Reviews

Mission Hill: The Complete Series

Marisa LaScala

The 1999 WB show remains firmly grounded in the emotional realities of Kevin's attempt to survive high school despite his nerdish tendencies, and Andy's constant struggle between his aspirations and his apathy.

Mission Hill

Distributor: Castle Rock
Cast: Wallace Langham, Scott Menville, Brian Posehn, Vicki Lewis
Subtitle: The Complete Series
Network: The WB
First date: 1999
US Release Date: 2005-11-29
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Mission Hill is another entry in an increasing list of offbeat, prematurely cancelled animated series that found a second life on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Created by veteran Simpsons showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, the series centers around two brothers: lazy, unmotivated, twenty-something Andy (Wallace Langham) and overachieving, teenage uber-nerd Kevin (Scott Menville). When their parents move to the Midwest, Kevin, still in high school, is forced to move in with Andy in his city apartment. The pair live Odd Couple-style while easygoing flatmates Jim (Brian Posehn, in a brilliant vocal performance) and Posey (Vicki Lewis) do their best to avoid the sibling rivalry.

On the surface, Mission Hill already feels dated. Airing in 1999 on the then-fledgling WB, Andy's loafing, apathetic lifestyle represents the final moments of Generation X slackerdom. Now that the oldest GenXers are starting to turn 40, the rebel-against-corporate-culture-by-lazing-about is an ideal firmly rooted in the past. A show that rails against MTV's co-opting of youth culture with The Real World, as Mission Hill did in "Andy vs. the Real World (or The Big-Ass Viacom Lawsuit)," couldn't have imagined a time when reality shows far more soulless, like My Super Sweet Sixteen or Tiara Girls, continue to multiply across cable.

But, in its own way, Mission Hill remains fresh, perhaps even groundbreaking. The commentary track claims that, in its very first episode, the show televised the first gay male kiss, but: "it was animated, it was on this show, and it was on the WB so no one noticed." Many of the conflicts surrounding Andy's emerging adulthood, such as the decision to sellout his art for money in "Unemployment Part 2 (or Theory of the Leisure Ass)," still resonate today. The show also carves out a slick, inimitable visual style, informed by a combination of alternative comic books (think heavy-inked lines and black backgrounds) and the brightly colored Simpsons universe (complete with fluorescent-blue hair). Put on hiatus after only two episodes, then relegated to the latest time slots on Adult Swim, this show's individuality is worth discovering on DVD for those who have never seen it.

Oakley and Weinstein explain that Mission Hill was born out of frustrations that The Simpsons didn't have any major characters between the ages of 12 and 25, and they wanted to focus on the troubles facing just this age group. Little did they know that former boss Matt Groening would debut Futurama the same year, which does just that -- in space. But Mission Hill's characters never make it to outer space, or even out of the state, or on globe-trotting wacky adventures that became staples of The Simpsons and Futurama. It remains firmly grounded in the emotional realities of Kevin's attempt to survive high school despite his nerdish tendencies, and Andy's constant struggle between his aspirations and his apathy. The scope of the show remains small, the character's problems relatable. Humor in the series also stems from the show's sense of realism. Parodies and satire, such as the depiction of youth-obsessed advertising culture at Ennerman/Hatano Hgee Creative, Andy's eventual place of employment, are razor-thin, almost to the point of invisibility. As writer Aaron Ehasz notes, sometimes the gags were "so unbelievably mildly funny that most people didn't even realize they're funny." A more accurate statement might say that Mission Hill stakes out its own turf among the Adult Swim lineup by avoiding silly, broad, or surreal humor present in Cartoon Network's other series.

Mission Hill extends this sense of authenticity to the rest of its world with a cast of supporting characters that could easily fall into stereotypes, but, thankfully, avoid doing so (the exception being Posey, the one-note new-age free spirit, whose character never fully develops). Take, for instance, the participants of the aforementioned taboo-busting kiss: gay landlords Gus (Nick Jameson) and Wally (Tom Kenny). When their courtship is explored in "Plan 9 from Mission Hill (or I Married a Gay Man from Outer Space)" -- sure, it's set against the backdrop of Wally directing a kitschy B-movie-but the love story is so sweet and genuine that Gus and Wally are thrown into relief as whole people.

While the DVDs may provide enough supporting materials for a first season of a show -- good enough to tide over if a second season were on its way -- it doesn't really do justice to the complete series. Commentaries provide fascinating insight into the unfulfilled plans for the show's maturation (and seem to imply that character arcs were meticulously planned out into an imagined tenth season, when Andy would become a famous creator of an animated show), but they only appear on a scant four episodes. An interactive map featuring many familiar landmarks characterizes the completeness of the creators' vision for the Mission Hill universe, but can only be viewed once with any interest. Though they're interesting in their own right, there's no way four short commentaries and an interactive map can encapsulate the ingenuity of Mission Hill in its entirety.


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