League of Gentlemen, Season 2 Episode 4 “Death in Royston Vasey”

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Television, 2000

League of Gentlemen is a show I’ve heard mentioned here and there over the years, most notably a few back when the Kids in the Hall reunited to produce a miniseries that was said to be a weak xerox of it. But that’s selling the Kids in the Hall short, as League of Gentlemen clearly owes much to their original work as well. “If Kids in the Hall made Twin Peaks” is how I’ve been pitching it to people after having made my way through half the series over the last few weeks. As much as it owes to Kids in the Hall (the limited male cast portraying a wide array of characters including cross-dressing for the women, the rapid fire nature of sketch comedy, the off-beat sense of humor) it owes equally to Twin Peaks, with its recurring cast of oddball characters populating a small town, the sagas and mysteries of which continuously spiral forward, often ending up in very dark places. The place where those two distinct flavors, humor and horror, clash is where the show draws much of its power, as you’re often left to wonder, as you’re watching something absolutely ghastly or downright viscerally terrifying unfold, “How is there a laugh track on top of this?” But the loose and dangerous structure of the show, in addition to being an ideal vehicle for the creators’ wild imaginations, showcases intricately structured, and unexpectedly emotionally intelligent, storytelling.


Black Dynamite Season 1 Episode 2, “Just Beat It or Jackson Five Across Yo’ Eyes”

Television, 2012

After seeing some of the promo material, I had already decided not to like this show. I can’t handle anything that centers itself around referencing a genre, even if it’s a parody, and I thought the design was too indulgently sophisticated for something that’s ostensibly a parody. Like they were trying to have their cake and eat it too. But one of the central conceits of the episode, a conflation of the words “nigga” and “ninja” repeated ad nauseam, made me laugh every time and won me over (which, for all I know, is a gag that extends to the entire series and the movie it’s based on). The show has a rapid-fire wit that never rests, bolstered greatly by razor sharp pacing and design from the sound department (an area normally of fatal weakness in most animated shows). Overall, the hard work obviously put into this show pays off in a way that feels totally unique. I’m not sure you could do an earnest, animated blaxploitation actioner in 2012 better than this show is, and it’s pretty great that Adult Swim provides a wide enough venue to allow stuff like this to happen.


The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Season 1

Television, 2010

I think the biggest problem with this show, while often being perfectly amusing and occasionally hilarious, is that it’s not nearly as inventive as you might hope from a show that has David Cross’ name listed so many times in its credits (he created, wrote and stars in the show). It’s a totally linear narrative where we laugh at ridiculous characters, and there’s an inordinately hot, white love interest for the doughy, also white protagonist to pine over. Spike Jonze, in an acting role, is my favorite part of the show. His well observed, nuanced, raw portrayal of a meek, passive agressive office drone looks like an art film next to all the other big shot comedic actors broad performances that leave no room for thought. This show touches on an issue that occasionally bothers me about comedies. The mixing of unrealistic, cartoon characters with mundane personalities. I guess I feel like this has to be consistent- either everyone we see has to be a cartoon character, no one can be a cartoon character, or just the protagonist(s) can be a cartoon character. Burn After Reading got this right. Pineapple Express did not. Seeing it as inconsistent as it is here can make the world it’s happening in seem lightly conceived.


The Venture Bros., Season 4

Television, 2009-2010

I don’t devotedly follow much serialized fiction the way a lot of people do, but I do have one, and it’s The Venture Brothers. I’m riding this fucker out to the end, even if it ends up spiraling into Family Guy territory. That seems unlikely however, as this show absolutely killed in its fourth season, really hitting it’s stride at around the 2/3 mark. For what it is, this show is inordinately well done. (I’m not alone in thinking this- here it is above The West Wing on The AV Club’s Best Shows of the 00’s list, and a much has been made of it’s stunning mid-century design aesthetic alone alone.) There was nothing added to this season to explain why I like it so much more. I think the creators simply crossed the quality threshold from making a “pretty darn good” show to a “really fucking good” one. They’ve orchestrated character and plot together in a way that gives every episode a satisfying build, best showcased in the episodes “Self Medication” and “Any Which Way But Zeus”.

