Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dingos Frisky and Chicken Robotic

It's been quite a stretch since I've talked about animation, what with the abrupt, inexplicable suspension of my Japan's Finest! segment (don't worry, it will be back when you are least prepared for it) and it occurred to me that I never discussed any western animation, which is quite criminal really. Disney and The Simpsons are the obvious points of departure and for that reason, they will be ignored outright. Instead, I would like to discuss [adult swim], a network whose quirky line-up has found particular favor with the internet generations.

I was initially drawn to the network for it's anime, "dubbed down" though it was (quit scoffing you little weaboo brats! we didn't have torrents or crunchyroll.com back then) and I was only dimly aware of the network's original shows. It seems like most people felt the same, because the network really started to gain popularity when it became a refugee camp for prime time toons that more conservative networks had cancelled. Over the years, [as] has continued to develop it's own bizzaire brand of programming, and while most of it is incoherent, mind-scarring, crap, it has produced several gems. Among these, you are probably most familiar with Seth Green and Matthew Senreich's Emmy-winning stop-motion cavalcade...

In many ways, Robot Chicken is the natural evolution of Saturday Night Live. It's a sketch-based show, ripe with amusing nonsense and pop-cultural parodies, but faster paced, cheaper to produce, and funnier (by current comparison anyway) than it's predecessor. Fast and cheap may not necessarily sound like appealing adjectives, but if a sketch bombs in SNL, you get to wait five minutes for the damn thing to play out, while the average chicky robot sketch clocks in at around 30 seconds. You're on to the next joke before you can decide whether you liked the last one or not. I will concede that a certain degree of physical comedy is lost in the transition from actor to action figure, though (sadly) it's less than you might expect. Also, GI Joes typically have less trouble with the booze and drugs. Hey-oh!

It's also clear that Seth Green learned a thing or few from Seth McFarlan while working on Family Guy; specifically, how to play to your demographic with relevant pop-cultural references. Each episode of Robot Chicken balances it's satires of the now (300, Resident Evil, Mario Kart) with parodies of the late 80s and early 90s (Rainbow Bright, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers). Even more importantly, Green and Senreich have a gift for locking on to the embarrassing or absurd aspect of those things you used to love and viciously ridiculing them. The internet generations live in a perpetual state of iteration; we constantly destroy who we are to become somebody new. Perpetually. Indefinitely.

This cynical "anti-nostalgia" was present from the founding of [adult swim] in programs like The Brak Show, Sealab 2021, and Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law, which revive and twist classic cartoons like so many sons wished back to life by a gnarled monkey paw (too obscure? ah what the hell, we'll go with it). These early efforts pale before The Venture Brothers, however.

The show is parody of Johnny Quest and the Hardy Boys. It's a simple premise, one that sounds like it could be very easily exhausted in a single sitting. Indeed, one of the episodes of Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law entails a custody battle between Race Bannon and Dr. Quest for Johnny and Hadji. It was a funny enough episode, but you knew every joke before it happened. Venture Brothers is admittedly starting to show some strain in its 4th season, but it had 3 seasons of solid gold and it's still mostly enjoyable because it simultaneously sustains the absurd dynamics of it's source material while mocking itself with modern cynicism.

The titular brothers, Hank and Dean Venture both behave as if they were still in cartoon's Hanna-Barbera era (lolrhyme). Hank is an impulsive idiot who idolizes batman and Dean is a neurotic simpering milquetoast. Their father, Rusty Venture, a former "boy adventurer" himself, is not only cirminally negligent but borderline evil, yet he is rendered oddly sympathetic through a severe inferiority complex and his general haplessness. Brock Samson, the family's former-secret agent bodyguard, strikes an endearing balance between housewife and homocidal maniac, and the cast is rounded out by a number of delightful supporting characters like Doctor Orpheus, Molotov Cocktease and Henry Killinger.

Two Big Dysfunctionals

Perhaps the most innovative twist of the venture universe is the institutional relationship between heroes and villains. The Guild of Calamitous Intent assigns each villain a hero or team to antagonize, or "arch", as an arch nemesis. Both hero and villain must adhere to a convoluted code of conduct in their mutual aggression that lampoons the hackneyed conventions of the good and evil dynamic. The absurdities of the code prevent either party from ever accomplishing anything, allowing the show to capture the mundane spirit of everyday frustrations while remaining true to the laughable formula of action-adventure cartoons. In fact, it's interesting to note that the aforementioned strain evident in the show's most recent season stems from the fact that static characters are finally starting to change. As much as the internet generation loves changing themselves, they tend to abhor change in the familiar.

The final show I'd like to talk about is a personal favorite.

How to describe Frisky Dingo? Well, to begin with, the title has nothing to do with the plot. Like Venture Bros, the absurdity of the good and evil dynamic is central to the show, and it is captured through the unusual relationship between Killface, a verbose hulking super villain trying to raise funds for his doomsday device (see below), and Xander Crews, a millionaire playboy/superhero/impossible douche bag.

To accommodate bankrupt attention-spans like mine, each episode is a bite-sized 15 minutes, but like bonbons, they are best enjoyed when many are consumed in a single sitting. For all it's apparent (and actual) nonsense, there are some impressive narrative circles and a lot of running gags to be enjoyed.

No comments: