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TV

Extra Ordinary: Aqua Teen Hunger Force's Mad Prophets

Jason Fraley

Despite its talking hamburgers, mechanical rabbits and the like, Adult Swim's Aqua Teen Hunger Force is less surreal than hyperreal.

Those familiar with Adult Swim’s long-running series Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a 15-minute animated program featuring three fast-food items as superheroes and their various exploits in South Jersey, often describe the show as surreal. It’s easy to see why: how else could one succinctly describe a show involving mechanical rabbits, Ted Nugent cameos as Jesus Christ, pot-smoking aliens, and space ships made of penises?

Considering Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s laughably poor animation, complete disregard of plot, and notorious humor best understood when under the influence, it’s easy to see why the program’s most notable exposure came when Boston authorities mistakenly identified flashing LED advertisements for the show’s then-upcoming movie as bombs.

Nevertheless, those who automatically dismiss Aqua Teen Hunger Force as surreal sophomoric humor for college students are missing its significance. Instead of epitomizing surrealism, Aqua Teen Hunger Force sounds its death knell. At its core, surrealism is not disconnected from everyday life: Surrealism demands a constant encounter with the quotidian, as it relies on a faith in the real for its effects and its potency. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, however, instead playfully embodies the characteristics of the hyperreal, demonstrating what happens when there’s a complete rupture between the everyday and subjective perception. In other words, the show answers the postmodernist question, What now, that nothing is real?

Those familiar with surrealism only in the form of Russell Edson's genital skeletons and Salvador Dali's melting clocks may be surprised to learn that its roots were much more subdued. The surrealism embodied in Andre Breton’s masterwork, Mad Love, according to translator Mary Ann Caws,

. . . resurrects at once the sense of its high and grand insanity and the sense of redemption of all the rest, of all the frittered days and things of ordinary life. . . It preserves what it celebrates, and preserves it in its very unevenness.

As this implies, surrealism isn’t necessarily the process of redefining reality or discovering an alternate universe via one’s imagination. Rather, it may be a matter of encouraging viewers to encounter ordinary life anew each day, allowing for contradictions and vertigo, and, most important, removing any emotional or cognitive filters of interpretation, accusations of insanity notwithstanding.

Early in Mad Love Breton, along with fellow artist Alberto Giacometti, travels to a flea market at the invitation of “a lovely spring day”. Two objects immediately catch their attention: “a half-mask of metal” and “a large wooden spoon, of peasant fabrication.” While the objects themselves aren’t important, Breton’s ruminations on them are integral to understanding his version of surrealism.

These two objects, which we had been given with no wrapping, of whose existence we were ignorant some minutes before, and which imposed with themselves this abnormally prolonged sensorial contact, induced us to think ceaselessly of their concrete existence, offering to us certain very unexpected prolongations from their life.

Initially, the peasant spoon caught Breton’s eye for its simple beauty, but it begins taking on additional qualities when he brings it into the realm of his everyday life:

It was when I got home and placed the spoon on a piece of furniture that I suddenly saw it charged with all the associative and interpretative qualities which had remained inactive while I was holding it. It was clearly changing right under my eyes. From the side, at a certain height, the little wood spoon coming out of its handle, took on, with the help of the curvature of the handle, the aspect of a heel and the whole objective presented the silhouette of a slipper on tiptoe like those of dancers. Cinderella was certainly returning from the ball!

Breton’s influence helps shape Aqua Teen Hunger Force's structure. For example, although there are recurring characters and settings, there is zero continuity between episodes. At a rudimentary level, this pattern conforms to Breton’s decree for constant revaluation. Episode after episode, the Force encounter an array of diverse situations that are independent of one another. Likewise, most objects undergo significant mutations depending on the particular Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode.

For example, in Handbanana, the above ground pool of the Force's neighbor Carl becomes a vat of nuclear waste that gives birth to a synthetic pet one step removed from virtual-pet computer programs. The show also recasts celebrities: Danzig, Zakk Wylde, and other musicians appear offstage while still maintaining their onstage persona, distorting each scene into an extension of the musician’s stage performance. These examples correspond closely to Breton’s original intent: Reality recast, time after time, through a different lens.

Breton envisioned surrealism as being intertwined with everyday life, surrealism as a way of living. But if Jean Baudrillard is right, such a life -- intensified exponentially by the media, culture, communication -- is merely a glorified simulation of living.

In Simulation and Simulacra, Baudrillard uses the example of Disneyland to illustrate his concept of the hyperreal. He defines Disneyland as “digest of the American way of life, panegyric of American values, idealized transposition of a contradictory reality” -- in short, America as a realized utopia. Then he adds that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.” In other words, Disneyland is the copy of an America that no longer exists and, more important, has never existed.

Does Aqua Teen Hunger Force function in the same way Baudrillard believes Disneyland does? With Baudrillard’s proclamation that the real no longer exists, Bretonian surrealism seems less a gateway a richer everyday life but a pillar to support the hyperreal. In Aqua Teen Hunger Force. the main characters’ relationships to the real are tenuous at best and typically nonexistent. Consider how all the objects invariably prove to be miniature bombs, how characters clearly die on-screen only to reappear later with no explanation, how flashbacks or dream sequences are often only revealed as such after the fact, leaving the viewer in partial delirium.

