Over the next few weeks we're going to be looking at some of the highest-rated cable networks on the airwaves in much the same way we ranked the shows on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox back in September, and we figured we'd start off with an ambitious one: Adult Swim. Our rationale is pretty simple: It's a top 10 network in prime time even though most of its programming airs late at night; in total day rankings it beats out everything on cable—ESPN, USA, its huge sister networks like TNT and TBS—for the No. 1 slot; and its median age is 23. If you want those millennials who are abandoning traditional TV, especially young men, here they are. Much of Adult Swim's staying power is in its acquired or syndicated content (especially its anime programming and its reruns of Family Guy), but its originals are mighty, as well.
And of course another part of the network's success is its commitment to really, really weird stuff, and to a pretty free-form renewal/cancelation policy. Everybody's seen the bugnuts 11-minute-long segment from the network's irregular show Infomercials, called Too Many Cooks, that devoured the Internet last week—it's not like anything, anywhere. Under senior evp Mike Lazzo, Adult Swim has become a huge financial success; it's also sort of the Wooster Group of cable television.
To some extent, this means that its offerings will appeal to disparate audiences from show to show. Bearing that in mind, here is the network's current crop, ranked from best to worst, although really, everything here is doing its darndest to be its own odd self. We've tried to define the shows and answer the question of whether the content could survive on the broadcast networks, which so desperately need the viewers who dig it. Also, since Adult Swim is nominally a comedy concern (dangerously close to becoming an art collective), we describe what kind of comedy is going on for each one.
For these, we're only breaking down shows that are already on the air or have definitely been renewed; stuff that's in limbo or recently canceled, we're letting fall by the wayside. We're not crazy. Well, we're crazy, but we're not suicidal.
What is it? A quarter-hour animated sitcom created by Jim Fortier and Dave Willis about rednecks who live in the South and happen to be squids.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Political satire with a heavy emphasis on Southern culture. Also, you know, squids.
Is it any good? Nah. Everything Squidbillies does, King of the Hill (which reruns on Adult Swim) does better. The issues haven't even evolved much—gay rights, racism, country culture dealing with change. It's also not particularly pretty; the style is exaggerated and sketchy, but Rick and Morty and King Star King, to pick two, have heavily stylized character models, as well, and both of those have incredible, detailed landscapes and a broad pallette. It's not worthless! Nothing here is worthless, actually—but it's nowhere near up to the standard set by, say, Venture Bros.
Why isn't it on broadcast? It's hard to look at, on top of being hard to watch.
Could it survive on a major network? Nope.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
What is it? A quarter-hour animated sitcom about three bickering roommates: a wad of meat named Meatwad; a sleeve of French fries named Frylock; and a milkshake named Master Shake.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Relaxed snark; lots of amusing bickering and then of course some really strange stuff—a planet shaped like a banana, populated by monkeys, to take an example from a recent episode.
Is it any good? It was good at one point but it's inert now, even though it has a devoted following. Co-creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro are both network lifers, and the series represents the network's try-anything ethos to a lot of people, partly because it's the oldest show here (it premiered Sept. 9, 2001). So it probably won't get cancelled any time soon, and Willis in particular is still pretty prolific (he worked with Kelly on Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, too). But beyond 15 minutes of TV to watch with one eye while you're thinking about something else, there's not much on offer anymore.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Nonsense still isn't a pitch most execs are buying. They probably should buy it more often, but it's not happening now. The show practically is Adult Swim, despite being among the least of its series at this point.
The Heart, She Holler
What is it? An Appalachian-set parody of soapy big-city dramas like Dallas, with a lot of Twin Peaks thrown in for good measure, created by Vernon Chatman and John Lee (the Wonder Showzen guys) and fellow PFFR member Alyson Levy, starring Patton Oswalt.
What kind of humor are we talking here? The uncomfortable, awkward kind.
