going to present you with a mystery. They drive around in a goddamned Mystery Machine. What we get instead would make Agatha Christie vomit blood in an incendiary, gin-soaked rage. The minute we lay eyes on Elwood Crane (John Stephenson, The Flintstones) it’s obvious he’s the monster-impersonating douchebag we’re looking for, but we have to hang around for 15 minutes while the usual gang of idiots figures out that the seedy uncle who took the diamond necklace for “safekeeping” is actually the bad guy. They still don’t come to the natural conclusion even when the “Horseman” “steals” Elwood’s head. The really outrageous thing is that there’s only one other person the Horseman could possibly be, the Lurch-esque butler Tarlof (Alan Oppenheimer, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.) Tarlof is obviously a fake-out, seeing as he’s creepy-looking as hell. He also didn’t take any fucking diamonds!
- Unconvincing action sequences. The episode tries to go out with a bang as Doo, Shaggy and Elwood wrestle one another for control of a speeding biplane mid-air. The problem is that the show has been taking advantage of cartoon physics all along, so it’s not like gravity is a serious threat. In fact, Scooby at one point steps completely out of the plane and walks several feet out on the empty air in the grand tradition of Wile E. Coyote. Next, they apparently crash through the back wall of an airplane hangar without damaging the plane. Shaggy falls through a mysterious hole in the seat and grabs onto the landing gear. Finally, the plane abruptly and inexplicably disintegrates. The end result is something neither thrilling nor comprehensible.
Final Judgment: 3/10. There are probably better episodes of Scooby. I know there are worse episodes, thanks to the aforementioned hell-spawn. Headless Horseman aside, Scooby and the gang can’t escape the stench of hackish mediocrity.
NEXT TIME: Gritty live action superheroes, anyone? I review Gotham!
Original Airdate: September 5th, 1992 on HBO
There wouldn’t be a golden age of television without HBO. They were pioneers in making uncompromisingly original TV in the 1990s and 2000s—major characters would die without warning, sex and politics would be addressed explicitly and frankly and Detective Stabler’s anus would be aggressively displayed for all the world to see. But HBO’s comedies often lag behind its dramas in terms of critical acclaim. Veep and Silicon Valley have begun rehabilitating the network’s reputation for humor, but unless you love Chris Lilley, Ricky Gervais or Entourage, pickings are otherwise slim. One notable exception would be The Larry Sanders Show and its spiritual successor, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Premiering in 1992, Sanders is something of a deep cut—apparently, HBO even let the rights slip away from them for a while, because I first caught the show on Netflix before it migrated to Crackle. (For those of you returning from Wikipedia, I’d like to welcome you to the exclusive club I joined seconds ago: People Who Know What Crackle Is.) Anyway, HBO is in the process of bringing Sanders back, and according to The Hollywood Reporter that started before star Garry Shandling’s untimely death. It’s also worth mentioning this wasn’t Shandling’s first trip around the pay cable maypole: the late 80s saw Showtime, the b-list HBO, hosting It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which offered a meta take on the sitcom, as opposed to Sanders’ meta take on the late night show.
- Sharp show-biz satire. This episode, along with many episodes like it, tells the story of egotistical, childish, self-serving celebrities being wrangled by patient, long-suffering handlers. They present an effortlessly smooth face to the adoring public, but all that charisma evaporates when they go behind the scenes to engage in petty squabbling. They’re enabled and actively encouraged by their overseers at the network or studio, who urge them to prioritize ratings, money and their career above friendships, family and fulfillment. Sure, it’s been done before and since–Hollywood writers writing what they know–but it’s reliably entertaining, because we all watch TV and movies and who wouldn’t want a peek at how the sausage is made? Because it involves entertainers and celebrities—big personalities, with a flair for the dramatic gesture and the witty putdown—it’s more intrinsically amusing than watching people fight over, say, a vice-presidency position at a bank. The particulars here involve talk show host Larry Sanders (Shandling) taking a week off, being replaced by guest host Dana Carvey (Saturday Night Live.) As soon as Larry sees that Dana isn’t a terrible host, he’s immediately filled with insecurities, and these are only amplified when the network discovers that Dana has been offered a permanent hosting gig at NBC. Meanwhile, second banana Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent) is furious that he wasn’t considered for the guest host position, despite the fact that his audition makes it very clear that he would not thrive behind the desk. In the final scene, Larry is planning to go out and host an episode, thereby returning from his vacation early and unseating Dana. Eager to mend fences, Dana reassures Larry and tells him the NBC deal would be for a primetime talk show, meaning they wouldn’t be competitors. Mollified, Larry offers him the opportunity of replacing Hank for the night. With seconds before the show starts, Dana comes clean and tells Larry that the deal was for late night all along. Cut to credits. Dana’s career may be on the upswing, but he’s just as much of a petty asshole as Larry and Hank—and yet Larry and Dana are committed to trying to maintain the illusion of their friendship, because theirs is a business where vicious competition is painted with the veneer of camaraderie and fine fellowship.
