Many fans put up their devil horns and cigarette lighters on 6 August, with the debut of Metalocalpyse during Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim.” Created by Tommy Blacha (who has written for Da Ali G Show and Conan O’Brien) and Brendon Small, the series centers on the heavy metal band Dethklok, specifically, its mission to make the world “more metal.”
Though its focus may be a heavy metal band with a low average IQ, let it be clear that this is not This is Spinal Tap. The movie earned its place in the comedy canon as a sharp satire rendered by a cast of extremely funny, fully realized characters. But, while Metalocalypse does an excellent job of lampooning the excesses of rock ‘n’ roll, the characters and situations remain thin. This even though they are intricately drawn, down to the thinning hair in drummer Pickles’ red dreadlocks. Smoothly animated, the shots include elaborately painted backgrounds that contribute to a metal-ish “tone,” a departure from the precious, warm nostalgia provided by Small’s previous animated show, Home Movies.
Metalocalpyse‘s premiere episode set up the Dethklok’s status as the “world’s most popular heavy metal band,” as they hyped one gig. Slated to be performed outside in the frigid Batsfjord, Norway, it featured a set list of only one song, their new Duncan Hills Coffee commercial jingle. Despite the adverse circumstances, the show sold to capacity (whether this is a dig at “selling out” remains unclear). At the concert, an overblown scene of carnage unfolded: the stage, air-dropped from the band’s private helicopter, missed its target and crushed waiting fans, hot coffee poured from the massive set sears the flesh of those below until only skeletons remained. Following the untimely demise of the Dethklok chef during the chaos, the band was on its own for dinner. The show then switched gears from sweeping exaggerations and broad jokes to finely tuned gags as the band members tried to navigate their way around the supermarket and failed. Whether this was due to their being spoiled, stupid, or high was also ambiguous.
The episode nailed its satire of metal mythology, rife with tales of heads bitten off bats, dismembered chickens, and lines of ants snorted. Dethklok had fans sign “Pain Waivers” (forbidding them to sue if they are “burned, lacerated, eaten alive, poisoned, de-boned, crushed, or hammer-smashed” while at concerts), even as stories of rock-related injuries at the show circulated. Said one enthusiastic fan at the Dethklok gig: “In London, some dude chopped off my fingers and threw them up on stage, and Murderface rolled them up and smoked them!”
The scenes in the supermarket were less focused on such cultural lore, more on the band members’ basic ineptitudes. One band member approached a store clerk with a cart full of nothing but booze. “Are these good for soup?” he asked. When the clerk started to protest, the band member interrupted, saying, “That’s a yes.” The gags here were faster and more consistent than during the rest of the episode, where laughs were intermittent. (Fans of the fast, deadpan improv in Home Movies will be disappointed.)
This one-dimensional humor causes other aspects of the show to miss their mark, and often give way to confusion. It’s hard to tell if the band is supposed to be loved or loathed by an intelligent audience, why fans so adore their music, or how band members have come to be so unthinkably ignorant. (Really, they never went shopping before they were famous?)
The addled atmosphere emerges from lack of crisp characterization. Dethklok is comprised of five musicians, yet in the first episode, only two personalities stood out, the “leader” Nathan Explosion (Small) and the “wacky” William Murderface. The others blend into each other: three have facial hair, three play some form of guitar, and two are from Scandinavian countries. The Norwegian and Swedish accents are difficult to parse, American William Murderface is given to chronic mumbling, and Nathan Explosion growls.
In fact, it’s hard to understand much of Metalocalypse‘s dialogue. And, even at a scant 15 minutes an episode, this can be wearing. As Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins says, “It’s such a fine line between the stupid and the clever.” Metalocalypse, unfortunately, waffles between the two.