[30 October 2011]
Actor Jonah Hill wants to surprise us. Best known for his slacker-schlub performances on the Apatow circuit, starting last year, Hill took a stab at indie weirdness in Cyrus, then dramatic earnestness in Moneyball. Now, he’s branching out even further. He’s created the animated TV series Allen Gregory, whose central character is nothing like his usual low men on the totem pole.
Allen Gregory De Longpre (voiced by Hill) lives in the upper stratosphere of society. He’s a seven-year-old kid raised in a tony metropolitan apartment by his father, the vaunted Richard De Longpre (French Stewart). When it’s decided that Richard’s life partner, Jeremy (Nat Faxon), should reenter the workforce, the boy’s home-schooling ends and he starts attending the same public elementary school as his Cambodian adopted sister, Julie (Joy Osmanski).
The school setting allows the series to explore Allen Gregory’s contradictions. Raised and treated like an adult—and one with a healthy ego, mind you—now he has to learn how to fit into the brutal hierarchy of an elementary school. On one hand, he fancies himself on the same level, if not superior to, the school faculty. “Gina, Gina, Gina,” he admonishes his second-grade teacher, calling her by her first name to set up his assertion that she has no authority over him.
On the other side, his classmates want little to do with him, and he’s stung by the social rejection of those he considers beneath him. He tries to befriend the school’s Big Man on Campus, Joel Zadak (Jake Johnson), while being simultaneously put off by his jocky personality. Allen Gregory’s simultaneous desire for acceptance and dominance grounds the series’ comedy: there is something inordinately amusing about a kid in a lunch room, decked out in a suit and bowtie, yelling, “It’s just a little Pinot Grig at lunch, Gina,” when scolded for having wine in the cafeteria—to go with his sushi.
This clash-of-cultures comedy is ably delivered by the strong voice cast. Part of what makes Allen Gregory such a funny kid is that he sounds basically indistinguishable from Jonah Hill, who affects the most condescending, schmoozy voice possible. You can tell Stewart is a voice acting pro (his gigs go all the way back to 1999, when he was the voice of Icarus in an animated Hercules), and he brings an easy, clueless charm to Richard De Longpre. And, even though he only has a couple of quick scenes in the premiere as the school superintendent, Will Forte’s voice is unmistakably zany and full of energy.
Still, this is an animated show on Fox, home of the Seth MacFarlane cartoon empire. (How much smarter—and better looking—it was when Fox was home to the Matt Groening cartoon empire, before it traded Futurama for the return of Family Guy and two Family Guy clones.) MacFarlane’s influence is strong, and Allen Gregory lapses into some Family Guy-isms. The most egregious is a cutaway to an extended sexual fantasy Allen Gregory has regarding his high school principal, a woman described as being “in her late 60s.” The core of the joke—that his attraction to a woman who’s overweight and old is repellent—is not as shocking or funny as the show thinks (like so many gags on Family Guy). It’s also not believable for the character. A seven-year-old, even a precocious one, wouldn’t likely have such nuanced opinions about pubic hair.
Similarly, the show leans on angry-Allen too much. Yes, it’s funny to see the little egghead blow his lid and be downright rude to people. The problem is, he’s belligerent to too many people, especially within his family structure. It’s realistic that a kid would be hostile to either his father’s partner or a new adopted sibling, and Allen Gregory has both. But scenes at the De Longpre home devolve into across-the-board shouting. The writers need to differentiate how Allen Gregory relates to Jeremy from how he relates to Julie. If the show had Allen Gregory treat Jeremy and Julie differently, there’d be more opportunity for a wider variety of jokes, including some that don’t involve yelling.
At least Allen Gregory doesn’t try to emulate Family Guy‘s ugly aesthetic. Allen Gregory looks much nicer. Character designs come from Andy Bialk and James McDermott, whose combined credits include King of the Hill, The Ricky Gervais Show, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack. As on those shows, the characters of Allen Gregory look flat and the backgrounds are mostly static. But rather than the ultra-spare designs of those shows, the artwork feels full and sophisticated, with a muted color palette. Maybe the humor can become as refined.