Sneak previews of Axe Cop and High School USA! will run Sunday at 9:30 and 9:45 p.m. eastern, respectively, with all due respect, on Fox. The shows will make their official series premieres beginning at 11 p.m. Saturday, July 27th.
Fox’s initial raison d’etre was to be the “alternative” to the staid, lame network programming us human beings had foolishly grown accustomed to. While Fox still reaches the youngest viewers among the “big four” channels today, cable has become the home to the more subversive, niche, talked about TV shows. Not coincidentally, cable is also where more and more viewers, and more and more money, are going. This cannot stand if the future of Fox, and the other free stations, is to be preserved, and so we now have the Fox’s Animation Domination High Definition block (ADHD for short, on purpose): an unabashed attempt to copy the spirit and sensibility of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s umbrella name for their nine hour primetime/late night programming block that has a reputation for letting creatives have free reign, and more importantly to some is very successful in bringing in the demographics containing young people that still have the energy to buy anything1.
Axe Cop and High School USA! will be the original two shows to carry the ADHD banner on Saturday nights, in competition this summer with SNL reruns. On the surface, they satisfy the basic requirements in what any random Adult Swim original show in 2007 would resemble in that they are 15 minutes long and occasionally stray “off the beaten path” so to speak. But only High School USA! goes for the more adult (not necessarily “mature”) humor and seems to belong in its time slot.
There is nothing wrong with Axe Cop, but it’s a bit unfortunate that all of the attention between the two shows is focused on it — its first two episodes play simply like a Saturday morning cartoon that adults would enjoy if they happened to be watching it. This makes all the sense in the world when you know the backstory: Axe Cop was the invention of 5 year old storyteller Malachai Nicolle, whose 29 year old comic book creator and artist older brother Ethan made into a popular webcomic. Nick Offerman provides the voice of Axe Cop, a man who, if the opening credit voiceover is to be believed, came to be “at the scene of ‘The Fire,’” when “The Cop” found “the perfect axe.” There is a season four of Arrested Development amount of exposition that drives the humor — the characters continually have to explain this random universe the show lives in where dragons are a mode of transportation; hyrbids named Army Chihuahua and Grey Diamond need to explain their etymologies; bad dudes like Dr. Poo Poo need to thoroughly go over their evil master plan; Axe Cop has to discuss the constant developments of said plans — it all drives home the conceit that a child is in charge of the storytelling, but it’s a joke that gets old fairly quickly. (Fortunately, there is a distinct beginning, middle, and end to the stories, so there was a limit made presumably to Malachai’s influence.)
The voice cast is impressive: it includes Megan Mullally as all of the female characters, Ken Marino, Giancarlo Esposito, Rob Huebel, and Peter Serafinowicz as Dr. Poo Poo and, um, Hitler. The funniest scene, which worked so well that the same characters and setting were used in the closing tag, involved Todd Barry playing a difficult clerk of a Dinosaur Horn store and was for the comedy nerds. The concept of an animation exhibiting a kid’s story is a beautiful one, and there are a few solid jokes, and even remotely hating on a five year old’s work is cold as hell, but Axe Cop isn’t anything special. Besides, Malachai is eight now — he’s old enough to start blaming the branding of his creations sooner or later.
High School USA! on the other hand is definitely for late night, as you can tell from just the image of the YouTube trailer. Featuring the vocal talents of Vincent Kartheiser1, Mandy Moore, Jake Johnson, T.J. Miller and Ike Barinholtz, USA! was created by suspected genius Dino Stamatopoulos, who was a writer on all of your favorite influential comedy shows: Late Night with Conan O’Brien (a part of the original writing staff), The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show, TV Funhouse, and Community. He’s the creator and writer of the former Adult Swim series Moral Orel and the officially currently on hiatus Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, and his specific knowledge of Swim’s brand is on full display on his Fox show. For one thing, it looks just like the Archie comics, so the subversiveness is baked in, and in it’s headier moments plays like a live action Roy Lichtenstein painting. For another, Stamatopoulos loved to give Moral Orel episodes a creeping sensation that a WTF moment was just around the corner lurking in the next scene, with the expectation usually becoming reality; in the pilot episode of High School USA! that moment came when the two female characters started to make out kind of out of nowhere (the trailer indicates that the shock value will get ratcheted up with dick picks and S & M in later episodes. Fox wants you to believe this is a cartoon Porky’s).
The plot of “Bullies!” found T.J. Miller’s Brad being shunned for being accurately labeled as a bully, and he is treated the same way an outed homosexual would by intolerant idiots. The joke continues past its expiration date; your mileage may vary depending on your interpretation on whether its a joke on the ignorance and mob mentality of high school students or if its a string of dumb gay jokes. It’s a plot that would not be out of place on Moral Orel nor South Park.
There are a couple of laugh out loud moments that don’t rely on raunchiness or comments on touchy subjects (mostly involving Brad; one playing on the show’s time period against its incongruous aesthetic), but like South Park the spotlight will be on the raunchiness and the comments on touchy subjects. I may have just explained why the advertising for this show has been virtually nonexistent.
1Ironically, Adult Swim’s popularity had increased tremendously when Family Guy, a Fox property, began airing in syndication during the block, and in fact, currently six of the nine hours of Adult Swim on a given weeknight are dedicated to animated shows that either originally or currently have their original broadcasts run on Fox. With that in mind, it’s kind of only fair for Fox to complete the cycle and let the snake eat its own tail, I guess. Also in the network’s defense: why should one entity be synonymous with courting 18-34 year old males with primarily animated work?
2Kartheiser strangely enough also is the voice of Axe Cop’s Bat Warthog Man in the pilot. In neither though does he sound like Pete Campbell, which is incredibly disappointing, like much of Pete Campbell’s personal decisions.