Cartoon Network seems to be taking a page from its Adult Swim brand and beginning to try out new shows that are only 15 minutes long, instead of the traditional 30. The first of these, Adventure Time, premiered as a series back in April, and the network now brings us two new entries, Regular Show and MAD. MAD purports to be a televised incarnation of MAD Magazine, complete with Spy vs. Spy segments and cameo appearances from magazine mascot Alfred E. Newman. The network didn’t make any full episodes available for preview, but an extended clip reel gives a strong impression of what to expect. It’s hard to imagine anyone who is not male and under the age of nine enjoying what MAD is selling as humor.
Imagine the hit-and-miss Robot Chicken as a mixture of low-rent animation styles and jokes that miss 95% of the time and you have an idea of what MAD‘s clip reel is like. This is to be expected, as Robot Chicken creative director Kevin Shinick is reportedly on board as showrunner. But even if MAD is aiming directly at Cartoon Network’s preteen audience, Shinick should be ashamed for foisting lazy bits like “Keeping Up With the Carsmashians” (in which the sisters run their vehicles into each other) and “Aberzombie and Stitch” on unsuspecting kids.
Regular Show, on the other hand, comes with a clear vision and premise. The first three episodes introduce and develop Rigby and Mordecai, a raccoon and six-foot tall blue jay, are 20something slackers who work at a private park. The owner is Pops, a humanoid lollipop who serves here as the typical blustery, hard-to-please boss character, except that he seems just a bit more easygoing than most, doling out overtime and raises to our heroes. The manager, Benson, is an anthropomorphic gumball machine who can only get around by skipping. Other than that, he’s the hardworking third wheel who is mostly bemused by Mordecai and Rigby’s antics, stepping in to clean up their messes from time to time.
All this would make for a strange and very surreal cast of characters… if the show were premiering in 1990. But the bar for cartoon weirdness has been significantly raised over the past two decades, so these oddballs look relatively tame.
And awfully familiar. Mordecai and Rigby take inspiration from nearly every other significant animated duo of the past 20 years. They have a bit of Beavis and Butt-head’s impulsiveness, some of Ren and Stimpy’s far-out adventures, and a little of Spongebob and Patrick’s childlike wonder. The comparatively levelheaded Rigby is susceptible to Mordecai’s enthusiasm.
Their relationship drives the series. Creator JG Quintel and veteran voice actor William Salyers have an easy chemistry as Mordecai and Rigby. They’re supposed to be longtime friends and it feels like they are. When the pair gets excited, they cry out in unison, “Ohhhhhhhh” at exactly the same pitch. The opening scene in the premiere episode, “The Power,” has the pair pretending to tag-team battle a stuffed wrestler and clearly having a blast doing it. At least until they accidentally make a hole in the wall. Another episode finds them trying to outdo each other on old-school arcade games. As Mordecai flails away at the games, Rigby admonishes him for “button-mashing” and proceeds to win every time with his precise knowledge of how to play each game.
Still, Regular Show isn’t actually very funny. Maybe “mildly amusing” is a better way to describe it. This is the kind of cartoon that might make you smile at a 1980s trope or chuckle at a pratfall, but so far, there aren’t that many laugh-out-loud moments.
The show features some effectively wacky story ideas in the initial episodes, and Quintel effectively establishes his characters’ basic personalities. Beyond Rigby and Mordecai, though, the rest of the cast doesn’t make much of an impression. The show’s writing at this point seems to be largely scenario-based. That’s good for establishing the setting, but there’s so much plot to get through in these episodes that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of time for jokes. It’s telling that of the three preview episodes, the funniest one had the least complicated plot. The boys want to buy tickets for a rock concert but need to work overtime on their jobs to earn the money. It’s a simple setup that allows for comedy that is both predictable (they use so much energy doing chores that they have little left to enjoy the concert) and absurd (a gigantic intelligent coffee bean who only says, “Coffee,” supplies Mordecai and Rigby with constant coffee refills so they can get their work done).
A preteen audience will probably go for the show’s energy (which is significant) while missing out on a lot of the ‘80s references. In just three episodes, the show gently parodies hair metal, period video games, and toy synthesizers. Quintel uses these touchstones as window dressing for the stories. It’s the kind of thing that might give older viewers a chuckle but isn’t necessary to enjoy the show. If the creators can find a better balance between plot and comedy, Regular Show might really take off.