In 10 Words or Less
Dark, dated cartoon comedy with an amazing cast
Loves: Animation, Mr. Show
Likes: David Cross, H. Jon Benjamin, pretty much every voice on this show, dark comedy, political humor
Dislikes: Dated topical comedy
Hates: Remembering Bush-era politics
The year: 2006. America is hip-deep in the doldrums that is the second term of George W. Bush's presidency, wondering if life will ever be worth living again. The world was morning the loss of Don Knotts. Twitter first entered the world, creating an opportunity for ever narcissist and self-promoter to finally be heard for once. And on Comedy Central, subversive alt-comedy geniuses David Cross and H. Jon Benjamin were granted a chance, one brief, shining moment, to bring animated genetic mishaps to the small screen in Freak Show.
(On a side note: somehow, despite this show boasting a voice cast I would kill to share a churro with, I had no knowledge of this series' existence until this DVD arrived. Then I put two and two together. A) The show had just seven episodes, and B) my daughter was born that year and reality (along with my awareness of all things pop-culture) was radically altered. Makes me wonder what else I missed that year...)
Anytime you get two guys like Cross and Benjamin together, the results are likely to be entertaining, as well as somewhat disturbing, and when their subject matter is sideshow freaks, that's far more certain on both points. The show follows a team of six freaks, including lead siamese twins Benny and Tuck (Cross and Benjamin), the World's Tallest Nebraskan (Brian Stack), the Bearded Clam (half woman, half clam, all Janeane Garofalo), Italian premature baby Primi (Cross, again) and the Log Cabin Republican (Jon Glaser). Usually they work for the kindly old Hartsdales in their small-town freak show, but when called upon by Pentagon parking attendant Frank Meinkowitz (Todd Barry) to go on some menial mission for the President, they become the super-powered Freak Squad.
(Sorry, another side note: if their team, which is the focus of the show, is called Freak Squad, why is the show called FreakShow? Freak Squad seems to make more sense in describing the show. I'm going to assign the show's short lifespan to this heinous branding error.)
Sent to get nuts for the President or to roll back the odometer on his sweet 1977 Camaro, the Freak Squad invariably screw things up. They just aren't very good at getting things done, individually or as a team. Part of it is their powers, which are kind of pointless, like the twins being able to separate or the World's Tallest Nebraskan's ability to shrink six inches. And for the most part, they don't even use their powers in the course of their adventures, with the exception of the way they can team up, Voltron-style, and form a giant avatar, like Princess Di (who goes on a bloody murder spree) or a threatening black guy. The thing is, these are always hilarious, so it doesn't matter if you have to wait for it to happen.
If it hasn't been made clear by what you've read to this point, this show is strange, peppered with surreal bits (like the Harsdales, who continually confound,) odd cultural references (one episode hinges on the Australian pop-rock band INXS) and exceedingly dark political comedy. The time frame influenced this, as the second half of the Bush presidency was a pretty depressing time for anyone with a non-conservative point of view, and comedians ran with it. Giving the President a team of freaks to act as go-fers opens up plenty of opportunities for political comedy, and the show touched on anything and everything, including foreign policy, corporate greed (in the form of Freak Mart, the hardly-veiled parody of Wal-mart, trying to put the Hartsdales out of business), gay rights, political campaigns and religious strife, which plays out in the two-part finale, culminating in a battle between a giant Jewish messiah made of foreskins and robot Jesus Christ, piloted by Pat Robertson. (Subtle, this show is not.) Sadly, these issues are just as relevant six years later, if not more relevant, though the Bush-focused stuff doesn't resonate as much now.
(Side note, Part Three - Revenge of the Jedi: There is an extended joke in the finale, involving Primi and a mohel, that is so creepy beyond creepy that it actually got uncomfortable to watch. Considering all the over-the-top violence throughout the series, it's amazing that this bit, where you don't even see anything, is the most disturbing of all.)
The animation in the series, done by regular [adult swim] contributor Radical Axis, looks pretty low-budget, coming off like half-hour entries of TV Funhouse, and the somewhat ugly style might turn some people off (it often has for me), but it plays well with the characters, and actually improves as the show rolls on. That doesn't really matter though, because the voices are why you stay, as the cast is an alt-comedy nerd's dream. Beyond the names mentioned above, you've got Will Arnett playing an earlier version of the evil a-hole we've grown to love, Kristen Schaal, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Julie Klausner (who was a writers' assistant on the series), Fred Armisen and Bob Odenkirk (playing one of his characters from Mr. Show.) The show was obviously a labor of love, with many of the cast giving voice to multiple voices, with Cross and Benjamin providing life to what seems like 75 percent of the characters. Thus, if they are you're cup of tea, this is your show to steep in.
The show's seven episodes are spread over two DVDs, which are packed in a pair of ThinPak cases (with episode descriptions on the back) in a slipcase. The discs have animated, full-frame menus, with options to play all the episodes, select shows and check out the extras. There are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
In close-up, the full-frame transfers look surprisingly good, in contrast to the simplistic style of the animation. Colors are rich and solid, and the level of detail is fine on the outlines, but when the show pulls back, outlines start becoming fuzzy. Thankfully there's not much of a problem with compression artifacts, as the large blocks of solid color remain clean. Overall, it's a quality presentation.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks deliver your standard basic cable sound, putting everything right down the middle, with no dynamic mixing of any kind. The show is mostly about the dialogue, and that's presented without distortion.
It would have been nice to get some real extras, but that may have been pushing it on a cult series. What you get are four full-frame versions of credit sequences, the bits that run framed by the credits and Comedy Central web promos. Combined they run 2:30, and don
t really offer anything you couldn't see in the episodes (only bigger.)
The Bottom Line
I certainly wasn't craving to watch FreakShow, considering my awareness of the series' existence, but I'm glad to have watched it, as I'm a fan of almost everyone involved, and the series offers up funny, twisted comedy that should appeal to fans of Mr. Show. Though the discs are in fine shape, the extras sadly aren't very extra. However it's worth supporting Olive Films' releases of the Comedy Central stuff Paramount won't put out, even if it's just to keep the spigot open. Thankfully, that's not the case here.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.