- Dead-pan comedy. There’s definitely an art to dry humor. It’s hard to compete in a crowded comedy landscape where there’s many things that are lapel-grabbingly wacky. This is even more pronounced in a post-laugh-track scene—you can cram in more laughs per minute if you’re not waiting for the roaring to subsist after Sheldon’s latest riposte. But if you’re going for a realistic vibe and your characters aren’t over-the-top caricatures, you have to make yourself stand out. Sanders is droll as opposed hysterically funny, but on that scale it does reasonably well. There’s lots of small moments, like when Larry offers Dana a Coke and absently tosses it in his direction—Dana makes no move to try and grab it and it bounces off the couch. There’s the look on Larry’s face as his wife (Megan Gallagher, Millennium) sings the praises of Dana’s interviewing skills. There’s the moment when Hank convinces his producer Artie (Rip Torn, Men In Black) to give him feedback on his disastrous audition and he storms off in a huff after one piece of benign criticism. There’s not a lot of knee-slapping, but it’s decently amusing.
- Strong characters. The real highlight on this show is Rip Torn’s performance as Artie, who has an air of authenticity as a realistic, experienced Hollywood producer. He’s gentle and patient with the talent—he lets Hank audition even though he knows there’s no hope—and he’s fiercely protective, turning on Dana hilariously quickly. He walks the line between network management and the creative staff with ease, but he’s also self-aggrandizing enough to claim that he “saw it coming” every time there’s a new development with Dana’s rival show. Hank’s character is also a well-drawn portrait of power-hungry mediocrity. He’s obsequious with Artie, Larry and Dana, but when he senses that Dana’s not inclined to take his lame advice about the intricacies of late night, he rants to assistant (Linda Doucett) about how Dana’s a “snotty little shit.” It’s mentioned that Hank’s previous job was as a cruise director, which is just about perfect for his corny sense of false cheer.
- Bloodless on-air segments. I’d almost be willing to forgive this as close observation. Late night comedy is seldom very funny. But we see Larry and Dana’s opening monologues, and they’re supposed to be good. Larry jokes about Dan Quayle and potatoes, saying that Quayle is used to pointing to the pictures when he orders his lunch. He observes that in light of rappers like Ice-T, Ice Cube and Vanilla Ice, he’d make his rap name “Hey, Put Ice On That.” This material would be wretched even if it weren’t hideously dated. Dana’s is even worse—it’s a mishmash of his various unfunny bits from SNL. Generally, Saturday Night Live is pretty overrated—I could live my entire life without ever seeing Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri in cheerleader outfits again—but the early 90s was a pretty solid time for the show. It’d be easy to forget that if you were just going off Hans & Franz, though. And the fact that Dana’s monologue is supposed to be spellbinding is central to the plot!
Motivation: Money. The network and Larry are worried that Dana would siphon off all his viewers, so they want to cut his week of guest hosting short so as not to give a leg up to the competition.
Final Judgment: 7/10. It’s far from the best HBO or even HBO comedies have to offer, but it’s worth watching.
NEXT TIME: Did you know that the NFL sponsors a cartoon? I review NFL Rush Zone, and we’ll see if the villain is a doctor with a defamatory concussion study.