The Venture Brothers’ evolution has been a precarious one for me. I fell in love with it’s first season, before the series became covered in character development to the point of obscuring its core concept. In the first season, it was a simple matter of “this is the ghost pirate episode” or “this is the Mexican tropes episode”. As the plots became more and more labyrinthian and interconnected, I started to wonder if the show was heading in a direction that couldn’t support its own weight. This is, after all, a show whose main point is riffing on adventure cartoons and comic book superheroes. But this season I think their skill level fully, finally caught up to their ambition. Case in point, the evolution of Doc Venture in this season was both very well done and highly rewarding. For three seasons Doc was a worthless, self-centered failure, incapable of contributing anything positive to any situation. In this season he was forced to stand on his own two feet, as his highly effective bodyguard Brock Samson was replaced with the much more incompetent Sergeant Hatred. Surprisingly, Doc actually rose to the occasion, discovering (along with the audience) that he actually has a resolve and intelligence that can prove valuable to those around him. However, I don’t think this show is as thematically strong as creator Jackson Publick thinks it is. His frequent claims that the entire show revolves around the idea of failure seems like an afterthought to me. There’s certainly a lot of failed characters on the show, but the concept doesn’t seem baked into it’s storytelling, as it is in the similarly themed and genre heavy film The Host. But if that’s the glue that Publick uses to hold the whole thing together, then god bless him. It feels unfair to accuse a show that has a Spider-Man clone who shoots webs out of his ass of not being thematically strong enough. So how are the jokes? There are a couple all time greats this season, namely “After I put herpe in there” and the many definitions of what a “Rusty Venture” is, and Ladyhawk Johnson and Lyndon Bee gets my vote for most gloriously bizarre concept for a superhero ever (a type of gag this show deftly throws at its audience in seemingly endless supply). But I’ve got no doubt that any viewer would be able to provide a completely unique list of highlights that they’d be equally as passionate about.

I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who hasn’t seen every episode of this show to watch a random one from later in its run. This, combined with the show’s heavily genre based central concept and sophisticatedly underhanded joke delivery method, will most likely prevent it from ever getting the amount of viewers it truly deserves, or simply getting more than it currently has. But that misfortune doesn’t seem to be affecting the fans the show currently does have, as we’re scheduled to get two more seasons of this awesome nonsense.

Technical gripes:

  • Viewers who aren’t as visually attentive as me (which is to say, most people, which is to say, people who rightfully don’t concern themselves with this sort of thing) probably won’t be bothered by this, but the muddy white bits surrounding all the black lineart on the Blu-ray was a major bummer for me. I thought I bought the Blu-ray for superior picture? What makes the Blu-ray even more of a letdown is it’s bare-bones packing, when compared to the awesome DVD packaging.
  • The lively and entertaining commentary tracks have a much higher quality of audio this time around, which is nice. (Although some of the unlistenable previous commentaries did have a certain ramshackle charm to them.) Publick’s public (sorry) airing of his writing insecurities was a bit of a downer, but I bet the show’s creators’ workload can be a real emotional roller coaster.
  • I really, really wish the home video releases of this show WEREN’T uncensored. A bleeped profanity and a black censor bar is always going to be a hundred times more funny than the uncensored alternative when dealing with material like this. An implication is stronger than a reveal, here.

Sports Night, Season 1

Television, 1998-1999

In my quest to find something to help me avoid thinking about myself or my sad life (that’s the only reason anyone wastes the amazing gift of life on watching entire seasons of shows they only kind of like, which seems to be a very popular activity among my demographic in my region of the world, right?) Sports Night has been an acceptable distraction. It takes place in a fantasy land where a group of people who are really into sports who are also really well-read and emotionally rich individuals all found each other and get to be witty at each other all day, every day at work. All the leads are hot, young and white (everyone who is not hot, young and white is relegated to being a two dimensional background character), and it makes me feel good about myself, okay? It starts out way overly sentimental, but then it either gets better or earns its sentimentality.

Doctor Who: Season 2, Episode 7; Season 4, Episodes 8 through 11

Television, 2006-2008

Attention everyone I kept asking what a good episode to get into Doctor Who with was: The answer was Season 4, Epsiode 10: “Midnight”. It has a bold horror vibe used to rattle the cage of a handful of really well defined characters, resulting in something like a neo-Twilight Zone. I really can’t recommend watching it enough. The rest of the episodes were okay, the arc in Episodes 8 and 9, “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead” having some worthwhile moments, but it was all a little continuity heavy for me. I usually find continuity heavy genre fiction to be dreadfully boring. The writing can almost never support the weight of the gravitas, and the inherent silliness of the proceedings makes it even harder to swallow, and Doctor Who certainly has those drawbacks, but to a lesser extent than most. Also, it’s nice to see such normal looking women in a television show. Bravo for that Doctor. “Midnight” 4, Everything else 3


