[19 January 2012]
It’s a shame that Unsupervised arrives just three months after MTV resurrected Beavis and Butt-head. While FX’s animated comedy is not an outright rip-off of Mike Judge’s ‘90s classic, it’s similar enough, and it suffers by comparison.
If you think about it, that’s not so easy to do. The Mike Judge series was once new and innovative, but now, its set-up is familiar, like so many sitcoms. Unsupervised doesn’t offer much beyond that. High school freshmen Gary (Justin Long) and Joel (creator David Hornsby) are easily stimulated, slow-thinking kids who don’t fit in and don’t quite know it. Whether they’re trying to make a scrap metal lightning rod, exploring a rich classmate’s large house, or becoming the equipment managers of the school baseball team, Gary and Joel live in a perpetual state of high excitement.
The only parts of their lives that aren’t amazing are their home situations. Unsupervised As we learn early in Unsupervised, Gary lives with his stepmom Carol (Kaitlin Olson), a burnout who is always high or hung over. At some point in the past, his dad took off, leaving them with the house. Now Gary is mostly in charge of that house, though he tends to be distracted, drawing bad pictures of his father based on his fuzzy memories, occasionally wondering what happened to him. Joel doesn’t seem to have any family at all. He mentions that his dad works as a grouter. But we never see him, and Joel spends all his time at Gary’s.
Like Beavis and Butt-head, Gary and Joel have friends who abet or complicate their boyish schemes. Their sorta-friend Russ (Rob Rosell) hangs around the fringes, acts really weird, and generally takes things too far. An incident that begins with Gary and Joel showing off their school spirit ends with Russ spray-painting lockers with offensive descriptions of a rival school. The show seems to think that just having Russ engage in stock bad behaviors is enough to get the audience laughing. The show is wrong. Russ’ exploits aren’t shocking or particularly entertaining.
Russ embodies a general problem in Unsupervised, its laziness. From the house party to the blind date to the “let’s go out for the team!” idea, each plotline in the first three episodes is a little too labored, like the show is working extra-hard to put Gary and Joel in inciting situations. Some of these situations don’t even make sense. The house party, for instance, doesn’t even start with the basic risk this plot needs: Carol isn’t going to care if the house is trashed, so there’s no threat of consequences for Gary when he throws a big party. But the show doesn’t seem interested in subverting the house party idea, or doing anything with it, really. A lot of kids come over and have a good time. Hooray for Gary and Joel, I guess, but a successful party doesn’t change their status at school, and it doesn’t provide many laughs for the rest of us.
If it lacks original ideas and a general reason for being, Unsupervised does show flashes of inspiration in smaller moments. When Gary has to figure out how to deal with a stray dog that’s been terrorizing the school baseball field, his solution is sufficiently odd to be amusing. And when the boys are dragged into the principal’s office several times, usually because of Russ’ antics, their sunny attitudes seem to throw the stern principal (Sally Kellerman) out of her disciplinary comfort zone, a contrast of temperaments that can be funny.
These brief moments underline that Unsupervised is a missed opportunity. Despite the conventional premise, there’s plenty of life in the idea of teenagers getting into trouble. But the creators (Hornsby, Scott Marder, and Rob Rosell) and production team (including essentially the entire creative team of both It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Archer) don’t show any inclination to challenge clichés here. Unsupervised appears content to amble along, reiterating what we’ve seen before.