Original Airdate: May 29th, 2015 on Disney Channel
Periodically, you’ll see reports claiming that Kids These Days recognize Mario, Joe Camel, or Pikachu more frequently than they recognize Mickey Mouse. You can blame the rise of video games or a boom in tobacco advertising in the 1980s, but Mickey’s declining popularity over time is chained to Janet’s Law: you’re only as good as what you’ve done for us lately. Despite the fact that his face is plastered over 40 square miles of prime Florida swampland, Mickey hasn’t been holding down any television or film franchises of any notoriety. At best, today’s kids are familiar with him as a supporting player in the Kingdom Hearts games. Eventually, somebody at Disney must have caught on to this, because now we have a series of animated shorts starring America’s favorite everymouse darkening our door on a semi-regular basis.
- Animation & humor style that blends old and new. It’s easy for Mickey to tip its hat to retro styles, seeing as how the little rat’s been around for almost 100 fucking years. Regardless, the Mickey on offer here looks a lot more like Steamboat Willie than he did in my childhood. I understand the logic here—short-form cartoons originated as preludes to feature films and have often been an uncomfortable fit on a TV schedule. It’s why so many of the shows I review here find themselves desperately grappling to fill 22 minutes and it’s why the Huckleberry Hounds and Schnookums and Meats of the world divide their time between three distinct cartoons. But Mickey is very much a product of the 21st century. There are plenty of elegant modern touches to the animation—consider the Mickey’s-eye view of syrup drizzling over his breakfast pancakes—but the humor has also been updated for the jaded eye of post-millennial youth. There’s plenty of violence of the broken teeth and exes for eyes variety, and there’s even a sprinkling of gross-out humor—we get treated to a dog man’s protruding nipple, and a pig man’s hairy, misshapen ass is exposed, complete with a flatulent sound effect. Ain’t no way that shit was gonna fly in Fantasia. All this amounts to a cartoon just as much influenced by Ren & Stimpy and Spongebob Squarepants as it is by Silly Symphonies.
- Rapid-fire. The other upside to having four minutes to work with instead of 22 is that the end result feels much more content-rich. The plot here is simple: Mickey (Chris Diamantopoulos, The Three Stooges) is trying to find the perfect flower for Minnie (Russi Taylor, The Simpsons.) In the course of trying to find that flower, he has eight separate misadventures in just under two minutes. Huckleberry had seven minutes and didn’t even get half as much content crammed in there. So the creators of Mickey are really trying here, and they’ve certainly got the spectacle down—there’s even a catchy song and a denouement featuring a full-scale parade and marching band. And yet…
- Not very funny. All that incident doesn’t get you very far when the end result is barely worth cracking a smile. Most of the jokes here consist of Mickey getting his ass kicked in various ways, and while that’s definitely a staple of cartoons going back decades, it’s not intrinsically funny in and of itself, or at least I never thought so. Haw haw haw! He’s been grievously injured! Now he has to go to the hospital! Or maybe he’ll die! Yeah, never did anything for me. And it’s one thing when you disguise full-body third-degree burns by making Daffy Duck all sooty, but as mentioned, today’s fast-paced climate demands that Mickey look approximately 60% more damaged. There is one funny moment, though. One of the flowers Mickey attempts to pick turns out to be from the bouquet on someone’s coffin. Mickey address the mourners thusly: “Uh…he was a good…man?” Diamantopoulos’ reading is gold, even if it’s a little macabre for first-graders.
Motivation: Mickey just wants to show his love for Minnie with a daisy. “She’s the flower blooming in my heart,” he sings. What a man!
Final Judgment: 6/10. If this blog has taught me anything, it’s that there’s oceans of shitty to mediocre children’s television out there, so in that respect Mickey’s ahead of the pack. But thanks to We Bare Bears, I believe we can do better.
NEXT TIME: I finally come for HBO. What’s that? Am I reviewing one of HBO’s many popular shows from this century? Nope—The Larry Sanders Show! Hey now.
Original Airdates: September 25th and October 2nd, 2008 on ITV2
Secret Diary of a Call Girl is one of those shows that belongs to a micro-genre—it’s a soapy sex comedy in the vein of Sex and the City or Coupling. Those are the only two other examples I can think of, but there have got to be others. It’s vaguely provocative and somewhat raunchy while being decidedly softcore. The soapiness and the comedy can be distributed in wildly unpredictable proportions but usually there’s at least a little of both. You’ll also notice that this is a first for the blog—I’m officially reviewing two episodes instead of one for reasons that will become apparent.
