Hey folks, leave it to me to kick off a month-long event a week into the actual month. But that’s how I roll, not obeying those calendars and shit! Today, we’re gonna look at two back-to-back animated series, one that died an ignoble death, and one whose fate is uncertain; and examine if they’re both wastes or if they deserved more time.
First up on the chopping block is Allen Gregory, co-created by Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill (God, that’s a sentence I never expected to write) with Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul. The show premiered in October 2011, in that perilous timeslot on FOX’s Sunday night animation block that has claimed many a show, before being left off the midseason lineup and quickly vanishing after only seven episodes. The show follows the titular protagonist (voiced by Hill), a sheltered, pretentious, unbelievably selfish and manipulative seven year old thrust from his comfortable homeschooled life into public school. Predictably, things are not easy for Allen Gregory out in the real world; his upbringing has in no way prepared him for a world where maybe he’ll have to earn people’s trust and respect instead of immediately assuming it. Over the course of the show’s seven episodes, he never even begins learning that lesson.
One of the biggest problems with Allen Gregory is that the characters are unbelievably obnoxious and completely unlikable and unsympathetic. I have no problem with a show’s protagonists being self-centered and mostly unrelatable–both It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Arrested Development spring to mind–but they at least have to be likable in a funny way. One of the reasons Sunny works is that the characters bring out the worst and best within each other, and any normal character is steamrolled by the shear insanity of the central cast. Arrested Development features a relatable everyman at its center in Michael Bluth, who grounds the show as its other characters exhibit absurd levels of narcissism. Beyond that, both shows are insanely funny, which is not something you could burden Allen Gregory with.
It all wouldn’t be so bad if the show didn’t try to get us to like and sympathize with its horrible protagonist and his equally horrible father Richard (voiced by French Stewart), and actually root for them to succeed over the authority figures in their way. Not to keep dredging up those two other shows, but they end up working because, at the end of the day, the characters almost never get what they want, and therefore order is restored to the world. It’s damn near impossible to both laugh at the characters on this show and feel for them at the same time.
For example, When Allen Gregory tries to fire Guillermo, a student at his school, because he assumes he’s a janitor given his Latino heritage, he’s required to write an apology letter. In his typical fashion, he turns it into a much longer stage play which makes Guillermo look like the villain and him the hero for demanding this janitor do his job or get out. The crowd initially reacts with rightful vitriol towards the content of the play, and cheers when Guillermo gets up onstage and gives a speech about how racism is bad and we should respect working-class people. We then find out that they thought Guillermo’s speech was part of the play, and his teacher (voiced by Leslie Mann), is admonished for trying to convince the crowd that it wasn’t. And so, Allen Gregory walks away unscathed, free to go on being a racist, entitled douche.
On an unrelated note, the show does offer some reasonable voices in the form of Jeremy, Allen’s stepdad (voiced by Nat Faxon); and Julie, his Cambodian adopted sister (Joy Osmanski), and predictably, they’re the punching bags for Allen and his dad. There’s really nothing to justify Jeremy taking so much abuse, other than the backstory that he was worn down by Richard’s advances until he left his own wife and kids to move in with him, which still doesn’t give him any reason to stay beyond the fact that Richard has money. The show even brings this up when Jeremy temporarily leaves Richard and tells his troubles to a bartender, who can’t understand why he’s sad. I couldn’t either, and I cringed at the inevitability that he would go back to that hellhole. Maybe if the show had more episodes, they’d get to the heart of Jeremy’s feelings for Richard and Allen Gregory, but as it is, it offers no explanation why he should care about these people that treat him like crap. This might be a weird complaint against a show that features seven-year-olds acting like adults, but since Jeremy’s supposed to be our Alice for this wonderland, it’s jarring to see him acting so pointlessly unreasonable.
Here’s a clip of the actors talking about this relationship, and it seems like even they don’t understand why they act like they do:
This might all seem like I’m being unnecessarily harsh on what amounts to a silly little comedy that stretches realism an absurd amount in the first place, but Allen Gregory just isn’t funny enough at the end of the day to make all its mean-spiritedness okay. Allen Gregory isn’t a protagonist I can get behind, and nothing in the show even remotely convinces me to care. I really do like Jonah Hill’s other work, and the voice cast contains some majorly funny people, including Will Forte and the great Keith David (who is criminally underutilized), but the whole thing is just a major misstep in my opinion, despite its promising pedigree.
So, should it be back on the air? Nope. There are some interesting ideas at the core of the show, such as why Jeremy stays with Richard, and the fact that Richard was able to, in French Stewart’s words, browbeat a straight man into becoming his lover; and the fact that Richard seems to have adopted Julie out of his own desire to appear charitable. If the show wanted to be a smart satire, maybe it would explore these things, but it doesn’t seem to have much desire to be like that.
