Adult Swim, which takes over
late nights from Cartoon Network, has spent the last decade carving
out a very particular niche market with an insanely inspired, eclectic
approach to programming. Although Adult Swim broadcasts new and
classic anime on selected nights, their original programming is what
makes the program block stand out. Beginning in 2001, Adult Swim
officially launched with programming only a couple of nights a week
- new episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Home Movies,
and a lot of reruns. After a year or so, the network began to
expand original programming with shows featuring the surreal humor and
visual styles Adult Swim is now known for. These "early" Adult
Swim shows included Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman: Attorney
at Law, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and The Brak Show.
Since then, Adult Swim has matured into its comfortable role as the
provider of alternative television programming.
This set, released as Adult
Swim in a Box, presents a sampling of the network's distinctive
shows, with six previously-released DVD sets and a welcome bonus disc
containing a handful of pilot episodes for less-successful (or never
picked up) programs. The content itself is absolutely fine -
wholly enjoyable, and fairly representative of what Adult Swim is "about."
However, the logic behind the assembly of that content is highly suspect.
For one thing, if this box is meant to be an "introduction" to Adult
Swim, why not include the first DVD releases for each show, instead
of second or third seasons? If it is meant to be a sampler, why
not arrange the shows chronologically, with revised disc packaging to
make structure of the set somehow distinctive? On the box itself
- which barely even qualifies as cardboard - the designers have
emblazoned the characteristically self-reflexive phrase "Cash grab,"
which basically answers the questions I just posed. Although they
are transparent and self-mocking about their bottom line-oriented thinking,
it's not really funny. The MSRP on this box is $69.98.
Fans likely already own most of the box's contents; if Adult Swim
wants to lure new viewers or those who haven't got around to making
a purchase of their favorite Adult Swim shows, the slapdash assemblage
of contents is illogical. I suspect that Adult Swim was simply
trying to clear warehouse space, designed a box, put together a bonus
disc and voila - released this set.
I criticize the choice because
it muddies the waters around Adult Swim's otherwise very thorough
and thoughtfully-produced individual DVD releases. They routinely
feature fine transfers, creative artwork and packaging, and excellent,
unusual extra features. For their overall DVD strategy, I have
nothing but praise. But this set is sloppy, and only makes sense
for existing fans who happen to have holes in their DVD collection.
Despite the lack of logical organization here, this is a noteworthy
trove of unique television shows.
Ghost Coast to Coast - Volume Three (1997)
Taking the contents chronologically,
this set starts in the middle of Space Ghost Coast to Coast's
run - the show first aired in 1994, and lasted for ten years.
This third volume includes all 24 episodes that originally aired in
1997 (the last, "Joshua," actually aired on January 1, 1998).
I could never get enough of
Space Ghost. The show is hilarious, baffling, unpredictable,
nonsensical, inventive, absurdist, and experimental. Space Ghost,
the '60s-era Hanna-Barbera hero, has been repurposed as a preening,
dense, clueless talk show host - his sidekicks are his alien captives
Moltar and Zorak. Guests are swept in via video feed (they are
always asked if they have enough oxygen) and are forced to run a gauntlet
of disconnected, schizoid questions from Space Ghost, many of which
grow out of whatever current neurosis is plaguing our host that day.
The guest appearances are tightly-edited exercises in the comedy of
extreme discomfort; although this was largely achieved in post-production
(the animation and voice-overs being matched to out-of-context interview
snippets), they are expertly assembled, intermixing awkward exchanges,
unexpected outbursts, and outright hostility between host and guest.
In between interview segments,
Space Ghost torments (or is tormented by) his unwilling sidekicks, constantly
buffeted by Zorak's insults and Moltar's control booth manipulations.
Occasionally, episodes combine long stretches of animation from the
Hanna-Barbera show with new voice-overs, and send Space Ghost on some
bizarre adventure or another. The music of the great avant-garde guitarist
Sonny Sharrock provides introductory and closing themes for the show.
With strong writing and excellent
voice actors (George Lowe as Space Ghost, C. Martin Croker as Zorak
and Moltar, and Andy Merrill as Brak and other occasional characters),
Space Ghost Coast to Coast never bores me. Something odd always
happens. The show consistently moves in new and unusual directions.
Volume Three includes
24 episodes, and is the longest of the Space Ghost DVD releases.
Not only are there more episodes here than on the other sets, but many
of them are extended beyond their original broadcast length. In
total, the episodes run an aggregate of close to five yours. Guests
on Volume Three include Fred Schneider of the B-52s, Bob Odenkirk
and David Cross of Mr. Show, Beck, Judy Tenuta, Robin Leach,
Mark Hamill, Jon Stewart, Peter Fonda, Buzz Aldrin, Rob Zombie, Charlton
Heston, Steve Allen, and Tony Bennett. When you look at the complete
guest line-up - which is far more extensive than this - it's amazing
who they convinced to appear on the show. Given the unconventional
format and totally random usage of interview clips, it seems that guests
either knew exactly what they were getting into, or had no concept
of the show at all.
