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Adult Swim in a Box

(Cartoon Network; US DVD: 27 Oct 2009)

Triumphantly Weird... and in a Box

You will try and fail to explain to the uninitiated the wonders of Adult Swim. They will simply have to experience it for themselves and nothing but significant recreational drug can prepare them for it.


Sure, you can say that Aqua Teen Hungerforce is about fast food with intense personalities who are in some unexplained way dedicated to fighting evil but mostly hang around their house creating domestic mayhem. Robot Chickencould be described as an animated satire centered around the idea that you, viewer, are the cyborg chicken of the credits, revived to mechanical chicken life and forced to imbibe massive doses of pop culture. You can explain that Space Ghost takes a cheesy ‘60s superhero, fuses him with an awkward personality equal parts David Brent and high school guidance counselor, and gives him his own talk show.


But if they’ve never watched they just don’t know and if you’ve never watched you can’t imagine the delights that are awaiting you in Adult Swim in a Box. This new compilation takes some of the best seasons of the best shows and packs in hours of commentary. It includes both Adult Swim Standards like Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teen Hungerforce, along with niche delights like Morel Orel. New hits like Metalocalypse round our a fairly full presentation of the subversive joy that is Adult Swim.


One of the more interesting features of this set is an extra disc that includes a mash-up of conceptual pilots for new shows, a great added bonus for all of you Adult Swim historians and for those who want a sneak peak at programs yet to come. It’s important to note (despite marketing to the contrary) that these are not all “never-before-released pilots” in the sense that they never appeared on TV but rather never-before-released on DVD. Two of these are actually failed pilots.


You’ll enjoy bits and pieces of these episodes since the worst of Adult Swim is better than much of what you’ll find on basic cable. You’ll also notice that these shows died (or in one case, might die) the deaths of clever concepts gone bad. A good example is Korgath of Barbaria which is, as it sounds, a comment on dark sword and sorcery epics of the Conan the Barbarian variety.


Korgath originally aired and then quickly disappeared in 2005. Longer than most Adult Swim programs, Korgath essentially has a single joke: he’s a barbarian, he acts like a barbarian and he cuts people into jigsaw puzzles of animated guts and gore. The show had great animation and a kind of funny stomach parasite, but otherwise it’s easy to see why it never became part of the regular line-up.


The compilation also gives us a sneak peak at a new live animated satire called Totally 4 Teens that riffs on Kids Are People Too lameness. It includes a 30-something host trying desperately to be hip and all the pedantic shark-jumping of every after-school special you’ve ever seen. It’s a perfect concept and co-creator Ari Fishman of Daily Show fame brings in that shows signature blend of the real and the surreal sprinkled with mock-serious sarcasm. 


Although the concept of this show is creative enough to possibly propel it, I couldn’t find a way to enjoy it after the first five minutes and certainly not after the first 15. Like Korgath, its much longer than most Adult Swim offerings and the cheesiness quickly begins to wear on you. In fact, it’s so much like those efforts by network TV in the ‘70s and ‘80s to be cool, relevant and unfailingly positive that Totally 4 Teens begins to grate much like its source material.


Lots of extras are to be had in this boxed set, but I was disappointed to find how uneven the commentary tracks are, varying from series to series and even episode to episode. Robot Chicken commentary includes Seth Green and his creative team talking about their decisions in relation to specific sketches as well what is was like to mix and match icons of pop culture in fairly subversive ways (like having Hogan’s Heroes include professional wrestlers or a sketch involving Rainbow Brite with irritated bowel). 


Other commentary tracks are less charming. For example, the commentary on Sealab 2021, features not only series creators Matt Thompson and Adam Reed but seemingly the entire production crew, including an intern. Its gives you less a sense of listening to episode commentary and more the feeling that you are overhearing the staff beta-testing jokes, meaning that 90 percent of what they say is simply not funny.


Worse, you can’t actually hear a lot of it since so many of the participants are many of the participants are inexplicably poorly micced. This has the effect of making the entire commentary feel like it was literally phoned in. In other words you’ll be quickly racing for your remote to turn the commentary off so you can hear the unfailingly brilliant episodes.


The commentary tracks may be uneven, but there are still plenty of great extras here. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Season 2 has a mockumentary that provides an “explanation” of the beginnings of the show that involves the destruction of Earth, an intergalactic werewolf and a bloody massacre of Cartoon Network execs. Space Ghost Season Three contains a truly bizarre “Moment with Jon Stewart” perhaps worth the price of the entire boxed set.


My most serious criticism of Adult Swim in a Box has to do with the choice of series. If this is supposed to be a best of the best (and to be fair, Adult Swim makes no claim to this) then some of the choices are odd. Sealab 2021, Space Ghost, Aqua Teen and Robot Chicken belong in any selection of Adult Swim bests. But so do Venture Brothers and Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law, neither of which made the cut for this collection.


Morel Orel, a personal favorite of mine, did make it along with Metalocalypse. As much as I like both programs personally, I don’t think either reach the level of sublime freakiness enjoyed by some of the classic programs in the set.


This small criticism aside, there is almost no way that PopMatters readers are not going to enjoy this animated feast. The mountains of pizza and illegal herbs that have been consumed in the watching of these series testifies to their triumphant weirdness. This is a compilation not to be missed by that rather large demographic that yearns for narratives about a large, talking milk shake ordering a wife from Chechnya or the micronauts going on a breast-climbing expedition.  You know who you are.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host out in September 2014 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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