It Doesn't Get Better
For more than a decade, Adult Swim has had a monopoly on late-night surreal and absurd cartoons for adults. Finally, a challenger has arrived in the form of ADHD, the Saturday night branch of Fox’s Animation Domination lineup. With its first two offerings, Axe Cop and High School USA! (both 15 minutes each), Fox recaptures a sense of insanity that hasn’t been seen in cartoons since the heyday of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
The concept of Axe Cop is very simple, and explained in an incredibly brief introduction to each episode: at the scene of a house fire, a cop finds an axe and becomes Axe Cop. Based on a webcomic written by five-year-old Malachai Nicolle and drawn by his 28-year-old brother Ethan, the show looks like what might happen when children play with action figures. Anyone who made He-Man team up with Barbie to fight the Thundercats as a kid will appreciate the mentality behind Axe Cop.
Axe Cop (voiced by Nick Offerman) is an absolute psychopath in the funniest way possible. His logic concerning every decision is completely twisted, from his general fondness for chopping off heads to more particular situations. These tend to involve characters as odd as Axe Cop: when a young woman asks for help, Axe Cop demands first that she tell him whether he’d look good with a Mohawk and handlebar mustache (her answer: “Not as good as you’d look with crazy pizza hair and a super-curly beard and mustache with a robot ghost inside”). Axe Cop’s plan to defeat the King of All Bad Guys is to summon dinosaurs to eat the King’s brain, since “all his brain cells are evil.”
Of course, we expect that Axe Cop will defeat evil whenever necessary, but he consistently finds amusingly bizarre ways to do it. It’s exactly what you’d expect while listening to a kid make up a story: when she’s stuck for a next plot turn, she’ll just make something up. The brilliance is precisely a function of its incongruity.
Such charming childishness stems from the series’ origins as a webcomic written by Malachai Nicolle (five years old when he started writing the series, now eight) and illustrated by his brother Ethan (29 at the start). The TV series does occasionally give in to slightly more “mature” material. By mature, that isn’t to say blue or dirty, but more adult concerns. A store clerk and Axe Cop argue over whether renting a Giant Dinosaur Horn makes more sense than buying one; this leads to Axe Cop’s sidekick Flute Cop (Ken Marino) haggling with the clerk over late fees, a concept that might not interest a lot of five-year-olds. Luckily, Axe Cop soon enough moves on to a new adventure, contending with the world’s smartest poop, defecated into being by a zombie who ate the world’s smartest man.
Whereas Axe Cop is designed to seem silly and spontaneous, High School USA! is more plainly calculated. A perverse satire of the Archie comic books, it follows the adventures of Marsh (Vincent Kartheiser). While he manifests an Archie-like wholesomeness and can-do attitude, he also displays the consequences of being so relentlessly upbeat, suffering from an eating disorder (being three pounds overweight keeps him home eating cheesecake rather than going to the school dance) and other neurotic behaviors.
The first episode of High School USA! begins with Marsh and his pals Blackstein (Nathan Barnatt), Cassandra (Mandy Moore), Amber (uncredited), and Brad (T.J. Miller) attending a school assembly about bullying. Brad learns that he is in fact a bully, and more specifically, that mocking Blackstein as “Brainstein” isn’t just good fun. His horror is compounded when he’s disinvited from the school dance, the theme of which is “It gets better after high school.” As it parodies both the trendy focus on bullying in schools and the “It Gets Better” project, the bit is sure to enrage someone. But most viewers will recognize the South Park-like humor, critiquing the problem by critiquing the mainstream response to it.
But unlike South Park, which usually offers something like “hope”(however sarcastically rendered), High School USA! is mostly just bleak. In this episode, for instance, Marsh explains extolls the value of bullies (pecking orders are set) and so gets Brad back into his classmates’ good graces. Marsh’s sad sack of a father (the show’s creator Dino Stamatopoulos) comes up with the episode’s final line—“It doesn’t get better”—just after he receives a bullying text message, at the same time that he’s eating his son’s discarded cheesecake out of the trash. It’s almost obscenely depressing.
This is the key difference between Axe Cop and High School USA!: the first is a set of jokey bits, and the second builds slowly to deep, sometimes painful laughs. Their similarities are just as obvious: both feature stellar animation, a boon even as they also offer storytelling as cleaver as that in Sealab 2021 and Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. Both also feature top notch, big name casts (Axe Cop‘s guest stars include Vincent Kartheiser, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tyler the Creator). In other words, both shows display effort while looking like they’re easy, an effective combination for animation. It’s commendable too that Fox has found an alternative to its other Animation Domination shows, all about family units and buffoonish fathers. Maybe Saturday night is the new Sunday night.
High School USA!