Friday, November 14, 2008

34.Original Adult Swim

At the dawn of time, man did not possess the power of automatically taping his favorite television programs and watching them whenever he felt. Thus, if a program aired during the later hours of a night before that man was to wake early, two choices had to be made: stay up late, watch the show and be tired the next day or skip the program entirely. *

* Of course, the man could buy a VCR that taped on a timer, but as stand-up comedians have told us time and time again, these things are IMPOSSIBLE to figure out.

This is the backdrop of the four 15-minute shows that were began airing on Adult Swim, a late-night block of cartoons on Cartoon Network, in late 2000. The four shows are: “Sea Lab 2021”, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (ATHF), “The Brak Show” and “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” and they usually began airing at about 11:30 at night. For a late 20-something-year-old with a 9-5 job the shows had to be pretty good to get me to watch them.

Fortunately, they were. As an aside all four had awesome opening themes that were distinctively different but awesome in each sense.

Each show was different, but they all shared the same surreal, absurdest type of humor where continuity means nothing (except in certain cases) and absolute destruction of the characters or their homes was usually the punch line and ending to a majority of the episodes (except for Harvey Birdman).

“Sea Lab 2021” was a continuation of the Hanna-Barbera early 1970s eco-friendly and very serious (and quite boring) cartoon “Sea Lab 2020”. In SL2021, a year has past since the crew has been underwater and they have begun to go mad. Usually their madness was started by some ridiculously trivial pursuit by Capt. Hank Murphy and ended in the total destruction of Sea Lab. In the initial episodes, cells and frames from the old cartoon were used and manipulated with new dialogue and story lines. These were a lot more cutting and crude than the benign originals and were a terrific send up of the placid, boring (I mentioned that it was boring before, right?) original.

“The Brak Show” also took a chapter from an old Hanna-Barbera character, the space-cat pirate arch enemy of Space Ghost, Brak. In this program, Brak was reimagined as a typical na├»ve sitcom son with a wholesome 1950's-style mother (who looked like him) and a miniaturized Spanish father that sounded a lot like Ricky Ricardo and gave terrible advice. Brak was joined by another Space Ghost villain, Zorak, who is a gigantic preying mantis with the personality of a psychopathic Eddie Haskell. Each episode centered around Brak getting involved in various sitcom-esque scrapes and getting out of them by strange and often violent means.

“Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” was probably my favorite show of the four. Like Sea Lab and Brak, the vaults of Hanna-Barbera were mined and there the creators found a fairly lame, late 1960s hero—Birdman—had him retire and transformed him into an over eager defense attorney. Instead of faceless clients, Birdman would defend Hanna-Barbera characters against very adult charges—such as Shaggy and Scooby Doo getting busted for marijuana or Fred Flintstone being the head of an organized crime syndicate. Villains from the original Birdman show would play the opposing prosecuting attorneys and judges. In this series, continuity mattered more than the other three.

“ATHF” is probably the most popular of the four original shows (a movie and two video games were made of the series) and centered around three anamorphic burger stand foods: a shake (Master Shake), a box of french fries (Frylock) and a meat patty (Meatwad) and their next door neighbor, Carl. Master Shake was the antagonist of the program and his obnoxious demeanor was the one that fueled the show's adventures, whether it was cruelly picking on Meatwad or finding another get-rich-quick scheme. Frylock was the conscious of the group, while Carl and Meatwad were the pathetic recipients of Shake's insane plots.

I'm going to look at these shows through one prism, as going through show-by-show-by-show is a bit time consuming. As a whole, the first two seasons of each of these shows are awesome, some of the greatest examples of absurd comedy that you're going to find. It featured a few retro-cool voices that were able to take shots at themselves (the real voice of “Fred” played Fred in the Shaggy and Scooby get busted episode of “Harvey Birdman” and Erik Estrada constantly poked fun at himself as one of the main characters on “Sea Lab”) and there were a lot of comedians who lent their voices to various characters (David Cross in an episode of “ATHF” and Stephen Colbert in “Harvey Birdman”). The shows all stayed really close to their original ideas and while the plots could be considered “out there” there was some tether to a sort of reality.

Another thing that all four of these shows had going for them is the references to pop culture. They all seemed to strike on the askew side. For example, "ATHF" had an episode built around a belt that contained the powers of the forgettable "super group" Foreigner. Hip hop and other "slacker" touchstones, not normally woven into other shows, were prominently featured in the many of these cartoons. It's as if the producers were one of us.

