The last image you see during the pilot for The Shivering Truth is a flutter of red monarch butterflies and a swarm of yellow bees meeting mid-flight in a crisp, clear sky to form the perfectly symmetrical shape of a heart. An arresting, ethereal image, no doubt. Just a few frames earlier, those butterflies emerged from the eyes, ears, and other orifices belonging to the two decomposing corpses of a married couple on a bed.
This violent confluence of the grotesque and the gorgeous informs the hilariously disturbing nightmare logic of The Shivering Truth, Vernon Chatman’s new stop-motion anthology series for Adult Swim. Chatman’s creative rap sheet certainly contains multiple commercial credits (South Park, Jackass: The Movie, The Chris Rock Show), but his name elicits a certain Pavlovian response when it comes to the less-accessible, left-field cult properties he’s produced with fellow PFFR members John Lee, Alyson Levy, and Jim Tozzi (Wonder Showzen, Xavier: Renegade Angel, Delocated). The Shivering Truth will most certainly fall under the latter category. Within each 11-minute vignette of viscera, Chatman constructs a labyrinth of fairy tales, morality plays, and surrealist fiction where the lives of his richly detailed Claymation characters — a telepathic army recruit, a suicide hotline operator, an expert peek-a-boo-playing toddler — all bear witness to bleak and brutal ends. Picture, if you will, Moral Orel … now slowly dip it into a vat of sulfuric acid.
The Shivering Truth will aggressively challenge your threshold for unsettling imagery with a buffet of body horror that would make even David Cronenberg blush (a pulsating, puss-filled welt left from a snapped bra strap on the back of a young girl being sliced in a meat-carving machine by the lunch lady, for example). But that doesn’t mean Chatman’s signature irreverent humor is dampened at all.
Loyal fans of Chatman can easily detect the silly, squirmy, Kafkaesque absurdity of his last Adult Swim series The Heart, She Holler starring Patton Oswalt and Amy Sedaris, especially in the first episode “The Nurple Rainbow.” A meek number-cruncher in a cubicle bullpen isn’t crunching those numbers quick enough for his boss’s liking. His boss begins to verbally probe him with questions about his lagging performance, then, after noticing an open, fleshy wound in the back of his head, begins to physically probe him, only to find a Lovecraftian creature hatching eggs inside there. Neither the number-cruncher nor the boss panic or express disgust — the boss just further busts the chops of his subordinate. The number-cruncher, embarrassed and enraged, pulls out two Uzis and begins to fire rounds into the air. His co-workers don’t even notice and continue about their day. Corporate monsters and active shooters are just white noise. A frivolous texture — nothing to see here. The episode is bonkers and is yet somehow frighteningly grounded in our overstimulated, parallel reality.
Chatman also returns to his sublimely offensive Wonder Showzen form with the pilot episode, taking an unfunny cultural taboo like suicide to a darkly comical extreme. Delmar Gibbins, voiced by Michael Cera, decides to become a “freelance” suicide-hotline representative since he couldn’t find an opening in such a competitive field (yeesh). He gets the call from a serial suicide attempter, voiced by Jonah Hill, who is growing more depressed by the fact that his failed attempts on his own life keep producing a public good. When he tries to hang himself, the ceiling caves in and uncovers two kidnapped children. When he tries to overdose on pills, his body produces a super serum that cures cancer. When he tries to hurl himself off a building, he lands on and kills a violent criminal. It’s that perfect Chatman alchemy of playfulness, perversion, and profundity, on both thematic and tonal levels, that manages to make you laugh uncomfortably while a sweat-inducing anxiety crescendos. You’ll want to wash your hands afterward.
The Shivering Truth quietly crept in under the radar while TV junkies were composing their “Best of the Year” lists, and in lieu of filling the escapist downtime of your holiday break with another Scrubs marathon, you should let Truth’s superb voice work (Janeane Garofalo, Jordan Peele, Trey Parker, Maria Bamford, David Cross, Conner O’Malley) and brilliantly demented animation creep into your brain’s backwaters and burrow deep into your psyche. I can’t think of a better way to end this year than with an 11-minute primal scream into the void. Chatman has created something singularly deviant and daring, a mini-entry into the theater of the absurd that will amplify your fears and fucked-up fixations to the point of paralysis while fortifying all of your internal comedic machinery. So grab a cup of hot cocoa, cozy up next to the fire, click the play button on The Shivering Truth, then watch your imagination self-immolate.