Party Down: Season Two

Television, 2010

The second season of Party Down is not as entertaining as the first. It’s not worse, it just isn’t as fun to watch. (But it’s a comedy, so maybe that does make it worse.) Although it’s only the second season of the show, and the first season was only ten episodes long, it spends much of it’s run trying to squeeze interest out of putting the characters where they don’t belong. Ken Marino’s character should never have been the boss, and Adam Scott’s character was the smartest person on the show. Take Marino’s undeserved power away and give Scott the power he deserves, and the characters lose their edge. The resulting misery that the characters face dulls the show down, and it was already suffering from the loss of Jane Lynch. I did realize another thing that distinguishes this show from most other Apatow-inspired productions though; it’s characters aren’t dull-witted man-babies. They’re intelligent, relatable characters. Advantage Party Down. Also, points for realizing that their low rated Starz original show might not get a next season and giving all of their characters happy endings. 3


Party Down: Season One

Television, 2009

Not inventive enough to be really good, Party Down is a fun watch if you’re up for killing some time by watching a par, maybe above par, Apatow style comedy. What Party Down has going for it that most Apatow-esque projects don’t is that it’s a tv show. So while it’s going to suck up a lot more of your time, you’re also going to become a lot more invested in the characters. Maybe not in a way that pays off spectacularly, but certainly in a way that will make it hard for you to stop watching episodes. Other differences it has over Apatow projects is the less recognisable cast (advantage) and a higher level of drama (which can be good or bad, depending on your taste). But like I said, it’s not edgy enough to be anything truly noteworthy. Everyone’s white, the two lead characters are the blandest, most attractive and most witty in the cast and of course they fall in love. The “will they or wont they?” factor is more engrossing than average here, even stressful, as they are both genuinely likable and have a hard time truly connecting. For me, it’s probably the best propulsion a show has gotten from it’s central romance since the British Office. The 40 Year Old Virgin really was a big turning point in comedy, for better or for worse. So if you liked the improv silliness of Virgin or Knocked Up or Role Models or Undeclared or Sarah Marshall or whatever, good news. Here’s another pretty good one of those. 3.5


Channel 101 roundup

Channel 101 is a great monthly short film festival in California, started by the guys who did the Scud: The Disposable Assassin comic book and the great unaired pilot Heat Vision and Jack. Anyone can submit an entry, which gets shown at the monthly screening. The shows are then voted on by an audience, and the top five are put into “Prime Time” which means that another episode is expected the next month. Some shows make it to the double digits, some are one hit wonders.

It started out with some pretty varied stuff, lots of animation, some weird comedy, and even some drama. But a particular style has dominated Channel 101 the last year or so. It’s a weird socially inept humor that embraces its poor production values and is usually Science Fiction to some extent.

Here’s a review of this month’s Channel 101 lineup.

 

 

YACHT ROCK #5
I really haven’t even watched this show since it premiered a while back, even thought it’s pretty much been number one since it started. The first episode seemed pretty lame to me, and I never gave it another chance. It seemed like an SNL skit, and about as funny. Even after watching this episode I’m not entirely sure what the premise is, but I think it’s some sort of VH1 Behind the Music parody thing.

All that said, I was surprised to find out that this was pretty funny. The plot involves Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen trying to kill smooth rock forever because hard rock gets them more pussy. I don’t know if this was me suffering for not seeing the previous episodes, but I got pretty lost after that. Vincent Price comes along and summons a ghost… just watch it, it’s pretty funny. It’s pretty much just humorous pop culture references, but they’re pretty good ones (and not stuff we’ve heard a million times).

 

Writing: 7 Direction: 6 Acting: 7 Visuals: 7 Humor: 7 Obligatory Michael Jackson child molestation joke: 1 Overall: 7

 

 

THE WASTELANDER #2
This show is so good it’s unbelievable. The costumes and special effects are numerous and look great. The direction is very effective, there are moments where you feel emotions other than humor (anticipation, nervousness, fear). This show’s plot borrows heavily from Mad Max, but gives the Max character a proper gentlemen of a servant. Despite the fact that they live in a wasteland, they live in a pretty nice looking suburban home. In this episode The Wastelander’s servant becomes unsure of the Wastelander’s intentions, due to the advice of some spooooooky viiisitors.

This show is so well done that it almost works against it. You hold up a much higher standard for it, and if it fails to meet it in any way, you might become overly critical. The opening credits seemed a little over the top, but I guess they were supposed to be. And too much emphasis is put on production value, and not enough on the humor. This teams previous show Utopia was hysterical, in a way that lets me know that humor isn’t their intention here.