- Telling a sympathetic story about a prostitute with agency. It’s exceedingly rare to see a prostitute as the protagonist of a movie or TV show. When Secret first appeared, it occasioned a firestorm of controversy around the subject of its handling of gender, feminism and sex work. One of the lynchpins of that controversy is the fact that the protagonist, Hannah Baxter (Billie Piper, Doctor Who), is in Piper’s words “a witty, well-educated girl who enjoys having a lot of sex and likes being paid a lot of money for it.” It’s certainly true that this is the type of prostitute you’re most likely to see as a protagonist in movies and TV—Pretty Woman and Firefly come to mind—but that doesn’t necessarily make it unrealistic, either. Secret does not make a claim to tell the stories of all prostitutes everywhere and sex work is not a monolith. It’s insulting to sex workers to assume that no one would ever do this by choice, just as it would be insulting to assume that all sex workers were doing it by choice. The world is rich and multifaceted and it would be extremely unfair to dismiss Secret out of hand because its chosen subject matter challenges easy platitudes about sex work. The critique deepens with claims that the show both sanitizes and glamorizes Hannah’s profession, and while that may have held some water when the show’s first few episodes were generating an avalanche of hot takes, that’s not what I saw here. Sure, the fact that Hannah is on the high end of the economic scale means that she can afford fancy restaurants and a nice apartment, but each of these two episodes features a scene with Hannah on the job, and both seem rather unglamorous and distinctly awkward. Even when it pays well, work is still work. Having said that, there’s quite a lot of people out there with extensive expertise in the subject with a wide variety of opinions and points to make about the politics of the show, and you can read more about that here. I will point out that most of the opinions there are pretty negative, but, again, these folks were reacting to early episodes of the show and it may have changed course by the middle of the second season.
- Portraying people with disabilities as sexually active. Hannah’s encounter in the second episode is with Blake (David Proud, EastEnders,) who is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. As you can imagine, this is also politically fraught and it’s not executed perfectly, as you’ll see below. Let me preface this by saying that if you’re in a wheelchair and you’ve got an opinion about this scene, I’d really love to hear it—hit me up in the contact form. The internet is littered with inarticulate college students who have been forced to publicly write undercooked response papers critiquing the representation on display here—I’m not sure if it’s one professor inflicting these on the internet or a multitude, but the prompt seems to have been “Explain how this scene reinforces stereotypes about the disabled,” so there’s not a lot of diversity of opinion. I’m much more interested in hearing the opinions of people who are actually in a wheelchair, and the only thing I could find was a YouTube video from a guy who said he thought the scene was realistic amidst a slew of lecherous comments about Ms. Piper’s body. Admittedly, the scene invites lechery—it’s actually pretty damn sexy and David Proud is something of a fox. Regardless, the scene taps into larger issues around stereotypes about the sexuality of the disabled—many have remarked upon pernicious myths centering around the idea that the physically disabled are unilaterally uninterested in or incapable of sex. On the other hand, the idea that sexual release for the disabled inevitably happens through the lens of prostitution is also controversial. Which is not to say it doesn’t happen. There are entire organizations devoted to connecting the disabled with compassionate, trained and well-vetted sex workers, and a 2005 survey revealed that 63% of disabled men would see a sex worker under the right conditions. Some disability activists are campaigning for governments to subsidize sexual services for the disabled, a service which is already available in The Netherlands. Of course, there’s nuance here as well—some in the disabled community have said that meeting needs further down the Maslow hierarchy should take precedence. Others have pointed out that as with all sex work, there’s a vast disparity here when it comes to gender. That same 2005 survey also found that only 19% of disabled women would feel comfortable with a sex worker. Others have pointed out that plenty of disabled people are able to have healthy and fulfilling sexual and romantic relationships without needing to rely on sex workers—in fact, Secret suggests this as well when Hannah reassures Blake that this is eminently possible and that he shouldn’t despair of the possibility. Perhaps the most resonant quote on this issue that I came across in my research was from YouTube activist Mik Scarlet: “I don’t want a world where it’s easier for disabled people to visit sex workers, I want a world that sees disabled people as sexual and valid prospective partners.” I still think Secret is a positive intervention—it’s a sensitive depiction of the subject and I came away from it very inclined to see David Proud as a sexual and valid prospective partner.
