[25 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It was a moment many in the fanbase were looking forward to since the show’s inception. Production house Williams Street and cable distributor Cartoon Network promoted it heavily during its extremely popular nightly ‘[adult swim]’ block. There were contests and conjecture, Messageboard Nation buzzing endlessly about casting and narrative concepts. But when the surreal sensation Aqua Teen Hunger Force finally unveiled its first ever live action episode (entitled “The Last Last One Forever and Ever”), it stunned devotees of the series. The storyline was weird. The acting choices were unusual to say the least and the overall tone was so subversive, so completely and utterly outside the box, that many found it difficult to match the humans they were seeing with the anthropomorphic French fries, milk shake, and ball of meat they so frantically loved.
But that is Aqua Teen Hunger Force defined: always reaching, always defying and redefining expectations. Along with South Park and the seminal Simpsons, it stands as one of television’s best and brightest experiments in anarchic animation. The premise originally was to spoof Saturday morning cartoons from the ‘60s and ‘70s, shows where unusual objects (cars, monsters, cavemen) acting like detectives, solving mysteries and righting wrongs. Quickly dispensing with such a limiting foundation, creators Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis decided to expand and pervert the Aqua Teen’s universe. That included more screen time for surly neighbor (and obsessive Giants fan) Carl Brutananadilewski, a wealth of iconic continuing characters (the Mooninites, MC Pee Pants, The Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future), and more and more outrageous plot conventions.
This is especially true of the installments that make up this seventh “volume” box set. Long since done with anything close to playing investigator, roommates Master Shake (the voice of Dana Synder), Frylock (Carey Means) and Meatwad (Willis) team up with the aforementioned hairy Neanderthal Carl (Willis again) to discover the truth behind the tooth fairy (“Creature from the Plaque Lagoon”), the insane lunar origins of the Wookie (“Two and a Half Star Wars Out of Five”), the problem of being limbless - and dateless (“Fry Legs”) and what happens when you work for a balloon version of Hitler (“Der Inflatable Fuhrer”). There’s also a reinvention return to the show’s first episode (“Rabbot Redux”), a trip to Death Island (“Egg Ball”), the discovery of a creature in Meatwad’s closet (“Monster”), and an attempt to teach safe sex to the crack whores and drug addicts who share our hero’s community (“Rubberman”).
Naturally, none of this plays out the way one expects. The infamous leader of the Third Reich discovers that it’s actually okay to love the Jews, Han Solo’s favorite species of flight assistant turns out to be a irritating jackass, and the Aqua Teen’s only travel to the aforementioned evil atoll to get pinball shaped eggs for Shake’s new arcade game (makes sense). Elsewhere, Meatwad shows off his skill at replication (“Multiple Meat”) while Frylock invents a device will teleports him across time and space - although it mainly winds up in Carl’s living room (“Time Machine”). In each case, the typical Aqua Teen oddness thrives. It bellows and swells from deep inside the fermented mind of its makers. Jokes bounce off each other like gnats buzzing just beyond a sweltering summer picnic while personality is pulled apart and dissected, only to be reformed into a ferocious funny business Frankenstein.
Perhaps that’s why “The Last Last One Forever and Ever” stands out so. Sure, the opening animation highlights a standard Aqua Teen situation - all the water on planet Earth has become highly flammable. Our heroes suddenly find themselves immersed in flames. As the typically hyper-violent (and hilarious) hi-jinx play out, the action slowly fades to show a human Frylock (famed rapper T-Pain) reading “Don” Shake’s (comedian H. Jon Benjamin) latest short story. After arguing over its value, the disgruntled scribe heads to the workout room, where a “brownish” exercise ball offers to help him flesh out his ideas. Soon, Don is asking an even sleazier and skuzzier version of Carl if he likes his new approach. Complaining that there’s not enough skin in the saga, the criticism sends the wannabe writer into a tailspin. According to the exercise ball, the only way to cure what ails him is…to kill Frylock.
In this mega-ultra-meta-epic reinterpretation of the show, we see similarities and signs but no outright connections. Meatwad is merely a voice in Don’s head, while the man’s easily identifiable Shake desire to earn a quick buck remains intact, if translated into a far more passive persona. Indeed, everything about our main character is cast off from a weird alien construal of the character. Where the original cartoon Master Shake is rude and offensive, cruel and brutal, Don is deliberate but nice, equally misguided as his animated avatar but far less proud of it. In Frylock’s case, T-Pain plays him as equally critical and domineering, but without any of the urban sass pain in the ass aspects we expect from the famed flying potatoes. Oddly enough, Carl is just as prurient, his wife-beater wearing frame flawlessly essayed by Cartoon Network contest winner Dave Long, Jr. and for his part, Meatwad remains a steadfast combination of idiot and insight.
In the ultimate example of mutating the medium to fit the message, it was clearly the intention of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force staff to offer fans a “be careful what you wish for” dynamic. Taken to their realistic ends, Carl would remain repulsive, but Shake and Frylock suddenly stop being two dimensional sketches and wind up complicated 3D disappointments. It’s had to fathom what the faithful wanted - a man dressed up like a cup with a straw sticking out of his head? A bejeweled black man flying in the air with dominant dreads standing in for French fries? Maybe Meatwad could have been a morbidly obese little person, just to keep everything eccentric. Instead, “The Last Last One Forever and Ever” took everything special about the show and shoved it back in the viewer’s face. It asked the aficionado to stare directly into the core of what the show was about and see if they still worshiped it. The confused reaction speaks for itself.
Of the many reasons surrounding Aqua Teen Hunger Force‘s continuing creative achievements, the live action assault on its obsessives is petulant par for the course. Sure, it’s funny to see hundred of Meatwads arguing over Parliamentary procedure, or giggle over the number slights to George Lucas and his entire sci-fi universe. Even the reset episode where the Aqua Teens finally move…to a house two doors down, provides ample amounts of the usual oddball entertainment. But with “The Last Last One Forever and Ever”, the series redefined its goals and amplified its aims (for those whose seen the recent masterpiece “100”, the new direction is undeniably brilliant). Not only did it help make a good show better, it argued for it’s continuing creative excellent. While the wit may not be everyone’s cup of soup, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is the surest surrealist satire on TV.