All this really means anyway is that The Wastelander is in a class of its own, and it’s always hard not to hate the smartest fastest kid in class.

 

Writing: 8 Direction: 8 Acting: 9 Visuals: 9 Humor: 7 Overall: 8

 

 

 

THE MUSTACHE CONTEST
Uh, okay. Here’s a cute little cartoon about some sea life that have a mustache growing contest. Each animal finds a different way to grow their mustaches fast, until they are all trumped at the end by a strange visitor. The art is simple and cute, and so are the animals. They swear occasionally, and there is a murder, but this is pretty tame. I do like how all the sound effects are mouth created.

I don’t know how some stuff gets voted into prime time lately. Certain shows give me the feeling that the creators have all their friends attend the screening and vote for them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible show. But it’s not the kind of thing I see getting a million votes from the audience.

(Note: After I wrote this review there were some discrepencies over who the true creator of this animation was and the show was removed from the site. The bottom slot was filled in by Roots of Justice… Schrab and Hartman still denied!)

 

Writing: 6 Direction: 7 Acting: 6 Visuals: 8 Humor: 6 Plausible facial hair growing strategies: 0 Overall: 6

 

 

THE WRIGHT STUFF #3
This is another show that has been doing very well ratings wise on Channel 101 that I never watched for one reason or another. And again I was pretty pleasantly surprised, although I do think that this suffers the same deficiency as The Wastelander- heavy production values and light on the humor. This episode involves Amelia Earhart falling into a vortex in the Bermuda Triangle and being transported to the time of the Wright Brothers. She unwittingly brings a bunch of zombies with her and the boys (along with a baseball bat wielding Theodore Roosevelt).

The visuals are pretty great. They did really good giving it that faux old film look, and the zombies and accompanying gore look pretty great too. There’s some funny moments, and a couple not so funny moments. There’s a robot head on the Wright Brother’s plane for some reason, who seemed to deliver all the worst jokes. This is good enough to watch, certainly. But I don’t think it would be very popular without the professional looking visuals.

 

Writing: 7 Direction: 8 Acting: 7 Visuals: 8 Humor: 6 Plausible facial hair growing strategies: 0 Overall: 7

 

 

CHANNEL101: THE MUSICAL #3
Okay, and then there’s this. It’s very very hard to like humor like this. First of all, I hate musicals. To the extent that I also hate parodies of musicals. I just don’t want to know about it. Second, this is a self referential show about Channel 101. A musical about the pressures and difficulties about making a show. This makes it really hard to like this show. Self referential stuff is cheap humor. It panders to the Channel 101 audience, and has little value outside of it. And it puts Channel 101 as an institution on a pedestal, which I don’t find appropriate either.

All of that said, this wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. This episode features Dan Harmon, one of the people who runs Channel 101 in a catchy little number called “I’m Dan Harmon and I shit gold” (referring to all of the great shows Dan Harmon has made). Dan Harmon’s performance and singing has some personality, and goes beyond the other actors who seem to be trying to make a straight musical. I understand that this stuff is funny when played with a straight face, but play it too straight and you are boring. I don’t not recommend this, but uh…

 

Writing: 7 Direction: 6 Acting: 7 Visuals: 5 Humor: 6 Overall: 6

 

Not a bad group of shows, I was pretty surprised by some stuff I hadn’t previously given a chance. To anyone who’s curios, here’s some of my all time favorite Channel 101 shows:
Twigger’s Holiday
Documentary: The Series
Laser Fart
It’s Twissleton
House of Cosbys (can’t find this one- they may have removed it again due to Cosby related legal reasons)
Adventurous und Magick Haus
and of course… RIP Most Extraordinary Space Investigations


Adult Swim roundup

Okay kids, gather ‘round. I’m gonna weave ya a long yarn about a television station and the shows that they play. But these ain’t just no normal shows. Oh no, yuhsee this station actually plays good shows! Shows that are creative and experimental and most important of all… funny! An’ these good shows actually get good ratings! Sound too fantastic to believe? Well believe it sucka’, cuz weather or not you think that Adult Swim is annoying or juvenile or crappy, it’s flat out the best thing on TV.
And now that I magically get every channel known to man, I get to watch it every night. Here’s a “roundup” (yee haw!) of the shows featured on their Sunday night lineup.

SQUIDBILLIES
Squidbillies premiered on Sunday night, and I think it’s my new favorite show.