- Using a person with a disability as a narrative device. Well, it was unlikely that a smutty cable comedy was going to be able to pull this off effortlessly, wasn’t it? The whole reason we’re given this extended scene between Blake and Hannah is that it’s a reflection on Hannah’s personal problems and her conception of herself. You see, these two episodes center on Hannah’s abortive attempt at a romantic relationship with Dr. Alex McCloud (Callum Blue, Smallville.) It’s difficult for obvious reasons—Hannah is very discreet and doesn’t advertise her line of work to most of the people in her life, including men she hooks up with in her personal life. But before she knows it, a casual hook-up turns into something more serious, and Alex is getting suspicious about why she’s disinclined to show him her apartment or introduce him to friends. In addition, Hannah’s best friend Ben (Iddo Goldberg, Salem) is secretly carrying a torch for her and aggressively disapproves of her keeping this secret from Alex. Of course, Ben’s opinion isn’t stemming from a deeply principled moral code but rather from incandescent jealousy, and this leads to a decidedly unpleasant lunch date with Hannah, Alex and Ben. Given Hannah’s serious feelings for Alex, she realizes the deep tensions here will need to be resolved fairly immediately and resolves to tell Alex very soon. In the meantime, Hannah has her appointment with Blake. In the conversation where Blake bemoans having to resort to prostitution to have a sexual outlet, Hannah muses that sex with strangers can make a person feel even more alone. She also tells him she can relate to his fears about never being able to have a normal relationship. It’s exceedingly obvious that this conversation exists to reinforce Hannah’s fears that her profession forecloses on her ability to find love. Blake is a guest star in Hannah’s life, and the reason he’s here isn’t to tell a story about what Blake’s going through, or to start a conversation about disability and sexuality and prostitution—it’s to underline the poignancy of Hannah’s problems. It’s dehumanizing and disrespectful to use other people’s subaltern identities as narrative props.
- Lazy lover. This is infuriatingly common—I can think of examples stretching all the way back to Romeo & Juliet-–but that doesn’t make it less stupid. We’re meant to believe that Alex and Hannah have a deep and meaningful love connection. The climax of the first episode is this big conversation about how Alex feels too strongly about Hannah to be able to abide her seeming unwillingness to commit, and the final line of the episode is Hannah tearfully confessing her love to him. But this is entirely unearned. We have no reason to believe that Alex and Hannah are any more special of a couple than any other two people. They don’t seem to have much in common. There’s not buckets of chemistry. There’s no wonderful shared romantic experiences. The best we’re given is a bit of cutesy banter. A romance story can be bewitching and frustrating and an all-around emotional roller coaster. Its myriad flaws notwithstanding, this is something that Secret’s American cousin City pulled off on the regular. It’s interesting that Hannah’s job makes it very challenging for her to have a traditional relationship, but because this romance is so unconvincing, it’s really only interesting in the abstract.
- Unnecessary and somewhat implausible dramatics. So how does that conversation with Hannah and Alex go? It doesn’t happen at all, because he finds out about her job in the worst and most dramatic way possible—he shows up unannounced in her apartment as Hannah and Blake are having sex. How was he able to get in? The show foregrounds the fact that Hannah left her door unlocked for the stupidest of reasons–Blake was ferried to the appointment by his father Gary (Clive Russell, The 13th Warrior.) He goes to wait in the car and for some dumb reason Hannah thinks she needs to leave the door unlocked in case Gary needs to get back into her apartment. Buh? He has her phone number. She has his phone number. And in the worst case scenario, Hannah knows that he’s downstairs waiting in the car. The mind rebels at any scenario where Gary would need to come into the apartment and Hannah wouldn’t be available to unlock the door. The incredibly awkward scene where Gary dotingly delivers Blake to the apartment and fusses over him and kisses him goodbye, as well as a brief interlude where we see him fidgeting in the car with nothing to do, makes it seem like he’s going to interrupt Blake and Hannah at a crucial moment. If this is obvious to us, why isn’t it obvious to Hannah? If for some reason the writers were set on Alex dramatically interrupting Hannah at work, why not just have Hannah leave the door unlocked because her presence in the apartment makes her unwary of intruders, or simply because she forgot? But that assumes that this ridiculous scene needs to happen in the first place. Wouldn’t it be more affecting to have Hannah do everything perfectly in revealing her secret to Alex and having him still reject her in abject disgust? Sure, it’s wacky for him to walk in on Hannah and Blake, but it’s also improbable. A difficult conversation makes for better television than a misadventure straight out of the script of Three’s Company.
