As satirical targets go, Hollywood and its befuddled “insiders” are old news. This is the dilemma facing writer/director/actor Bob Balaban. His new animated series for the Independent Film Channel, entitled HOPELESs Pictures, borrows from Christopher Guest’s school of improv (Guest regulars Michael McKean and Jennifer Coolidge do voices here) to spoof the movie business. Balaban’s thesis is that the 21st century audience is as knowledgeable about the industry as his characters. And he hopes that by blurring the line between reality and ridiculousness, a renewed source of comedy can be discovered.
The debut episode sets up the complicated relationships involving HOPELESs Pictures, a failing film studio. Whirling dervish Mel Wax (McKean) owns the company (named after his parents, Hope and Les), and though he views himself as a success, his life and career are in ruins. His long-suffering wife of 18 months (Lisa Kudrow) has just discovered panties in his car, while the owner of said underpants, Max’s head of development Tracy (Coolidge), can’t decide if she should sleep her way to the top, or just have sex with everyone to cover all her bases.
Max has also recently hired his shiftless, scared rabbit nephew Sam (Balaban), placing him in charge of an out-of-control production in Zagreb. Like everyone else at HOPELESs, Sam is not so good at what he does. This means lots of anxious calls seeking advice from Dr. Stein (Jonathan Katz), a celebrity shrink who knows how to keep his faux famous patients happy… and paying.
HOPELESs Pictures further fudges the parameters of fact and fantasy by having several famous people play themselves. Noted publicist Peggy Siegel tries to help Max repair the damage done by the horribly failed screening of his latest film, Dirty Feet (she suggests he offer the press free shoes), while fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi pitches a new version of Wagner’s The Ring trilogy starring Liza Minelli and Chita Rivera (last paired for the 1984 Broadway musical, The Rink). Martin Mull voices the “hot screenwriter” in town, Paul Dooley a bartender, and Nora Ephron is scheduled to make an appearance later this season. Each guest gets an opportunity to tweak their Tinsel Town reputation while simultaneously proving that they are up to the challenge of matching wits with Balaban’s seasoned adlib pros.
Timing is everything in comedy, and Balaban’s baby features lots of improvisation and fast talking. Witty remarks soar by at remarkable speed, and HOPELESs Pictures is so dense that it really requires a second viewing to catch every gag. Every performance is pitch perfect, never once breaking the carefully constructed universe to rush a joke or telegraph a take. This is especially true of McKean who has the ersatz sincerity shtick so down pat that you can’t believe that he’s not a studio executive in real life.
It’s not just the acting, the verbal gymnastics or the clever conversational riffs that win you over (Coolidge and Mull have an amazing exchange over which “Miller” wrote Death of a Salesman). Based on original character designs and artwork by Brian Smith (with the animation realized by a company called Noodlesoup Productions), the visuals seem almost to shimmer with a psychedelic array of hues. The denizens of this version of La-La Land are sturdy stick-figure types with odd-shaped heads suggesting their blatant personality flaws. One look at Max, and you know he’s an egomaniac — oversized noggin teetering precariously on a tiny stick body.
Traci looks the victim of surgical modification (horrible nose job, orb-like breasts), ostensibly undertaken to advance her career. The caricatures can be cruel (a fey foreign director looks like a mangled balloon animal) and the artists make no attempt to mimic “famous” faces. Balaban even takes the show’s humor outside the weekly series format, filling the official HOPELESs Pictures website with phony press releases and hilarious factual timelines. It also continues the series desire to distort the differences between authenticity and the imaginary.
But that doesn’t mean HOPELESs Pictures will be an instant hit. First, it will be compared to the near perfect The Simpsons and South Park. Second, a show like Family Guy has found a substantial audience to back up its brazen idiocy, which means HOPELESs Pictures faces an uphill battle. It may be too intellectual, or insular, to connect with mainstream viewers. Spoofing celebrities is easy. Finding the humor in a pitch meeting may be a little more complicated.
Therefore, it’s hard to gauge whether HOPELESs Pictures will be anything more than Family Dog, Capital Critters or any number of other failed cartoon comedies that got lost in the primetime shuffle of bad ratings, shuffled schedules, and lagging interests. Animation on TV is just like that. Either it clicks, or it doesn’t (and then, apparently, only DVD can save it). For Balaban and his actors, it’s not hopeless… yet.