Dr. Toon: The ADHD Metastasis
Revolutions are generally exciting affairs, an upsetting of the old order that can result in an age of glory or a descent into chaos. The changes wrought are rarely immediate; upheavals need to settle, new rules and conventions must be established. There may be a challenging countercurrent creating eddies in the New Order before anything resolves. For those of us who avidly follow animation in popular culture, such a revolution took place late last month.
The rebels, of course, had a plan and stored up ammunition. Their leader? A guerrilla well-trained in the rules of underground combat. As with many insurgents, he received outside training before exporting revolution to his new home. His goal? To establish an independent homeland with laws of its own.
But enough of the analogies, as fun as they may be. Let’s call the rebel forces FOX ADHD (Animation Domination High Definition), it’s guerilla leader Nick Weidenfeld, and the revolution a metastasis to FOX from Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Comrade Weidenfeld, in fact, spent seven years as head of Program Development for Adult Swim. With his shaggy hair and full beard, Weidenfeld even looks the part of a revolutionary. He certainly thinks like one.
But what was the Old Order that needed changing? The original programming block that FOX Broadcasting called “Animation Domination”. This is indeed a venerable position, anchored by The Simpsons, America’s longest-running (since 1987), most revered animated series. Animation Domination is currently shared by Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy (in various lengths of time since 1999 but a constant since 2005) and McFarlane’s other series, American Dad (also 2005). Tagging along is Bob’s Burgers, an animated sitcom that first aired in 2011.
Four family comedies, all with stylistic similarity (indeed, some critics considered Family Guy as simply another take on The Simpsons). In today’s universe of entertainment, an animated show that made its debut in 2005 is superannuated. One that first appeared in 1999 shares its birthday with Cheops. An animation series that originally aired in 1987 is hanging out with Australopithecus. The Simpsons is now a funny, familiar friend who is always home on Sunday night. Family Guy is your old Blutarsky-type frat buddy whose jokes are hit and (mostly) miss, but he’s still OK to have around. American Dad will be moving on to TBS, and Bob’s Burgers is…ummm…well, a nice show. Animation Domination was becoming a kingdom grown stale.
Like a pack of fleet, toothy mammals that ran alongside the dinosaurs stealing their eggs, Fox has unleashed their new animation block, and it may well outrun Animation Domination when the final tally is in. It has taken almost fourteen years, but the type of animated humor found in Adult Swim has metastasized to a major network. July 22 saw FOX ADHD launch their first two shows in a sneak preview of things to come.
I won’t claim that either Axe Cop or High School USA are instant classics. The former is a surrealistic action series that started as a comic. Axe Cop was conceived and written by five year-old Malachi Nicolle in 2009-10, and illustrated by his twenty-nine year old brother, Ethan. Since five-year olds tend to be inexperienced dialogue writers, Ethan assisted on that end as well. The comic graduated to the Web and thus to Fox. Axe Cop reads as if Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby met at ages five, playing with action figures in a sandbox. The stories are surprisingly linear, but coated with the sort of transformational nonsense and disregard for logic found in the most imaginative of kids.
High School USA, the brainchild of Konstantinos Stamotopoulous, is a thinly-disguised lampooning of Archie Comics. Why not? Stamotoupoulous was the creative force behind Moral Orel, a lampoon of Davey and Goliath, and possibly the most anti-fundamentalist comment on religion ever aired. For ten years beginning in 1972, Archie writer Al Hartley headed 19 comic book series spotlighting the Riverdale High gang as evangelists for Spire Christian Comics. One would expect the sparks to fly, but it’s hard to call the first episode a classic; its humor has more in common with Cartoon Network offerings such as Total Drama Island than Stamotopoulous’ wicked slashing of religious hypocrisy that enlivened Moral Orel.
But hey, some slack, animation fans; eventually, Fox ADHD is going to bring the same kind of animated shows to a Big Four network that we only saw on cable, satellite, or the Web. Adult Swim, after all, has a history littered with uneven efforts. Series such as The Venture Brothers were worthy of multiple seasons. Had The Boondocks lasted only thirteen episodes, it would still have been a landmark statement. Robot Chicken is the ne plus ultra of animated blackout comedy, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force remains highly popular.