- Not freestanding. So the reason that I had to cover two episodes of this show instead of one is that Episode 2.4 is entirely set up. I get that allowances must be made for a serialized show to develop stories and characters over time. But that doesn’t mean that an individual episode can’t tell a satisfying, discrete story while still being a part of a larger whole. Here’s the story we get in Episode 2.4. Hannah is realizing she has serious feelings for Alex, and this makes it impossible for her to have a seamy threeway instigated by a guy in a mullet and a leopard print speedo (Jeff Rawle, Hollyoaks.) Alex is eager to meet Hannah’s friends, so she makes a lunch date with Ben. Ben insists that Hannah tell Alex about her job. During the lunch date Ben acts like a pissy little baby and threatens to tell Alex himself before storming off. Alex tells Hannah it’s too painful for him to continue if she won’t commit and she tells him she loves him. That’s it. All the show does is establish the tensions underlying this relationship, tensions which could be established in less than five minutes. It doesn’t tell a story. A story would look like “Hannah meets a guy, but her job makes things difficult, ultimately resulting in rejection and heartbreak.” Diary stretched that out over three episodes, and there’s simply not enough meat there.
Motivation: Sure, she has a lucrative career—but will Hannah ever find looooooove? Can today’s high-priced call girl HAVE IT ALL!? Expect a think piece in The Atlantic on that very subject before the year is out.
Final Episode Judgments: 2.5 gets a 4/10 for actually telling a story. 2.4 only musters a 3/10. For a more probing look at sexuality and disability, check out the movie The Sessions, which occasioned the Guardian article linked above.
NEXT TIME: I review a cartoon based on an action figure: Max Steel. Will it clear the high water mark set by Danny Phantom? Only time will tell!
Original Airdate: December 23, 2014 on BBC Two
I cheated a bit on this one. I bit the bullet and just watched the whole show. I figured with a heavily serialized show like this that’s under ten episodes long we’d all be the richer for it. I still plan on sticking to one episode if I get plunked down in a random episode of a much longer serialized drama, but with something as relatively compact as this I can make an exception. Let’s get right into it.
- Double duty as both a comedy and an action thriller. This is really the central feature of Mans. The show mashes up the classic comedic fish out of water plot with the action thriller standby where an innocent bystander is drawn into a web of intrigue because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time (hence the name.) The exceptional thing about Mans is that it manages both aspects of its premise fantastically. There are multiple belly laughs in every episode and the script is studded with excellent dialogue. The wrong mans in question are nebbishy civil servant Sam Pinkett (Mathew Baynton, Horrible Histories) and the slightly thick-witted but goofily enthusiastic mailroom subcontractor Phil Bourne (James Corden, The Late Late Show.) My first thought on seeing this duo in action was wondering if Mans was conceived as a Rick & Morty style tribute to Parks & Recreation, sending Ben Wyatt and Andy Dwyer off on a wacky adventure. I’ll talk more about the reasons the comedy in this show is so effective momentarily, but let’s just have a taste of that snappy dialogue. While enduring some unexpected downtime in the middle of their never-ending trails, Sam suggests the duo play a game where one of them quotes a line from a movie and the other tries to guess which movie the line is from. There is a pregnant pause followed by an “Ummmmmmm” from Phil. Finally, he comes up with “Welcome to Jurassic Park!” Sam: “Is it by any chance Jurassic Park?” The action thriller aspects of the plot are also very effective. I was surprised to find myself genuinely curious about how all the disparate pieces were going to fit together and how Sam & Phil were going to get out of the increasingly impossible situations they found themselves in, and more often than not those solutions made sense and were incredibly entertaining to see played out. In one bravado moment in the episode under review, Phil has opportunistically grabbed some snacks and drinks from vending machines the Mans were trapped inside. Phil has a charming tendency to focus on the moment in lieu of the bigger, much more dangerous picture, and here it pays off—he’s able to make a Coke & Mentos bomb at just the right moment and he creates a chance for the Mans to escape their current predicament. This is also nicely foreshadowed in an earlier bit of comedic awkwardness. This demonstrates how deftly the show weaves its two seemingly conflicting genres—not only is there a perfect, unexpected resolution to an incredibly dangerous solution involving powerful nerve agents and gun-wielding terrorists, it’s also characteristically droll and silly.
