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Greetings From Toon Town: The Spy, The Savant and A Robot Chicken
March 3, 2011  | By Eric Gould
 
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Back in the day, cartoon characters lived on the wrong side of the tracks -- a noirish, seedy Los Angeles neighborhood called Toon Town (1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit?).

The idea was that Toons, as they were slurred, were fully formed cartoons living alongside us in the real-action world: hustling, conniving C-level actors and two-bit criminals not to be trusted. Well, so they remain. Most of the Toons living on cable and the net are still on society's fringe. They're bungling secret agents or robot chickens. And as off-target, offensive -- and funny -- as they ever were.

Of course, The Simpsons is, remarkably, still king, as timely and witty as ever. This and other major franchises such as South Park and Family Guy still get the lion's share of viewers, racking up good numbers even as they habitually troll below even the lowest threshold of good taste for a gag.

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If it were simply a contest for worst religious insult or scatological reference, I'm not sure there's a clear winner, even as Bart Simpson skateboarded atop Jerusalem's Wailing Wall in last week's episode.

And then there are the shows that create odd plausibilities (Family Guy with its talking dog, Brian) and take them to extremes, with cultural references flying past so fast you have to rewind regularly.

These can be shows having not just great fun but also purpose, the way Jay Ward and Alex Anderson did with Rocky and Bullwinkle on The Bullwinkle Show (1959-64), where all it took was a flying squirrel and a dumb-ass moose to defeat the Soviet empire. More to the point, Moose and Squirrel were all we needed to get a break from the Cold War boogeymen we were being fed.

Today's American operatives are no less clueless, but hipper, more ironic and better drawn -- say, in the realistic style of Jonny Quest (1964-65). Sterling Archer, the star of FX's Archer (Thursday at 10 p.m. ET), is just the latest witless secret agent with his own show.

FX has hit gold with voice artist H. Jon Benjamin as Archer the clueless hipster, who's used to getting all the girls but is handicapped by the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. Despite his bungling, he somehow backs into accidentally getting the bad guys each week.

Last year's pilot had him spatting with ex-girlfriend and field partner Lana Kane while undercover, where she accuses him of being unable to cut his "35-year-old umbilical cord" with his domineering alcoholic mother. Archer over-shouts her with "I've seen this movie and, spoiler alert, it ends with a closet full of suits on fire!!"

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Archer just may be the guiltiest pleasure of today's Toon variety. And it's only for adults, with all its language and sexual territory. The show also begs the issue of such cartoons: Why in hell do we need such a thing when we have satire done in perfect pitch by the likes of Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Joel McHale?

But there's an instant layer of freedom and narrative speed when things get flattened to 2D. Each week on HBO's The RIcky Gervais Show (Friday at 9 p.m. ET), real-life hosts Gervais and Stephen Merchant with protagonist Karl Pilkington are literally color-washed away into cartoon depictions -- left sitting at a table, to talk, in effect, about nothing except Pilkington's confused yet dead-on musings.

Suddenly, we're free of narrative and physical conventions -- like time and gravity -- as we're thrown into Gervais' blenderized cartoon world. It's a confection of oddball misconceptions and improbabilities possible only in Pilkington's mind.

Literally, that's the entire show . . . Gervais and Merchant barely able to hold their composure when probing Pilkington's crooked ideas, or reading aloud from his diary.

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I have to confess, my love for this show is based mainly on Gervais' hysterics. They're completely infectious. Pilkington's humor is winning -- he recently claimed he witnessed a bee have a heart attack -- but it's Gervais, with his monkey-house laughter, that makes the show such a delight.

If Archer and Gervais are intended for mature audiences, then Robot Chicken -- part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block -- is so unsuitable for kids, it runs in the middle of the night (new episodes Sunday at 11:45 p.m. ET), or streams online with TV-MA disclaimers.

A stop-motion mash-up of dolls and claymation characters, conceived by Seth Green (Scotty Evil from Austin Powers), among others, the show never met a cultural reference it didn't like, however obscure and putting even Dennis Miller to shame. RC usually starts by lampooning major motion pictures like Star Wars or The Patriot and old-time puppet shows like Davey and Goliath (with dolls similar to those characters working in a sex shop).

From there -- well, who knows? Robot Chicken (a dead chicken reanimated, half cyborg) takes off onto such tangents and multiple ironic plot threads, it's generally impossible to keep up. But you stay just to see where you'll land. A phantom companion viewer repeatedly changes channels on us; with the static of an old-style tube TV set's control knob, we get thrown into a new show, then back and forth to one or two we were watching before.

It's a crazy, color-saturated kaleidoscope, with Green and the writers trying to out-do themselves each week, taboo atop taboo. Paced like a food processor turned up to max, Robot Chicken seems likely to jump the curb at any moment, and you wonder how they keep it all together. (Now in its fifth season, the show has featured Charlize Theron, Ginnifer Goodwin and Dom DeLuise, among many others.)

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Do yourself a favor and watch the opening of "Saving Private Gigli" (oddly, no longer on the Adult Swim website, but still on YouTube here). A collision between Saving Private Ryan and Gigli (Episode 508 was "Schindler's Bucket List"), it begins with all the Chicken characters hitting the beach ala Private Ryan and getting massacred -- red clay blood flying everywhere -- with the Humping Robot carrying his own arm off the battlefield.

No, it's not Death of a Salesman, but what do you expect from Toon Town? Hamlet?

 
 
 
 
 
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