The major networks are finally wising up. Dr. Toon wants to know why it took so long.
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.
On the other hand, the 20 episodes of 12 oz. Mouse were at least eighteen too many, and no one will ever mourn Assy McGee, Stroker and Hoop, or The Drinky Crow Show. In short, Fox is taking a risk importing Adult Swim sensibilities to a major network, but it’s not a major risk; both Cartoon Network and MTV (Liquid Television) proved that audiences would watch skewed, off-the-wall series and shorts given the chance.
But what took so long? Granted, the Animation Domination block was probably a novel idea that the other three established networks weren’t pursuing, but Adult Swim had been around since 2001. Liquid Television launched in 1991. Comedy Central fired up South Park in 1997. Were the major networks not paying attention?
The answer likely lies in the summer and Fall of 2000, a period I refer to as the Great Prime-Time Slaughterhouse of animated series. During this time, networks actually did try to cash in on the prime-time success of The Simpsons and South Park, also noting that Web-based animation shows on Icebox.com were creating a stir in 1999.
Unfortunately, many of the efforts were poor. Some got the green light even though the creators had no previous animation experience. Networks are in the business for money, and quickly found there was none to be had. The Simpsons, they figured, must have been a one-off anomaly. Still, that was fourteen years ago, a long time to be gun-shy. The major networks today invest in “edgy” new comedies and crime dramas that could not have possibly aired even twenty-five years ago.
My own theory is that the generation raised on Web-based cartoons, MTV, and Cartoon Network is now very desirable one to sponsors; after all, the younger the demographic, the better. The anime explosion of the late 1980s also made adult animation fans hungry for headier things. Finally, mainstream animation itself is transforming as an entertainment medium. Audiences now expect heavy doses of self-referential irony and adult themes to go with the Flash and Maya. The migration of edgier, wilder animation took this long because the major networks are finally figuring out that the right audience is coming of age now.
With FOX ADHD, we are seeing a revolution in action, the next phase of Animation Domination heavily flavored by the sensibilities of cable and independent networks. If successful, there is no reason that NBC, ABC, and CBS will not follow FOX. This is all to the good of we animation aficionados, who will watch a good series no matter who is savvy enough to air it.
Animation Domination Variation
As I began this column, strange and wonderful things were happening at the box office. Animated films, notably Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University were riding herd over several live-action disappointments projected to outearn them. MU was the second highest-grossing film of June, nearly tied with Man of Steel. DM2 ruled July so thoroughly that there was virtually no competition. The Lone Ranger, After Earth, R.I.P.D. and Pacific Rim should have been so lucky. Nope, World War Z didn’t beat them, either. Even Escape from Planet Earth exceeded expectations. It’s likely that the biggest animated letdown was Epic, although Turbo will need to pick up speed to avoid seriously underperforming.
Entertainment Weekly critic Chris Nashawaty (July 26, 2013 issue) believes that, given the middling quality of the two films in comparison with past glories, we are not embarking on a new boom in animated features. The summer of animated success, he opines, is the product of “kids on furlough from school (who) aren’t as discriminating as their elders”. Now, Nasawaty is a veteran critic I look up to, but I must disagree. Audiences, I believe, realized that Epic and Turbo contained heavy doses of recycled elements and were not up to the creative efforts of MU or DM 2. Did kids, over the course of their summer furloughs, experience exponential growth in their critical abilities?
Truth is, the two animated films, while not on the level of vintage Pixar, were much better pieces of work than the live-action blockbuster ho-hum flops they were up against. Both adult and younger audiences knew it. MU and DM2 may not be the finest grade of cream, but they still rose to the top.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.