- Comedic versatility. The best comedies succeed by being able to effectively draw on a wide variety of techniques and approaches in order to remain fresh and to work on as many levels as possible, and this is a great example. There’s physical comedy and slapstick, there’s witty dialogue, there’s ridiculous situations, there’s character-driven jokes, there’s cultural references, there’s observational humor, there’s painfully awkward moments—it is British, after all. There’s also two thankfully brief interludes of toilet humor, about which the less said the better.
- Well-executed character arcs. Mans basically had this one handed to it on a silver platter–the regular guys who can’t manage to show up to work on time or move out of their mom’s house turn out to be brave and clever heroes who defeat the bad guys and save the day. The show does this rather gracefully, though. The pair are only able to succeed by playing off one another’s strengths—Sam’s rationality and risk assessment meet with Phil’s enthusiastic bravado and creative problem solving nicely. We also get to see them becoming more effective at using their skills as the series goes on. In episode 2, Phil is nearly able to bluff his way out of a confrontation with Nick Stevens (Nick Moran, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,) the angry, violent husband of a kidnapped woman, but Stevens trips him up. In episode 8, though, Phil delivers a speech to the terrorists that is able to quiet their growing suspicions that Sam and Phil are not in fact expert manufacturers of chemical weapons. Sam goes from being unable to look his ex-girlfriend/boss Lizzie Green (Sarah Solemani, Him & Her) in the eye, but at the end of season 1 he saves her after she gets kidnapped by the Russian mole embedded in MI5, Paul Smoke (Stephen Campbell Moore, Season of the Witch.)
- Commentary about the security state and governmental overreach. Smoke turns out to be the big bad of season 1, and he’s a good choice because his high-level position in MI5 gives him near limitless power. The Mans commandeer the car of Agent Jack Walker (Dougray Scott, Mission Impossible II) after he catches on to Smoke’s status as a double agent and Smoke promptly murders him. The car is equipped with GPS and multiple cameras. The Mans are at an instant disadvantage. This is only worsened once Smoke starts actively pursuing them and has seemingly unlimited resources, including giant helicopters, to chase down the Mans. He has a large squad of heavily armed troops ready to kill them at a moment’s notice, regardless of the fact that they’ve neither been arrested or charged with anything. Episode 8 puts a point on this when MI5 head Cox (Rebecca Front, The Thick of It) admits that the reason her organization buried all evidence of a Russian-planted car bomb compelled the Mans to fake their death and go into witness protection in Texas was because the agency did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it simply wasn’t worth their time to prioritize keeping the Mans and their loved ones safe. I also recently watched the first episode of Black Mirror—freshly relevant in light of #BaeOfPigs—and I wonder why the British seem able to muster these kind of pointed critiques while America gets 24.
- Mawkish sentimentality. Isn’t it enough that this show succeeds at being a comedy and an action thriller? Why must it also attempt to be a half-baked romance? A while ago I read an interview with Michael Schur about season 3 of Parks. He says “This is just personal taste, but I get bored of comedy shows without any romance in them, because it’s just every week you tune in, and it’s a certain collection of jokes, and then you react to the jokes positively or negatively on an individual joke basis, and then you’re done, and nothing sticks with you…those are the things that make for good stories to me. It’s always my personal preference to have characters’ romantic lives be at the front of their stories.” Oh, good lord, I could not disagree more. I like Schur and he does excellent work, but romance plots strike me as boring and lazy just as often as they strike me as fresh and original. I find it mind-boggling that he’s inclined to dismiss comedies without romance as “boring.” 30 Rock showcased Liz and Jack’s disastrous romantic lives but never got very serious about it and should be commended for not giving in to a decidedly tired impulse to pair off its main cast members. The Simpsons and Seinfeld and Arrested Development all did just fine without giving into or actively subverting hacky will-they-or-won’t-they bullshit. Sure, it can work sometimes—a character’s love life can give us unique insight to their character and it obviously generates plenty of grist for the story mill. But it can also be completely gratuitous. In Mans it does absolutely nothing. Lizzie would work much better as part of an ensemble. In the early episodes where she’s Sam’s long-suffering boss, she’s great. In the later episodes where she exists as a plot device who’s spending all her time and energy hopelessly waiting for Sam to return, she not only becomes much less believable but also a conduit for tepid sentimentalism. We get more of this when Phil broods over his dead father. Obviously, these characters have personal lives and things that matter to them—they’d be flat without them. But why are they being foregrounded? Who gives a shit? I want to laugh. I want suspense and explosions. If I want romance or coping with loss there are entire shows that deal with these topics more extensively and more effectively. This seems like a hollow gesture at unnecessary emotional depth. This is a fun and entertaining show. It’s not Shakespeare. It really, really doesn’t need to be.