Teen Hunger Force - Volume Two (2002-2003)
Next is another of Adult Swim's
cornerstone programs, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a show even more
divisive than the love-it-or-hate-it Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
The title of the program is borderline nonsensical. None of the
words directly connect to the protagonists - the only discernable
link is the word "Hunger" to the fact that our three heroes are
Frylock, Master Shake, and
Meatwad share a house somewhere in New Jersey (with the New York City
skyline directly behind them, it's got to be Hoboken or Jersey City!).
They generally live in filth, argue incessantly, play video games, and
torment their scumbag neighbor Carl Brutananadilewski. Each episode
involves some kind of confrontation with aliens, robots, or other weird
creatures. Often, one or more of the group inadvertently save
humanity from destruction. Frylock (voiced by Carey Means) is
the brains of the bunch, an intellectual with a fatherly regard for
the dimwitted Meatwad. Master Shake (Dana Snyder) is a selfish,
loudmouthed, destructive fool with no interest but his own comfort and
convenience. Meatwad (Dave Willis) is a childlike rolling ball
of meat who is continually, if unwittingly, endangering himself and
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
is even more abstract than Space Ghost. Each episode is
like an undergraduate pot-brownie dream come to life. A stable
of recurring characters, beloved among fans, include Dr. Weird and his
assistant Steve, the Mooninites Ignignokt and Err, the Plutonians Oglethorpe
and Emory, and MC Pee Pants. In addition, there is an ever-growing
cast of one-off villains that make Spider-Man's enemies look like
well-adjusted yuppies - I'm thinking of Happy Time Harry and the
Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past, among others.
Here in Volume Two we
have thirteen episodes: the last two from Season One, with the remainder
from Season Two. The most memorable are probably "Cybernetic
Ghost of Christmas Past" and "Universal Remonster," which I am
probably more amused by than the average person - to me, a small bear-like
creature made entirely of remote controls, waddling around like a lost
child is simultaneously cute and hilarious in a way that I can't adequately
put into words. Overall, this set represents Aqua Teen Hunger
Force at its strongest; the show remains excellent through the contents
of Volume Three, after which the quality and originality drops
off a bit, but not a whole lot.
This freewheeling show can
become a bit exhausting and occasionally tiresome in its efforts to
reach for the outer limits of animated comedy; but quite often it is
entirely successful as a phantasmagoric vision of what happens when
fast food becomes sentient, lazy, and self-indulgent.
2021 - Season Two (2002-2003)
Taking its cue from Space
Ghost Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021
recycles and reimagines the short-lived Hanna-Barbera program Sealab
2020, which ran for sixteen episodes in late 1972. Recycled
animation and new voice talent places the show in basically the same
milieu as the original - an underwater laboratory populated by a multi-ethnic
cast of scientists. Some - but not all - of the principal
characters retain their names.
Most of the storylines for
Sealab 2021 revolve around the sheer unpredictable lunacy of Captain
Murphy (voiced by the estimable Harry Goz). Murphy is a moody,
insane autocrat whose whims take the show in a new direction almost
every episode. Murphy's antics (and Goz's considerable talent)
are showcased best in the first season episode "All That Jazz,"
during which Murphy is trapped beneath a fallen soda machine for a very,
very long period of time. Other episodes feature plotlines that
spiral out of control ending with one or more (sometimes all) of the
principal characters' deaths - they all return in the following
episodes, of course.
Season Two is the show's
best, with several classic episodes. "Bizarro" finds the crew
taken captive by Bizarro-world versions of themselves. "Tinfins"
is totally unusual in format, being a faux-television special about
a big-budget movie version of Sealab 2021. "7211" plays
it almost straight, simply redubbing an original Sealab 2020
episode. "Feast of Alvis" finds Murphy directing celebrations
of Alvistide aboard the lab, amid much controversy. "Fusebox"
uses a nearly-still shot of the lab's exterior for almost the entire
episode - the power's out and the crew tries to solve the problem,
exploding one wing of the lab at a time in the process.
Almost every episode of this
set is strong - the writing is tight, and the performers are excellent,
more than making up for the intentionally cheap cut-and-paste approach
to animation. Sealab 2021 was sadly, prematurely sunk by
Harry Goz's death in 2003; touchingly, Goz's son came onboard to
portray a new character in Murphy's place, but the show just wasn't
the same and limped through a fourth season.
Orel - Volume One (2005-2006)
This stop-motion show from
accomplished television writer Dino Stamatopoulos (Mr. Show,
etc.) broke new ground and offended many. Taking the childlike
animation of Davey and Goliath
and combining it with a brutal edge that is franker and bolder than
perhaps any other program in recent memory, Moral Orel is wickedly
sharp and very funny, even when it goes too far (which it often does).