Allen Gregory was replaced on the midseason calendar by Napoleon Dynamite, an animated version of that seminal mid-00′s film that took the world by storm. FOX executives were undoubtedly hoping the nation’s infatuation with Napoleon and his awkward pals would have reached a fever pitch by the year 2012, a whole eight years after the movie’s release, so they ordered a show to give us a glimpse into the continuing adventures of its titular geek god protagonist. Pretty much everyone thought it was a horrible idea, and ratings and reactions declined as it went along. While it hasn’t officially been cancelled, it also hasn’t been renewed, and the numbers wouldn’t seem to justify a second season from the notoriously cancellation-happy FOX network. Is it unfair to post about a show that hasn’t officially been declared dead? You bet! If it does get renewed, I’ll print a redaction or something, but until that time, on we go! So is it as bad as it seems like it was destined to be?
Let me start out by saying that after all this time, I am still a defender of the movie. I think it got blown way out of proportion, but as a tiny oddity with its own sensibility and a poignant undercurrent of sadness, I think it’s pretty successful. And I don’t buy the criticism that creators Jared and Jerusha Hess were asking the audience to laugh at the sad sacks on display. Looking back, it’s funny to imagine how much of a pop cultural sensation this weird little movie really was. I can’t imagine the creators ever expected it to take the world by storm, and it was probably never meant to. I think a lot of the backlash towards the movie came from unnecessary over-hype, which is a shame. That said, do I really think the world needed to see more of these characters? Not really. The spouses Hess had seen diminishing returns on their films after their initial success, so no doubt returning to their original property seemed like a surefire way to get back in the public eye. After all, the world loved these characters once before, right?
That all said, I’m happy to report that the show was nowhere near as bad as I expected. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it good, per se, but it was surprisingly funny at times, and showed a willingness to leave behind its origins and embrace its own style of comedy. The Hesses developed the show with Mike Scully, a writer and showrunner who had success on Family Guy, The Simpsons, and Parks and Recreation, so I think he knows funny to a certain degree (though the consensus is that apparently his stint as showrunner on The Simpsons was the show at its worst). It mostly leaves behind the quiet, uncomfortable humor of the original film and leans towards a broader, more absurdist form of comedy that mostly works. It embraces non-realism, which allows Napoleon’s strange fantasies to come to life in a way that would’ve been jarring in the film.
One gripe I have against the show is, despite being able to rangle the entire original cast back into their roles, some characters aren’t really given much to do, and appear to be there simply because the fans expect them to be. Though he is a relatively prominent character, I was disappointed with Uncle Rico’s characterization on the show. He’s still an enterprising boob, but I miss his sleaziness and manipulation from the film. Here, he’s just kind of an idiot who doesn’t really mean much harm. Jon Gries was easily the funniest part of the film as Rico, acting as Napoleon’s main antagonist. The creators appear to want to turn the town of Preston, Idaho into its own world, much like Springfield, Pawnee, or to a lesser extent, Quahog. They bring back random recurring characters such as a gay Brazilian barber, a bizarre biology professor voiced by Jemaine Clement, along with more expected ones like Diedrich Bader’s martial arts guru Rex. However, Preston doesn’t earn a place among those memorable television towns, mainly because the characters at its edges aren’t quite as memorable or distinct as the ones in Pawnee or Springfield. But at the end of the day, I can’t totally fault a show that features moments like this:
Or this, for that matter:
So, take it with a grain of salt, but those who didn’t like the movie might be able to find something funny in the show. Or maybe not.
So, should it be back on the air? You know, maybe it would’ve worn out its welcome before too long anyway, but I would watch a short second season. The show seemed to be settling into its own style by the end, and I think if it were allowed to continue, it may have come up with something unique. Well, as unique as an animated show based on an eight-year-old pop cultural oddity can really be.
Tune in next time for more animated series!
UPDATE: Napoleon Dynamite has officially been cancelled by FOX. That was close, i was worried there for minute that I’d be wrong!
Ahh the 90s. When young people were content to have no ambition, hang out in malls, and wax philosophic in the food court. It was a fun, freewheeling time when the economy was up and people weren’t in a hurry to grow up.
But wait, today’s show was made in 2005…so why does it remind me so strongly of the 90s? Probably because its style, aesthetic, and content feels about a decade behind. Mall-loitering youngsters, goofy stoner-nerd pop culture conversations, even the pop-punk theme song and still-photos-that-sort-of-look-like-animation transitions exude another era.
Today’s show is Life on a Stick, the little-loved sitcom that aired for one season on Fox in 2005. Created by Victor Fresco, the man responsible for several short-lived productions such as Andy Richter Controls the Universe (which I’ve yet to see but have heard good things about) and the top-to-bottom brilliant Better Off Ted (Which I reviewed earlier and you can read here: http://cannedtv.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/canned-tv-show-13-better-off-ted/), it’s a comedy that, like its characters, seems content to not have much ambition, unlike the whip-smart corporate satire of Ted.
