Drawn Together is more than the bastard child of The Real World and South Park. It might be John Waters’ X-rated cartoon parody of reality TV. Co-creators and producers, Dave Jesser, and Matt Silverstein, are Man Show vets, which makes sense. Because the social critique here is, unfortunately, often outweighed by tasteless rumor that becomes boring and pointless. This dynamic is on full display in the DVD of Drawn Together: The Complete First Season offers all seven episodes.
Calling itself the “first ever animated reality TV show,” the program puts eight cartoon characters in a house together and gets ‘em drunk and disorderly for high drama, just like MTV’s shows. As the pilot opens, we see the Drawn Together house and jump-cut graphics, which read, “1 House. 8 Cartoon Characters. 1,000,000 Cameras. Drawn Together.” A voice-over intones: “This is the Drawn Together house where eight different characters from all over the animated universe will live together in front of a million cameras.” All make fun of reality TV’s repetitive set-ups, fabricated drama, faux momentousness, and excessive voyeurism.
The roommates are dysfunctional, narcissistic wrecks who fall in and out of fake love, toasty hot tubs, and bottomless Jack Daniels bottles (literally, since this is a cartoon). One roommate tries to overcome her racism, two others come out of the closet—and a superficial liberal pluralism reigns.
Princess Clara (described as “a musical and bigoted fairytale princess”) giggles, “The minute I met my new housemates, I felt like they were members of my own family, only much, much poorer.” The comment hits two targets: the class bias of Disney’s princess fantasies and the instant intimacy dynamic on reality shows.
The storyline satirizing her racism is the most biting because it ties its critique to a long history of Disney cartoon stereotyping—Disney’s prim, self-serving racism. Clara thinks Foxxy Love (a blaxpoitation heroine with a Josie and the Pussycats tail, billed as a “mystery-solving musician with a sweet ass”) is a servant. The other characters ridicule her racism but love watching the Clara-Foxxy catfight. Spanky Ham (a depraved pig who is an internet download from X-rated sites) gets popcorn to watch, saying, “I love racism.” That part of the show is over when Foxxy forgives Clara (“She’s just an idiot who’s been listening to her bigoted papa for way too long. It’s not her fault”), and they kiss in the hot tub (then sing a Disney-esque ballad—the DVD extras provide an amusing karaoke sing-along).
But Toot (a washed-up and jealous Betty Boop type drawn in black and white) convinces Clara that the kiss was harassment. When Clara calls the producers to kick Foxxy off the show, they encourage a tequila brunch instead, and more drunken partying ensues. Eventually, Clara declares she’s trading her “glasses made of hate and racial insensitivity” for “colored contacts of tolerance and understanding.” To demonstrate, she tries to convince the other housemates to keep Foxxy in a scene parodying a slave auction. On the commentary track, the producers bemoan negative reactions to the episode. Jesser notes, “We’re trying to make fun of bigotry, and that’s sometimes misinterpreted.”
The commentary track participants (which include all of the regular voice actors except for Adam Carolla) also discuss which elements made it past the network censors (foul language, cartoon nudity, adult situations and humor). Jesser and Silverstein conclude that if a censor thought the joke was funny, she or he would fight for it, often by claiming the joke was about an important issue, even when it’s obviously not. The point being is that censorship appears to be random (the DVD extras even make a game out of it—you can guess which elements were censored; the uncensored DVD restores all the omissions, including deleted scenes).
Episode Two, “Clara’s Dirty Little Secret,” is about a curse the princess’ stepmother put on her vagina, making it a monstrous octopus. The producers say censors justified the storyline by saying it was about “body issues,” and our madcap creators laugh at this idea, insisting they’re going for the jokes over all else. In the pilot, “Hot Tub,” Toot cuts herself when Xandir (a Prisoner of Zenda-type video game hero as closeted gay elf, who says he’s on “a never-ending quest to save my girlfriend”) rejects her. The producers recall the bit was headed for the editing room floor until a cast member on The Real World: San Diego cut herself on camera (self-mutilation). It’s hard to be more outrageous than reality TV itself.
As in reality TV, sensationalism wins out here. The humor is all about breaking taboos. But ultimately, the satire falls short. Drawn Together makes fun of reality shows that peddle sensationalism and call it “educational” (an anorexic Toot breaks character and launches into a Public Service Announcement in “Requiem for a Reality Show”).
But for every sharp satirical point, we see a mountain of crap (often literally). There’s too much gross-out humor with no point (vulgar jokes about bathroom humor, pornography, bulimia, and bondage). In the pilot, Xandir flies off to save his girlfriend, and the scene gives way to footage from a real local news report about a tornado, showing distraught people surveying their leveled homes. Gratuitous and not funny.
The creators don’t have much of interest to say and instead just want to ask all the voice actors about their sexual histories and offer banal, disturbing details of their own, as if they’re in a Man Show sketch. Yes, censorship is bad and it’s good to question social mores. But irony isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. When the naughty humor purports to ironize stereotypes but merely ends up reinforcing them, it’s time to exit this cartoon fishbowl.