It’s hard to wrap one’s head around Out There, IFC’s new animated series. This has less to do with the fact that the show is particularly complex than it has to do with the fact that it gets lost trying to convey complexity.
The show, created by former South Park animation director Ryan Quincy, offers a visual style that appears quirky-for-the-sake-of-being-quirky. It is often funny, but it could be funnier if it were wed to more coherent storytelling. The first episode, entitled “The Great Escape,” introduces Chad (voiced by Quincy), a virginal 15-year-old loner. He’s not quite so familiar as this sounds, as Chad is not precisely human. Like most of his family, he has cat-like features and claws for fingers, although they all wear human-looking clothes and live in a human-looking world.
At no point does the show explain this ambiguous character design, not even in Chad’s frequent voiceover narration, apparently derived in equal parts from The Wonder Years and Stand By Me. Much like these previous narrators, Chad has a best friend, such that they might indulge in boys’ adventures and boys’ conversations. Another virginal teenaged malcontent, Chris (Justin Roiland) shares with Chad a desire to transcend their nerdiness, find girlfriends, and escape the confines of their suffocating small town. Chris isn’t a genus anomaly like Chad (whose family resembles a clan of Cousin Its), but he’s similarly difficult to read, as he ranges from being a hapless high school victim to a malicious high school bully.
As Chad and Chris mumble about girls and expose their adolescent angst, their families provide some context, as they appear to be equally inconsistent. Chris’ mom Joanie (Pamela Adlon) is dating a New Age hippie named Terry (Fred Armisen). Over at Chad’s house, his father (John Dimaggio) is regularly terrified that his son is two steps away from using drugs, and Chad’s little brother Jay (Kate Micucci) is so convinced that he’s a space alien that he might as well be the child on drugs. As in many sitcoms, both households provide for a series of jokes about generational rifts, kids floundering and scheming while their parents become confused.
This familiarity is extended in Out There‘s efforts to showcase the endearing qualities of its oddball protagonists. Wayne truly cares about Chad and wants what is best for him after all, even as his paranoia gets the best of him, and Chris and Chad’s friendship helps them to feel a sense of stability amid basic chaos. As ordinary as this structure may be, it’s tempered by the series’ insistently strange visuals.
We can’t know yet whether Out There will try to find a balance between its conventions and its challenges to same, as did for instance, South Park. Quincy’s show enters into a changed environment of course, one shaped in part by South Park and reshaped over the years by many shows, on many channels, animated for adult viewers. It’s not enough in this environment merely to be weird or eccentric. There’s nothing wrong with weird, and at this point in cartoons (and elsewhere), we might agree that “normal” is only a currently popular version of weird. For now, though, Out There, much like the boys at its center, appears to be overinvested in its own angst.