But before I get to that, let me speak about Adult Swim on more general terms. Terms that speak also about Squidbillies in particular. A big attraction to Adult Swim is just the spectacle of the fact that it was ever made at all. The sheer audacity of it being put on the air. You watch it and think “I am watching this on real TV. And so are thousands of other people. This is insane.” This of course is not the only attraction to Adult Swim. There is also the humor, the creativity, and the artwork. But the “What the fuck” factor is big. It is certainly the edgiest thing on mainstream television, as well as having the edgiest humor on television.
Well, there’s a new edge. And that edge is named Squidbillies. This show is completely insane. As the commercials say, the show is about “a family of squids who launch a daily assault on the niceties of country living.” Forget about the fact that these characters actually appear to be octopi. They drink, rob convenience stores, have illegitimate children, spend fifteen years in jail, get raised by wolves, throw Molotov cocktails… all in the first fifteen minute episode. And the dialogue is hilarious, if you’re fast enough to catch it.
And the artwork is probably the best to come out of Adult Swim yet. While the characters themselves look like they come out of a deranged fourteen year old’s notebook, the backgrounds are rich expressionistic paintings that look like they may have been painted in a shack in the middle of the woods by a very gifted but mentally deficient artist. And throughout all of this is Les Claypool-style (if not the man himself) wandering bass and vocal murmurings.
There is no true way to describe this show, but I highly suggest checking it out. If you see a squid humping a small yellow creature in a black mask, leave it on that channel for a few minutes.

12 OZ. MOUSE
Phh. Okay. Describing some of these shows is proving to be tougher than I even thought. 12 Oz. Mouse is about a drunken mouse who drives a big yellow jet taxi. His sidekick is a small chinchilla, who really does nothing but vibrate and scream. He is given an assignment by a shark at a desk to pick up an important client… and then he robs a bank… and pukes on a woman at the bar… who transforms into a man to scare him away… and then it gets kinda weird.
This show is almost all shock value, as the animation appears to have been done rather hastily in MS Paint. The dialogue sounds a little… spontaneous (stoned- as lazy as I know it is to blame this stuff on drugs), as if they were improvising and laughing as they went along. Basically, this is the Most Extraordinary Space Investigations of Adult Swim.
Weather it is or not, and maybe this is an unenlightened thing for me to say, but it seems totally made-up and pasted together. You can come up with some great stuff that would never have happened otherwise that way, but for the most part it’s going to be pretty boring. The opening titles are quite good.

AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE
The old standard. Do I really need to tell anyone about this show? You either love it or you hate it. And if you don’t love it, then I hope you can sleep at night knowing I think you are a loser. More on this show at the wrap up.

TOM GOES TO THE MAYOR
This show isn’t as old as Aqua Teen or Sealab, but it’s older than Squidbillies and 12 oz. Mouse. And in many ways is the median between the two groups. It makes more sense then Squidbillies, but less then Sealab. It also focuses on one aspect of Adult Swim shows that I love, which is making a caricature out of the ridiculous methods that people have of communicating with one another.
The show stars Tom, who as the title suggests, goes to the mayor. He has a new idea for the mayor every week, weather it’s a history themed restaurant, an idea for a shirt, or an atrium for the town. He’s an honest guy who just wants to make his mark. So honest that he puts up with the insane man-child mayor, who doesn’t even remember Tom’s name each week he comes in.
It also doesn’t hurt that the show it made by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, whose Mr. Show circle of friends often guest star (Jack Black, Bob Odenkirk, and Sarah Silverman have all been on).
The animation is unorthodox. Barely moving pictures of people manipulated with a standard Photoshop filter. But it still qualifies as animation, and is interesting enough to hold its own.

So there’s a rundown of most of the shows that were on last Sunday. In a strange turn of events, I found myself enjoying Aqua Teen Hunger Force almost the least of all. I think the problem that Adult Swim is going to run into some day is that their own boundary pushing will not allow their shows to age well. Now that Squidbillies and 12 oz. Mouse have taken from what came before them and went even further with it, Aqua Teen Hunger Force seems almost tame by comparison. But, surprise surprise, Squidbillies and Aqua Teen are by the same creative team. And I think it’s going to be a long time before they are unable to top themselves.

OVERALL

SQUIDBILLIES
Writing: 8 Animation: 9 Unprovoked outbursts of violence: 7 Mullets: 3 Overall: 8

12 OZ MOUSE
Writing: 7 Animation: 6 Unexplained appropriation of Space Ghost’s “Old Kentucky Shark”: 1 Overall: 6

AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE:
Writing: 7 Animation: 7 Carl’s “Johnson”: 10 Overall: 8

TOM GOES TO THE MAYOR
Writing: 8 Animation: 7 Major Celebrities: 2 Overall: 7