Contemporary culture as portrayed in Aqua Teen Hunger Force, is an experience of cultural currents, media noise, and excess information that forbids the real. That its main characters are fast-food objects encourages viewers to think of how inanimate objects could actually become subjects themselves, a proposition that mirrors how marketing generally operates, with brands being supplied with personalities. (Incidentally, Baudrillard 's book Fatal Strategies, looks at how objects can take control of subjects.)

In the “Global Grilling” episode, two concurrent “plots” provide an introduction to how Bretonian surrealism and Baudrillardian hyperculture mix. In this episode, Meatwad is intent on creating a mucus man in the Force’s living room. In addition, Master Shake purchases a grill with a nuclear core when Frylock’s George Washington grill, which is ignited by the rubbing of sticks, fails miserably.

In the course of 15 minutes (including an absurd smattering of commercials, which add to the ambience of much Adult Swim programming), Shake licks the front doorknob of Carl’s house in an attempt to get sick to make more mucus, Shake’s grill sets clouds ablaze and melts artic icecaps, and Shake, Frylock, and Carl become enslaved to Meatwad’s new army of mucus men, who thrive in the post-apocalyptic South Jersey climate. But then, the majority of what took place is revealed as Shake’s dream, as his mind drifted during Frylock’s discussion of the George Washington grill’s benefits.

Bretonian surrealistic transformation of the everyday seems to infuse this episode: Obviously, doorknobs are not intended to be licked, and licking them introduces a way of reconceiving them, seeing them fresh. But what if there is nothing in reality to see? Doorknobs are actually steadily disappearing from everyday life -- motion-sensor doors, bellhops, doorpersons, and even push-button, handicap-accessible doors have essentially rendered doorknobs obsolete in the public sphere of consumer society. The doorknob licking in Aqua Teen Hunger Force demonstrates not how we may refresh the object's significance in everyday life but how objects abruptly lose their use value and become even something altogether unimaginable.

The way the essence of the doorknob is usurped in Aqua Teen Hunger Force illustrates the transition from surrealism to hyperculture. The real still exists in all its banal glory; however, it is immediately torn asunder, mutilated, and rendered unrecognizable by Meatwad and Shake. The doorknob, no longer a device for opening doors (the animation in Aqua Teen Hunger Force is so poorly rendered that doors just open and shut without assistance from characters) but, rather, is a Petri dish for empire creation.

Likewise, Shake’s nuclear grill doesn’t look dissimilar to what one may find in Home Depot or Lowes, and it even grills food, in a sense. But after watching this episode, who remembers that doorknobs open doors and grills cook food? No -- doorknobs are the foundation for mucus movements and grills are holocaust devices. Objects are slowly divorced from their intended purpose, entering the realm of simulation. The intended purpose of objects is supplanted by spectacle.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force makes this dislocation obvious, but in fact, there's little difference between it and other more realistic-seeming shows. CSI, a crime drama, enters the realm of simulation, generally before the opening credits. Almost every murder discussed in CSI has some element that immediately displaces it from the real, ignoring the fact that most crimes still involve old-fashioned bullets or knives and occur without the slightest bit of competent forethought. CSI advances the notion that complex crime has become an everyday art form in which the murderer is an artist and investigators are gallery critics who contemplate it to decode its meaning.

Crime itself is still real enough; however, CSI displaces traditional murder by framing it as hyperreal -- too carefully thought out, too artfully executed, too technologically dependant, too reliant on conveniently impossible clues. Ordinary crime is replaced by the most fantastic creations from ingenious writers. Though the acts themselves may not be as far removed from reality as those in Aqua Teen Hunger Force, it is only a matter of degree.

Is there any escape from the hyperreal? Theorists have suggested embracing the banal: that we focus on the most forgettable, ordinary events in order to rediscover the real amid the archives of simulation. In other words, a return to Breton’s primitive surrealism. But Aqua Teen Hunger Force demonstrates how difficult this will be. After all, television is adept at showing how banal reality becomes garish spectacle.

“Global Grilling” demonstrates this when Meatwad and Shake are seen playing a video game about knitting. If such an ordinary, fundamental activity can be virtualized and turned into a competition, then how easy is it then to imagine other activities becoming consumed by simulation? Here, the everyday is not revitalized so much as negated; nothing is permitted to be ordinary enough to be available to be made surreal.

True, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and its creators are mad prophets more than social critics. The show’s schizophrenic examination of unrestrained creativity merely magnifies a phenomenon whose undercurrents have been visible in television and cinema for years. In hyperreality, the only way to garner attention (ratings, box office receipts) is to locate the real long enough to forget it amid a plethora of magnifications and increasingly bombastic tangents. Only the spectacle, perpetually redefined based upon society’s whim with ever-greater intensity, remains.

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