The plot is as follows: perennial slackers Laz (Zachary Knighton) and Fred (Charlie Finn) are employed at Yippee Hot Dogs, a mall corndog establishment run by the hilariously abusive Mr. Hut (Maz Jobrani, who would later show up on Ted). From the get-go, Laz is sweet on Lily (Rachelle Lefevre), and the show doesn’t waste much time with any will-they-won’t-they business. They will. Moving on. Laz graduated high school but doesn’t appear to have much drive to do anything with his life, and still lives at home with his dad Rick (Matthew Glave) and stepmom Michelle (Amy Yasbeck), who agree to let him keep living there as long as he remains a good influence on Michelle’s daughter Molly (Saige Thompson), a moody, rebellious tomboy. There’s also his half-brother Gus (Frankie Ryan Manriquez), though honestly, he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time and isn’t really relevant other than spouting out a few wise-beyond-his-years bon mots. The show follows the trials and tribulations of this genial group of slackers, their love lives, and the things they do to maintain their relationships with one another. And really, that’s about it.
Life on a Stick is proudly multi-camera in an era where that style had already become pretty passe. It doesn’t have any real forward momentum, patching up pretty much every character relationship by the time the credits roll. It, like its characters, is all about stasis. While it makes sense on an analytical level, it doesn’t exactly make for exciting television. By the time we leave our characters at the end of Stick‘s thirteen episodes, they’re in exactly the same place they started in, and don’t really have much drive to change that. A lot of interesting potential themes exist at the heart of the show, such as the fear of growing up and gaining responsibility, the confusion of trying to piece together two halves of a family, or jealousy between siblings, but all of them are pretty much pushed to the side in order for the show to focus on the daily zaniness of its central characters. It even teases certain deeper issues, like the fact that Lily is working two jobs in order to pay her way through college while also helping out her disabled brother and recently laid off father. We hear about this, but we never see it. It’s in the telling mode, which makes it feel like a last-ditch attempt to add some depth to the characters. The same goes for Fred’s apparent lack of father and drug-addict mother. It might be poignant or even darkly funny if we saw it happening, but just hearing about it in between zingers just doesn’t work.
That said, Life on a Stick is a pleasant-enough experience, with a handful of funny lines in every episode. The laugh track, like always, is egregious, but there are enough funny moments to keep it moving along. I admire that the show skips the usual romantic tension of sitcoms and just has its two leads get together. The tension then lies in whether they want a relationship or just a casual thing, but that’s another issue. I enjoy the weird specificity of the exchanges between Laz and Fred, with Fred in particular getting the series’ best lines. Finn’s dry, slightly stoned delivery makes him the show’s comic MVP. I also enjoy Rick’s irrational fear of his own stepdaughter, and in general Glave is also pretty funny. The show doesn’t do much physical comedy, but there are some funny moments, like this one where Fred engages a jock in a fistfight impeded by extremely thick glasses (go about 40 seconds in):
It’s no Arrested Development, but it’s enjoyable enough. The show’s definitely surprising given Fresco’s other, much sharper work to come, but shades of it are visible. Much like Ted‘s Veridian Dynamics, this mall appears to have everything imaginable, and the scope of it is only hinted at. It strains credibility when people can seemingly come and go from their jobs as they please, and nobody seems to concerned about it, but I can accept it as part of the mall’s weird code of conduct.
Fortunately for the cast of Life on a Stick, they’ve all worked pretty steadily since the show ended. Knighton is on the current sitcom Happy Endings, which I haven’t seen but have heard good things about. Lefevre (who I developed kind of a crush on despite the mediocre surroundings) went on to appear in the first two Twilight movies (good for her?). Finn’s done some voice work, and Thompson’s been on a few other shows. I have to give props to Amy Yasbeck, who took this role as her first after the death of her husband, John Ritter, in 2003. It’s just a shame she couldn’t have been on something a bit more successful.
Ultimately, Life on a Stick lasted only a scant five episodes, with eight more completed and unaired. Ratings were extremely low, despite being on after American Idol. Hell, it even featured season 2′s winner Ruben Studdard and third-placer Kimberly Caldwell as singing fish restaurant employees. Apparently all Idol fans remembered to turn off their TVs immediately after the show and go to bed. Go to about three minutes in to see the once-relevant pop stars on a never-relevant TV show:
The rest of the episodes were aired in syndication, which I didn’t even know a short-lived show like this could get. It doesn’t exist on DVD, but someone has helpfully posted the whole thing on youtube if you feel inclined to watch it.
So, should it be back on the air? shocking, but no. Maybe if the show were on longer, it would be able to develop its characters more and expand their world. But if they show no signs of that in the first season, then it’s doubtful they’d do it at any other point.
As a bonus for you fellow Parks and Rec fans, Mr. Ron Swanson himself, Nick Offerman, appears in the last episode. Ah, before they were famous (again, skip to about 3:14) to see him:
Tune in next time when I review…I don’t know what the hell I’ll be reviewing! Hope to see you all soon.