Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Post-Mortem
I have now seen every episode of this series, and can find no evidence of what was originally intended. The arrogance and pretention was there, as was a mean-spirited, repugnant miasma that clouded each episode. With the exception of Julie, Allen's acquired Cambodian "sister", nearly every character displays a startling personality disorder that does not elicit laughs. As in real life, such characters are trying, intrusive, repellent, manipulative, and intentionally destructive. They are more the stuff of vivid film noir than animated cartoons. In a dialogue-heavy cartoon such as Allen Gregory, the repulsive effect is magnified.
Such cartoons, in the hands of skilled and perceptive filmmakers, could be pulled off. What Hill was aiming for, however, was comedy, and he missed the mark so miserably that audiences turned away in disgust, reviewers tore the show apart, and the ratings tanked with each successive episode. In a later interview, held when the ship was sinking, Hill contradicted most of what he said in the AWN piece. In speaking with Maggie Furlong of Huffpost TV, Hill had the following to say:
"We made a show about awful, awful people. We got away with it. The four of us think it's funny that there are these shows that have these awful people, but then at the end they do something really nice and they're not really that bad. We wanted a show where that doesn't happen…I thought it was funny that in our world of "Allen Gregory" they never really get their punishment for being awful. And they almost get rewarded for it, and punished for being a good person!"
This is a long way from designing a show that has arrogance taken down a peg and characters who are vulnerable and want to be liked. This is about designing a show purposely filled with, well, unrepentant assholes, and expecting an audience to respond to them positively.
"So to me, I'd rather have a show that doesn't work out that was totally what we meant it to be and totally punk rock in its spirit than something that was totally vanilla and lasted for two or three seasons because we changed the show to be like any other show on TV…I would go even harder. People have been saying "Oh, the show's so aggressive" or whatever, but to me I think it's totally punk rock that we got this show on Fox and hopefully we get to make more."
The smell of sour grapes is evident here, but so is the sound of inexperience, confusion, and self-absorption. For a wildly successful comedian, Hill appears to be confused about what he really wanted to do with Allen Gregory. That's not necessarily fatal; some terrific animated shows took a season or two to hit stride, but there was a difference: Those shows featured likable characters with whom audiences identified and empathized. Allen Gregory had not a one. If you recall some of the early entries in the Animation Critic series, you may remember the ground we covered in evaluating heroes.
No piece I write will ever be complete without consideration of the larger cultural context. During the time Allen Gregory hit the air, many cities in America were witnessing demonstrations by the various permutations of "Occupy Wall Street". In an atmosphere where many were decrying corporate greed, special interests, and the arrogance of the wealthy in the face of vast economic disparities, Jonah Hill gave us a rich, arrogant, narcissist who treated everyone in his world as his personal sheet of toilet paper. It matters very little for the purposes of this essay if you are with or against this movement: it was huge, widespread, and fervid in its ideology. Bad timing for Allen Gregory.
The execs at Fox were just as much to blame for this debacle. Eager to ride the wave that is Jonah Hill, they green-lighted a project that was certain to be hampered in its development, and also took the risk of oversaturation: Audiences, as was proven eleven years ago, will watch only so much prime-time animation, and Fox already had a full slate of "Animation Domination" on board. It is possible that Allen Gregory was the tipping point.