- Unearned explosive character conflict. Along similar lines, there’s a very dramatic scene in the season 1 finale that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t do anyone any favors. Sam learns Lizzie’s been kidnapped and wants to run off into the night to save her, and Phil’s unexpectedly cooler head suggests weighing the options and getting more information in order to be able to make the best possible intervention. Sam goes off the deep end and extensively dresses Phil down with vitriolic insults about his intelligence, personality and lack of friends. Um? This gets worse as we’re treated to a sappy musical montage as Sam heads towards his goal and the understandably dazed Phil reels. What is this, Bones? This is completely unnecessary and no groundwork has been laid whatsoever. Obviously Sam wants to save his ex and his decision-making skills are thrown off because Now It’s Personal. But he doesn’t have to viciously attack Phil! He can just leave and say something along the lines of “You can come if you want, but I’m going no matter what you say,” and then things proceed at pace. This is a naked grab at a big dramatic moment in an episode that already has plenty of big dramatic moments—Lizzie gets kidnapped, Sam gets shot, it’s the fucking finale and everything gets wrapped up nicely! WHYYYY
- Season 2. Season 1 of this show is great and I highly recommend it. Season 2…not so much. Some of the weaknesses of the show get worse and some of the good things fall by the wayside. The Mans are clumsily put into witness protection and sent to Texas, where all of season 1’s character development gets thrown by the wayside. Phil finds himself beloved by his co-workers and wildly in love with a woman named Rosa (Rosa Whitcher,) while Sam has become a bitter, bearded alcoholic because he’s in wuvvvv and he can’t be with his precious Lizzie. Gag. Just as we come to accept this new, unpleasant reality, though, it’s all hastily thrown by the wayside when Phil learns his mom Linda (Dawn French, The Vicar of Dibley) is on her deathbed and he must get home to be with her by any means necessary. What is the point of going to all the trouble of setting up this new status quo if you’re going to throw it all away 10 minutes in? Why not either have the Mans stay in England dealing with the fallout of season 1 or have a completely new story in Texas? Who knows. There’s still funny moments but they’re fewer and farther between. The plot is much less cohesive–season 1 artfully draws together seemingly disparate elements including a Chinese kidnapping gang, a Russian infiltrator into the MI5, an icy femme fatale and a shady land development scheme. Season 2 just throws a bunch of things out there that have nothing much to do with each other, making it less of an intricate action thriller and more of a picaresque. There’s also a soupçon of race panic when the Mans get thrown in prison, although the show is mercifully able to mostly resist rape jokes in favor of more characteristic awkwardness.
Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. While the second half of season 2 (it’s just two episodes) is better than the first half, it still doesn’t measure up to anything in season 1.
Final Series Judgment: 6/10. I wanted to give this show a higher rating. I really did. By episode 2 I was in love. But the longer things go the more threadbare it gets. Season 1 is definitely worth your time if you can tolerate a bit of sloppy sentimentality towards the end, but I can’t recommend season 2, which is such a big letdown after a tightly controlled and well-executed season 1. At nearly half of the run-time of the entire series, season 2 really hurts this show’s score.
NEXT TIME: 1975’s Paddington. Yes, as in the teddy bear in a duffle coat. Episodes are only 5 minutes long, so it may not be a particularly lengthy review.