Robot Chicken: Season One

Robot Chicken: Season One

***

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Good things, they say, come in small packages – and while this principle certainly elevates Robot Chicken, it is also ultimately the show's undoing, at least when viewed back-to-back in a double-disc edition.

Produced for Cartoon Network's [adult swim] block (and first screened in the UK on Bravo), the show meets the 'small packages' criterion in more ways than one. Each episode is a packed-to-the-brim 15 minutes, while the sketches themselves are even shorter (with some of the 'channel flip'-mimicking oddities coming in at no longer than a surreal second or so). The 'characters' are small too, being mostly toys, dolls and action figures manipulated through exquisite stop-motion animation and post-production wizardry. It is like a whole programme of the Toy TV Movies that used to feature in The Adam And Joe Show (1996) – only with guest voicework from a host of celebrities who are more than willing to make muppets out of themselves, or at least of their public personae.

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Catch one episode of this, and you are likely to be left in awe of its pop-culture savvy, its rapid-fire hyperactivity, and its ballsy irreverence for each and every sacred cow of the moment. Catch more than one episode, however, and you will start noticing the grinding repetitions, the use of speed to cover up a deficit of decent jokes and the decline in fresh ideas that runs through the series.

Catch all 20 episodes in succession, and what at first had you by the eyeballs soon drains you of the will to continue paying any attention. The opening credits show the corpse of the proverbial chicken-that-crossed-the-road being cybernetically resuscitated by a mad scientist, strapped into a device that holds its eyes wide-open (à la Clockwork Orange), and forced to watch a bank of TV screens. In the end, that is just how the viewer will feel, too.

Episode One, The Deep End, clearly lays down the show's ethos. One skit populates MTV's The Real World with a household of bickering, dysfunctional superheroes. Another (probably the best of the series) reimagines Uma Thurman's The Bride from Kill Bill as none other than a kick-ass Jesus Christ, back from the dead and out for vengeance against the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and an army of Hassids (with bladed Stars of David). A third segment parodies Pop Idol as Zombie Idol, whose contestants are "the reanimated corpses of rock 'n' roll", with a shotgun-toting Ving Rhames taking them down faster than any panel judge ever could.

Already something of a pattern can be discerned here. For this is that staple of postmodernism, the comedy of incongruity, where different fragments of culture are mixed and matched in deliriously unlikely, sometimes hilarious, and occasionally even revelatory mash-ups. The names and the toys may change from skit to skit, but the essential formula recurs with bludgeoning regularity.

The Transformer Optimus Prime appears in a public service announcement on prostate cancer. Alien has a close encounter with Predator on First Date. A resuscitated spider-robot Walt Disney meets (and almost eats) Elian Gonzalez. In "the darkest sketch in television history", the tooth fairy confronts the realities of domestic violence. The Olsen Twins are crimefighters with magic makeover powers. A game of Donkey Kong is invaded by a Halo taskforce. The post-Muppets downward spiral of Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem is documented on Behind The Music. Pimp My Ride becomes Pimp My Sister. Debbie Does Dallas is remade with animated popsicle sticks. Car-pooling supervillains get stuck in LA traffic. Linus uses satanic ritual to raise the Great Pumpkin. In 'Enter the Fat One', N Sync's Joey Fatone is trained by Pat Morita to take on Hong Kong Phooey, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a monstrous Britney Spears over Tokyo. An oversuspicious M Night Shyamalan features in a family sit-com with aliens (catchphrase: "what a twist"!). Keanu Reeves sells breakfast sausages. Godzilla's hatchlings dance on ice. Horror's best-known slashers must live together in the Big Brother house.

After a while these sketches become reducible to the 'opponents' in their mismatched collision. Popeye's Wimpy meets It's A Wonderful Life. Knight Rider meets Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I, Robot meets The Jetsons. Chuckie versus the Cabbage Patch Dolls. Voltron Force meets You Got Served. Paris Hilton meets the Masters of the Universe. White Michael Jackson versus black Michael Jackson. Hilary Duff does Anne Frank ("Nazis are so uncool!"). Benjamin Franklin wrestles with Gandhi. The Simpsons' Apu falls foul of the Homeland Security Bill. The Smurfs meet Se7en. Cobra's Terrordome meets The Office. Scooby Doo meets Jason the Slaughter King. Ray meets Mr Magoo. Lord of the Dance meets Lord of the Sith. Napoleon Dynamite meets Napoleon Bonaparte. Lois and Clark meet Lewis and Clark.

And so on, ad nauseam. Individually many of these gags are very funny (and all the animation is a joy to behold), but collectively these sketches quickly become laboured and exhausting. By the final episode, even the writers seem painfully aware that their one joke is wearing thin, as they have characters comment, expressly and repeatedly, on the lameness of their material.

Robot Chicken is best watched as intended: one episode per week. Any more than that will feel less like a laughing cure for all the contradiction and chaos of our postmodern age than like an overdose, pure and simple. There is such a thing, after all, as too much of a good thing (although no doubt the complete Seasons 2 and 3 will also soon be released on DVD).

Reviewed on: 01 Oct 2008
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Pop-culture savvy sketch show from over the Pond.
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