[3 March 2009]
An electric blue sleeve and a sheet of stickers that resemble Colorforms are two of the few light-hearted touches to Vol. 6 of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The bright packaging conceals a product that is mean-spirited and crude. Although the series has moments of incisive commentary, they are few and far between. The rest is truly cringe-worthy, proof of what happens when television overlooks quality in favor of shock factor.
Part of Comedy Central’s Adult Swim block, Aqua Teen Hunger Force chronicles the cartoon lives of three roommates who just happen to be fast food. There’s Master Shake (a milkshake); Frylock (a carton of French fries) and Meatwad (a blob of ground beef.)
Several of the episodes on the two discs that make up Vol. 6, however, feature small doses of the fast food and throw much of the focus on their dimwit neighbor, Carl. That’s a big mistake. Carl is truly disgusting, both inside and out, and anything bigger than a small dose of Carl (say 30 seconds or so) is just too much.
His presence also seems to encourage the creators to up the gross-out quotient to levels that make these episodes almost impossible to watch. Each time Aqua Teen Hunger Force comes up with something laugh-worthy or delightfully pithy, the moment is drowned by a torrent of pointless vulgarity.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force manages the nearly impossible in surpassing the absurdity levels found in fellow Adult Swim offerings Space Ghost, Coast to Coast and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law – all three were produced or co-produced by the same studio, Williams Street.
The former has outlasted the latter two on air, but where Space Ghost and Harvey Birdman had just enough charm to make the absurdity worthwhile, Aqua Teen Hunger Force has none. Therefore the random appearance of aliens, or the bloody death of a main character who inevitably returns in the next episode, is robbed of any sense of fun or whimsy.
Fans, however, will consider the Vol. 6 DVD a must have because the set includes four yet-to-be aired episodes. Among them is “Shake Like Me”, which has the potential to become a lightening rod in the same vein that the “Tom Cruise in the closet” episode was for South Park.
The episode begins with Shake getting a bite in his Styrofoam torso by a “radioactive black man” who is dumping green muck into a new “swimming pool” next door. The title should give you an idea of where the plot goes next – Shake wakes up sporting a grill, an Afro, and a host of other stereotypes.
Unlike some of the other episodes on the DVD, “Shake Like Me” isn’t 15-minutes of directionless weirdness. There’s a coherent plot; unfortunately it’s an offensive plot.
It’s obvious that the writers were trying to go somewhere with “Shake Like Me”, that they wanted to create a biting satire about the stereotypes in the world outside the cartoon universe. As Frylock and Meatwad attempt to return Shake to his original state, there are plenty of gross generalizations about yuppies in addition to African-Americans.
But the episode doesn’t quite work. The writers hit all the easy notes but fail to say anything truly biting. Lacking that, all that’s left is a plot that might make a few people snigger and a few more gasp, but not one that would make anyone guffaw, let alone think. Maybe that’s not the point, but South Park and other similarly minded shows have set the bar high, so it’s what many viewers expect.
The biggest surprise about this DVD set is that the extras are a lot more fun than the actual product. In what might be recognition that Carl is better in a more limited capacity, there are a series of amusing shorts in which the Grungy One weighs in on sports (New York Giants equal good, Any Team from Boston equals Bad.)
Also included is a live action short about Aqua Teen Hunger Force production company Radical Axis. The sequence is shot in black and white in the style of a newsreel but with double the cheese factor (for example, the freshly drawn scenes are “computerized” when they are fed fax machine style into the top of a monitor.) The short is the most successful parody on the entire DVD except for one point – when the narrator intones that each episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force is written by men with a third-grade education, I believe him.