The main target of Moral
Orel's considerable venom is organized religion - and born-again
Christians in particular. The main character is Orel Puppington,
a young and impressionable boy who lives in a very middle-of-the-road
town in Middle America. Orel takes church very seriously, and
believes that everyone is good at heart. Most episodes find Orel
carrying out the precepts of Reverend Putty's sermons (or some other
authoritative adult's counsel) to the letter - but he does so based
on a grave misinterpretation of the matter at hand, and without regard
for the consequences. A couple of examples from Volume One:
In "Waste," Orel begins
drinking his own urine because a supposed "lost" commandment forbids
waste. In "God's Chef," Orel is caught masturbating and
is admonished with the warning that he'll go to Hell unless sperm
is used to make babies. Taking this to heart, Orel begins breaking
into homes at night to impregnate sleeping women using a pastry bag.
Finally, in "The Lord's Greatest Gift," Orel understands that
God's greatest gift is life; he therefore reasons that the dead are
sinful because they are rejecting that gift. He then proceeds
to raise the dead, wreaking zombie havoc.
As I said, Moral Orel
is often very funny. It is also chock-full of shock value.
However, the problem with Moral Orel isn't its offensiveness
- the problem is its giddy desire to offend ad nauseam.
The show exists merely to rile "red state" Christians, who Stamatopoulos
sees as hypocritical, morally compromised, and even dangerous.
Now some of those things may be true in a variety of instances - hypocrisy
and organized religion are hardly strangers - but to create an entire
television show just to piss off one group of people seems churlish
and counter-productive. In my curmudgeonly view, there are hordes
of people across the globe who I'd like to give a piece of my mind,
but I'm not going to do it through a stop-motion television show.
For one thing, stop-motion is extremely time-consuming, even in the
rather crude form used for Moral Orel. If I was going to
do something with stop-motion, I'd want to at least attempt to make
something that would last. For another thing, Moral Orel
is in no way instructive - it's just critical and divisive.
The show is very much of its time - it's a forceful, angry reaction
to Bush-era "compassionate Conservatism" and the amoral excesses
of good Christian America. Moral Orel, while interesting
in some ways, only lasted three seasons, and will not survive in our
Chicken - Season Two (2006)
I do not love or hate Robot
Chicken, Seth Green's intermittently ingenious stop-motion take
on channel clicking, short attention spans, and the idiocy of television.
The show is made up of mini-sketches as short as a few seconds (one-liners)
and no longer than a couple of minutes. Characters are made from
recycled, redressed action figures or dolls of some type. Sketches
flick from one to the next rapidly. The conceit is that we are
viewing a television as the channels are being changed, and the sketches
tend to reference real TV shows, commercials, etc.
I don't have much to say
about Robot Chicken because it all feels very much the same.
In an eleven-minute episode, there may be two or three good laughs and
a few chuckles; the brevity of the format and the quickness of the transitions
prevent any kind of narrative buildup, and there are no characters
per se. It's just an endless parade of one-offs, with no
arcs and no payoff. This is to be expected - the format doesn't
allow any alternative. It sends up everything, and its broad range
of targets ultimately gives way to monotony.
But Robot Chicken is
good for a few laughs - and Season Two valiantly packs them
in with almost four hours of program content and a ton of special features.
As far as I'm concerned, this season is no better or worse than the
others. Robot Chicken is enjoyable, but mostly disposable,
- Season One (2006)
The final and most recent DVD
set in this box is also probably the best (well, maybe a tie with
Space Ghost). Metalocalypse is a thoroughly-realized,
beautifully-designed program about the quasi-fictitious heavy metal
band Dethklok. In true "metal" fashion, Dethklok is all-powerful
- the richest band in the world, living in an enormous isolated fortress,
they have nation-like influence over geopolitics, economics, wars, industry,
Created by Brendon Small (of
Home Movies) and Tommy Blacha, Metalocalypse reflects careful
preparation. The world of the show is entirely fleshed out, conceptually
and visually. The five members of Dethklok, absurd though they
are, are distinctive, developed individuals. (They are, for the
record, Nathan Explosion, William Murderface, Skwisgaar Skwisgelf, Toki
Wartooth, and Pickles.) The music is true unadulterated metal,
characterized by excellent composition and instrumental precision, with
humorous lyrics provided by Nathan Explosion's deathly growl (he's
voiced by Small). Of all Adult Swim programs, this one is easily
the most lovingly crafted.
Dethklok inhabits a world created
by and for "metal." A metal-oriented lifestyle is lived by
all - Dethklok's fans are not just legion, but virtually ubiquitous.
