Testing the Water
Cartoons are for kids. No matter attempts to disprove it, animation and children are made for each other. While animated movies like Shrek may appeal to a broad range of ages, from children to adults, the disappointing box office performance Final Fantasy, and the sadly ignored 2000 stateside theatrical release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (both rated PG-13) show that the desire for serious animated features aimed specifically at older audiences—over 13, anyway—is questionable.
But adults do watch cartoons. The enduring popularity of The Simpsons (as well as Fox’s other animated sitcoms, including King of the Hill and Futurama), not to mention Comedy Central’s South Park, proves that there is a large over-18 audience out there. Once the refuge of obscure Hanna-Barbera cartoons and old Warner Brothers shorts, if adults did watch Cartoon Network, it was for the nostalgia value. The network is slowly approaching this older audience with more original programming, with its Toonami block of action and anime series, the popular Powerpuff Girls, and the recently added Samurai Jack. Although adults may watch these shows, they are toned down enough for older children. Toonami‘s anime imports are edited for language or excessive violence, and sometimes nudity. The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack often battle robots instead of humanish characters like themselves. And specific references to death and sexuality are always avoided in all shows.
These newer shows may have looked more grown up, but Cartoon Network was still playing for children. As the channel’s focus shifted from its storehouse of old cartoons (most of which have been shipped off to the network’s spin-off channel, Boomerang) to original shows, they began to face heavier competition for younger viewers from Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons and even Disney’s Toon Disney channel. Anime fans have expressed frustration over the edits the Cartoon Network has requested for the series it airs on Toonami and are turning elsewhere. With the Cartoon Network’s base audience beginning to fragment, the channel has at last decided to appeal to an older demographic, with a new weekly three-hour block dubbed Adult Swim.
Adult Swim features three distinct sections. The first is named “Sitcoms,” and features UPN’s cancelled Home Movies, a family-oriented sitcom about an 8-year-old aspiring filmmaker, and two 15-minute episodes of The Brak Show, with characters from the bizarre talk-show parody Space Ghost Coast to Coast. The second section is “The Lab,” with four 15-minute episodes. The first half-hour has two of three mini-shows: Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, with the old Hanna-Barbera hero as an attorney for classic cartoon characters in strange legal battles; Aqua Teen Hunger Force, about a team of inept superheroes who are also fast food (Master Shake, a milkshake; Frylock, a box of fries; and Meatwad, a shape-shifting mass of ground beef); and Sealab 2021, a rewritten and re-edited version of the ‘70s Hanna-Barbera series, Sealab 2020. The second half hour of “The Lab” consists of two back-to-back episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast. The final section, an hour long, consists of two episodes of the acclaimed anime series, Cowboy Bebop, about bounty hunters in the future.
How much of Adult Swim is actually made for adults? It repeatedly reminds viewers between shows that the block is for “adults” (the shows are all rated TV-PG, TV-14, or, in the case of Cowboy Bebop, TV-14-LV). So it would seem that Adult Swim is where the Cartoon Network might work with more mature themes and concepts in animation, like MTV has done with animated shows like Daria. Instead, most of Adult Swim relies more on surreal humor than actual storytelling, as demonstrated by the pointless plots of The Brak Show and the odd premise of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Home Movies is likewise not definitively “adult-” or even teen-oriented, as its focus on protagonist Brendon’s family life gives it an all-ages appeal. While Harvey Birdman may find humor in sexual innuendo—as when it implies that Race Banner and Dr. Benton Quest of Johnny Quest are a gay couple—the show never goes beyond implying. Or, when Debbie of Sealab 2021 declares she wants to have a baby, the show just uses her confession as a way to make dumb jokes about men. And the humor is hardly “adult.”
Yet, the anime import Cowboy Bebop is a major step forward for the Cartoon Network, daring to show quite a bit of blood as well as drinking and smoking, all of which have been excised from the channel’s imported programming before. The hard-living heroes—Spike Spiegel, Jet Black—have tortured pasts that most of the rest of Adult Swim‘s characters look unfortunately adolescent. Raising difficult questions about honor and loyalty, Cowboy Bebop is the only show here that deals with mature themes.
At this point, the Cartoon Network seems to be feeling out how much of an audience there is for animation aimed specifically at adults or older teens. By utilizing programming that already exists, as well as recycling old Hanna-Barbera characters, the channel (which probably wants to maintain its family-friendly reputation, anyway) hasn’t risked much of its own money, even if Adult Swim fails to attract an audience. And several of the shows might easily find time-slots outside of Adult Swim if the block itself is unsuccessful. As it stands, Adult Swim is far from being the most entertaining block of programming on television, but it is still worth watching. Maybe not for what it is right now, but for what it might eventually become.