When they want to stick things in your rectum, well, that just flies in the face of nature.
As Aardman Studios has demonstrated repeatedly, stop-motion claymation makes for an extremely engaging form of animation. What’s less consistently clear is the effectiveness of translating comedy from UK to US. A case could be made against CBS’s remake of Aardman’s Creature Comforts for American TV as a successful one. The series cherry-picks segments from anonymous interviews with “everyday people,” putting words into the mouths of various claymationed animals. But without any adorable British accents, the show’s subjects seem almost too ordinary to captivate, like choosing to base a series on animating the talking head footage of those waiting in line at Wal-Mart.
The ordinariness starts with Aardman’s signature style: it’s so recognizable—the round, protruding eyes and the quivering clay browline—that it’s not an exciting enough premise on its own. The inherent limitations of the animation style also prevent the large assortment of animal characters from capturing the kind of complexity that should be explored visually, especially with dialogue that mostly lacks introspection. For example, take the pair of apes engaged in a traditional grooming session, during which the groomer talks about how she enjoys a good “fixer-upper” in a man. The set-up seems straightforward, refusing to explore any further similarities between apes and people, rendering the comment and scene more anecdotal than insightful.
In this way, Creature Comforts seems to want to play it safe and light, never forcing a conclusion that isn’t immediately on the screen. In fact, visual irony is the series’ main gag, one that is initially charming, even when it’s obvious. The first episode opens on a pair of dogs sniffing another dog’s butt, describing the odors therein in terms of fine wines—“Dark notes… hints of cassis, raisin… grape”—presumably the context of the interview is indeed a wine-tasting, as we hear a cork pop and a glass fill. However, the next few renditions of this premise are less cute, and by the time we encounter a turtle who likes to “take it slow,” or the male bird who can’t stop gushing over his beautiful ladybird (who, we see, has a lazy eye and missing teeth), the joke has worn thin.
Yes, it occupies a primetime (“family hour”) time slot on network, so it won’t have the latitude or moxie of Adult Swim, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t explore, with some relative depth, the humanity within animals or vice versa. Otherwise, what’s the point of the premise? But the humor stays simple and non-exploratory. Though the show doesn’t exactly suffer for its sanitized inclinations (in fact, it calls to mind the decidedly offensive and once clever Crank Yankers, which also merges a make-believe world with our real one), it’s too willing to settle for obvious gags.
Creature Comforts’ most riveting aspects are not the jokes or animation, but the brief character studies revealed through the actual interviews. If the stories were allowed to breathe a little, all you would need is Ira Glass, and you could call it This Animal Life. Such a moment is glimpsed when an old man, animated as a lion, is asked if he’s ever killed anyone (the question’s original context is never explained). He asks, “You mean deliberately?” and then answers, “Never without a reason that was not normal.” What seems a grave and also perversely hilarious instant is jarringly abandoned when we cut back to a discussion of constipation by a hypochondriac parakeet.
Given that not all subjects are as forthcoming, to mine for material, the series must not always be kind to its interviewees. And, that’s a good thing, because the less nice the show tries to be, the more compelling its subjects become. In a barn, a large pig missing several teeth begins to talk about her struggles with her doctor: “He said, ‘You will never walk again if you don’t take off some of that weight.’ I thought, ‘I’ll show you.’” She pauses for a second, her large claymation eyes bulge, darting side-to-side. Then she says, “And you can see, I’m walking fine.” While the issues raised by the scene are clearly sizist (she’s animated as a very large pig) and classist (her accent and dental care denote “lower”), the subject’s own blind spot is glaringly exposed through the dialogue, rather than by setting or irony.
What’s for certain is that the show is charming and utterly tasteful, even when it goes for potty humor. That constipated parakeet’s husband sits next to her while under a pile of his own bird poop: “I’ve never had any medical problems,” he explains with a plop. Sure, Creature Comforts backs off from fully unpacking nearly every joke it sets up, but I suppose in that way, it’s comfortable indeed.