For those of you who weren’t tuned to FOX on Saturday night, you missed the offical debut of the channel’s new animation block, ADHD: Animation Domination High-Def.
Until recently, the project was just a website hosting an unsettling explosion of short-form YouTube animation and GIF-able craziness.
FOX markets Animation Domination High-Def as “the future of animation.” Such boasting is low-hanging fruit considering the sneak peek was pre-gamed by a tepid Simpsons rerun of their season 24 finale, followed by an old Family Guy that made jokes about dead children seem blase. What FOX knows it needs is a shot of adrenaline from Nick Weidenfeld, the head of ADHD and former VP of Program Development at Adult Swim. Debuting on Cartoon Network in 2001, Adult Swim wrote the book on just-tolerable-enough 15-minute adult animation. For FOX, anything different from a half hour of a kooky, crazy family is groundbreaking.
Which is part of what makes Axe Cop so darn welcome. Based on the webcomic from the mind of a five-year-old boy and drawn by his 29-year-old brother, Axe Cop‘s debut episode “Night Mission: Stealing Friends Back” is a bombast of childish first-thing-that-comes-to-mind derangement. The series follows an axe-wieldingcop—voiced by TV’s resident burly funnyman Nick Offerman—who survives on two hours of sleep a night and a diet strictly of birthday cake. In this episode, he helps his colleague Bat Warthog Man locate his lost friends.
The absurdity of the whole thing—that same something that made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so popular nearly three decades ago—jets along at perfect lightning speed. The zany plot contrasts hilariously with Axe Cop’s real-world problems: he must return his dinosaur horn rental on time to avoid hidden fees, and he must also handle a dinner invitation from his partner Flute Cop. The show’s randomness is of the very same kind making Adventure Time so much money right now, but knowing a young mind is behind the madness makes Axe Cop‘s world building tolerable.
Then how is it that the much more grounded High School USA!leaves an audience befuddled and annoyed? Plot summaries for the series were thin these past few months, I imagine because the focus of the show is so similarly thin: we follow five teens currently in high school and… that’s it. The cast includes a black guy with a jewfro named Blackstein (BOOM!) voiced by Nathan Barnatt, and a leading cute skinny boy named Marsh (Vincent Kartheiser) who has an unhealthy obsession with staying skinny.
Debut episode “Bullies” finds the gang prepping for the “It Gets Better After High School” dance. The crux of the plot is a gay bashing/bully bashing metaphor that doesn’t fully translate. The teens inhabit a netherworld between the present and the ’50s (their Back to the Future rock ensemble emits dubstep at the high school dance), but the contrast again does not fully materialize. The show’s funniest standalone jokes are just that: standalone jokes. By trying to shimmy a full plot between the few laughs—like shoving a business-as-usual That ’70s Show into 10 minutes—”Bullies” comes off as unfocused and a bit bland. Perhaps it needs more time in the incubator.
We forget that The Simpsons began 24 seasons ago as short, animated sketches buffering The Tracey Ullman Show. Its creators took an enormous risk debuting on FOX two years later in 30-minute form, a deal the network initially opposed. The results were groundbreaking. Now, in some bastardized circle of life, FOX’s “future of animation” is a return to short-form. Is it innovative? Not really; Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim has been doing it for more than 10 years. But the results go two ways. Axe Cop pumps up the zaniness and has crazy fun in its allotted time—it’s a breath of fresh air. But High School USA! tries to be a rude Reader’s Digest version of every high school show we’ve ever seen, and it fails to shock. Like those terrifying early Simpsons shorts, it feels underdeveloped. With Animation Domination High-Def’s full launch this Saturday, let’s hope that whatever Nick Weidenfeld is throwing in the Kool-Aid is potent enough to keep mainstream America entertained.
What do you think of High School USA! and Axe Cop? Will these short cartoons take hold in prime time on a major channel, or is FOX destined to return to tried and true reruns to keep their audience?
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