Dethklok's movements are monitored by a secretive group of the rich
and powerful, on the lookout for a weak spot with which to undermine
the band's apparent omnipotence. The pilot episode, "The Curse
of Dethklok" starts with the band flying to a remote location to perform
an earth-shattering coffee jingle for Duncan Hills. After the
show - the climax of which features the enormous audience being doused
with scalding coffee that separates flesh from bone - their chef (the
newest in a string of death-prone hires) is cut to pieces by the band's
helicopter's rotors. Back home, the band have to fend for themselves,
which results in Toki trying to prepare coffee with a toaster.
Therefore they must reassemble their chef with Herculean effort, creating
the Frankenstein-like creature that haunts subsequent episodes, serving
food with lopsided smiles and drooling grunts.
This summary is just the barest
taste of Metalocalypse's first season (all twenty episodes
are included here) - the extreme violence, the dire consequences of
Dethklok's adventures, and above all, the metal. This show is
hilarious - it captures and heightens a very specific corner of our
culture, amplifying metal with a religious enthusiasm. The care
and attention poured into the show is on full display, and the result
is a classic.
As a bonus exclusive to this
set, this disc contains the pilot episodes for five of Adult Swim's
less-successful enterprises. None of these have been released
on video before, and they make for interesting viewing.
Totally for Teens (2009):
This spastic take on "after-school" live-action shows for teens
is exactly like Wonder Showzen for a slightly older crowd -
which should come as no surprise, as it was co-created by Vernon Chatman.
It shares Wonder Showzen's slapdash, schizophrenically-edited
format, but the laughs are a bit thin.
Cheyenne Cinnamon and the
Fantabulous Unicorn of Sugar Town Candy Fudge
(2009): From the creators of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, this 3D
computer-animated show revolves around the innocently slutty pop star
Cheyenne Cinnamon, who lives in a fantasyland seemingly of her own creation.
The concept is bizarre, and although it does effectively skewer the
"culture" around certain current pop sensations, it leaves no particular
Korgoth of Barbaria
(2006): Unquestionably the gem of this disc, Korgoth was
inexplicably not picked up for production by Adult Swim, despite the
fact that this hilarious, over-the-top, ultra-violent post-apocalyptic
sword-and-sorcery extravaganza is very well-crafted and animated.
The pilot alone deserves its status as a "lost" minor classic, and
is fortunately now preserved here on DVD.
Perfect Hair Forever
(2004): The only show on this disc that had a production run beyond
its pilot, Perfect Hair Forever is a kind-of-fun, but kind-of-anemic
anime parody from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force
gang. The pilot aired a full year before other episodes in the
six-episode first season, with a second "season" following in 2007
of exactly one episode. Perfect Hair Forever seemed to
have a small but enthusiastic following; its oddly-timed cancellation
remains something of a mystery.
Welcome to Eltingville
(2001): This pilot came from Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer, a married
pair of comics authors whose work I admire greatly. The show,
based on an occasional series from Dorkin's comic book Dork,
follows the rage-filled days of four fanboy friends in Staten Island.
Although its comic timing lags, this pilot could have led to a great
series. The tone and milieu of the show is right, capturing the
self-hatred of these boys and their comically pathetic existence.
The Video and Audio
Space Ghost Coast to Coast
- Volume Three: Five episodes with commentary tracks, some deleted
and alternate scenes, extended interview footage, and a bonus episode.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
- Volume Two: Three episodes with commentary tracks, "Baffler
Meal" (the Space Ghost episode that originally introduced the
Aqua Teens), a behind-the-scenes featurette, a slideshow of art and
storyboards, and a few deleted scenes.
- Season Two: Commentary tracks for each episode, a moving
tribute to Harry Goz, animated "cast" interviews, a tour of 7030
Studios, a rough cut of "Der Dieb," and animated sketches for an
- Volume One: Eight episodes with commentary tracks, a Comic
Con panel discussion, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and an assortment
of advertising, behind-the-scenes footage, and deleted scenes.
- Season Two: Commentary tracks on all episodes, deleted
scenes, promos, a behind-the-scenes featurette, a bonus episode called
"Christmas Special," deleted audio, more behind-the-scenes footage,
animatics, and video blogs.
- Season One: All supplements are included as easter eggs
on the menu screens, so you have to hunt. They include: band interviews,
uncensored scenes, a Mordhaus tour, and Nathan Explosion reading from
This boxed set of Adult Swim shows, while randomly assembled, does fairly represent the insanely creative, off-the-wall nature of the network. Fans of Adult Swim will have already identified their favorite shows by now and probably have been collecting desired DVD releases over the years. Those people can safely skip this release; the extra disc of pilots is not worth $70 (or $50, or $40). However, for those who are new to Adult Swim, or for those who have not gotten around to purchasing Adult Swim programs on DVD, Adult Swim in a Box is recommended.