As the seasons went on and stories and plot lines were becoming harder and harder to come by and experimentation was growing, many of these shows began to lose their way. The first show that saw a downgrade in quality was “The Brak Show”. This show was originally centered on Brak and Zorak, his father (simply named Father) was used as comic relief through his non sequiturs of advice but was never the main star. Somewhere between the second and third seasons, the roles shifted and Father became the star and Brak was more of a supporting character. Like Ari Gold in “Entourage”, too much Father became a bad thing and the series limped to a close, hardly resembling the original show.

This also happened with “Sea Lab 2021” when the producers decided to abandon taking the old cells from “Sea Lab 2020” and synching up new dialog. Instead they created new animation that had its pros and cons. The main trade-off was that the characters were able to get into new situations outside of what H-B originally had done, but I'd argue that was made the original seasons so interesting. It was cool to see what the producers could do with such a lame show. Also, Barry Groz, who did the voice for their best character Capt. Murphy passed away during the show's run and was replaced by his real-life son who did a completely different character. This character never really seemed to fit into the crew and the show was cancelled a season later.

As far as “ATHF” goes, there are a lot of things that are great about the show but now in it's eighth season, things are a bit stale. The characters haven't really changed too much, though the situations are a bit more bizarre. I'd say that out of all four shows, this is the one that broke the tether to some sort of reality and strayed the farthest. And really, there's not a lot of reality when you're watching a show about a talking milk shake, but the pop culture jokes that were rampant in the first few episodes became lost as the series wore on.

“Harvey Birdman” didn't lose its way until maybe the last season, but that's because one of it's stars, Steven Colbert, had to leave the show for his own show, “The Colbert Report”. Also, with over 50 episodes, it seemed as if they were running out of characters to spoof. I'd say that this was probably the most entertaining of all four shows and the one that kept the quality up from the beginning of its run to the end. I'm sure that's not a coincidence.

The one thread that seems to run through all of the shows is that in my perception the quality went down hill as they became more accessible to me. Around the second or third seasons of these series, I got a DVR for Christmas. The first shows I set up to record were these four shows, mainly so I didn't have to stay up until 1:00 am on a Monday morning to watch a bunch of cartoons. I was now able to watch them whenever I felt like it.

I guess that some of the shine was taken off when watching these programs in the light of “normal hours”. Also around this time, more and more people were finding out about them and enjoying them. Every person who “finds” a band or television show feels a twinge of sadness when the “mainstream” finds out about them. And eventually the sadness turns to a form of bitterness when “original” fans lecture to the newbies that things aren't the same as they used to be.

The fact is, maybe they are still the same—the viewer is the one that has seen his tastes and life change. By the time I stopped watching the first runs of these shows, I wasn't a slacker bachelor living in a Wakefield apartment with two other guys that I had never met before. I was a married man with a wife and a career. Wondering whether a french fry would fire lazers at a robotic rabbit (called Rab-bot) was getting to be the furthest thing from mind.

That being said, those cartoons are still being recorded on my DVR and every once in awhile, when I'm feeling nostalgic for a time where I didn't have as many responsibilities, I'll watch them. And if it's the first few seasons, you bet that I'm going to laugh my ass off. Because these aren't just shows about space cat pirates or insane members of an underwater laboratory, it's an often overlooked part of life—those strange, confusing years between college and marriage.

EDIT: The last two entries have been about shows that I once liked and now found fault with. I've been thinking about these past two entries and their negativity for a few days now, and it hit me why I'm being so uber-critical. It has to do with a lot about what I referred to in the pervious paragraph.

The reason why I like these shows is because they mean something personal to me, not in the specific “this-episode-was-so-awesome” or these characters are the best,. When I watch an old episode of “Entourage” or “SeaLab 2021” it takes me back to a time when I was just married or I was a person without a clear future. It's a nostalgic trip to the recent past where I get to relive a good part of my life.

Lots of people have this sort of nostalgic, moment in time connection with music and I have it with television. Every show on this list is a mile marker for a point in my life. As I still pass these markers, I can still see the chipped paint or their irregular shapes as I pass by and I feel that I need to point them out. The ones in the past, I forget about their imperfections and gloss over their inadequacies, instead remembering them in an ideal—almost perfect—form.

I'm sure when I revisit this list in a few years, I induct new shows and raise current shows on to a pedestal of perfection. So please take any new criticisms with a grain of salt.


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