Is it any good? It's very weird. So it has that going for it! It doesn't even seem to be going for a laugh most of the time, but it makes you want to like it, partly because Oswalt himself is so good and partly because there's the occasional perfect line ("I want a plane of misery flown into the building of their happiness!"). Ultimately the show seems unsure who any of the characters are, beyond a few broad details apiece—not good for a show headed into its third season. And the cast of comedy headliners (Kristen Schaal, Amy Sedaris, David Cross) can only do so much. It does take unusual ideas to really elaborate extremes, and for that it's often worth looking at. There's just so little to invest in emotionally given the panoply of intentionally flat characters. It's the purest possible form of the comedy-for-comedians school of entertainment, and ultimately, it feels like something only comedians are going to enjoy.
Why isn't it on broadcast? It's nuts.
What is it? A parody of Entertainment Tonight-style TV shows, created by Derrick Beckles, which incorporates a lot of found footage from vintage TV and movies of the kind you'd see on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in another era. About 40 percent of the dialogue is "Wow!"
What kind of humor are we talking here? Satire of entertainment news shows and "infotainment" TV in general, punctuated by eminently mockable stock footage.
Is it any good? When it's weird, it's a lot of fun. The super-strange found video from God knows where, edited together in the worst possible way, is fascinating. So is the fashion segment focusing on current hostages in Iran. But the countdowns, vapid "exclusives" and interviews with sleazoid D-listers are so close to what you can see on Access Hollywood in real, awful life that the parody versions aren't different enough.
Why isn't it on broadcast? It's super-specific. Maybe in syndication. (Joke!)
What is it? An animated quarter-hour sitcom about the worst college in the entire world and the idiots who teach there, and the poor jerks who have to take classes from them, created by Brad Neely and starring Neely, Greta Gerwig and Hulk Hogan (yes, that Hulk Hogan), among others.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Kind of a sampler platter of humor, actually. Pretty much anything is possible in the show's world, but it doesn't go anywhere too crazy. A lot of the jokes are insult humor.
Is it any good? It is interesting. It's not consistently funny, honestly, but it's smart. It has the problem that affects South Park (from whence creator Neely hails) pretty regularly, which is that descriptions of the stories are significantly funnier than the episodes themselves. Example: in one show, the self-absorbed teachers create perfect robot duplicates of themselves to do the teaching for them, and the result is that nobody gets taught, because the teachers end up making out with their robot selves. Amusing! Every now and then the show will come up with a good one-liner or a clever concept (the episode where the whole crew goes into the dream world of a man-child named Babycakes—whose actualized dream image is called Mancakes—is probably the best of the lot).
Why isn't it on broadcast? It's very, very (very) strange and the laugh lines don't land too often.
What is it? A live-action quarter-hour parody of self-serious TV dramas (particularly hospital shows like Grey's Anatomy) with a high-wattage cast that includes everybody from Lake Bell to Jon Hamm.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Super-pop-culturey, TV-trope-driven satire, frequently of the unbearable sexual tension that appears to afflict every hospital staffer at every hospital.
Is it any good? Its quality from episode to episode is almost entirely a function of the acting, honestly. Conceptually it's all over the map and a lot of its targets are low-hanging fruit indeed, but comedians don't achieve success unless they're able to take the dumbest idea in the room and roll with it, so it has moments of genius and moments of complete absurd stupidity. Sometimes they're the same moments. It's reasonably clever, but for a show that parodies heavily plotted, big-budget TV series, it's actually one of the least rigorous comedies in the Adult Swim stable. It's fun some of the time; it just feels like it's being made up as the creators go along.
Why isn't it on broadcast? I don't know if you've heard, but network executives take themselves fairly seriously.
What is it? An animated quarter-hour comedy created by Dave Stewart about a dog who seems to be Satan himself, within a the frame of a show about an idyllic small town. Think GWAR does Lassie.
What kind of humor are we talking here? The dirtiest visual gags about sex you've ever seen along with some hair-raising gross-out violence.
Is it any good? It is incredibly, ruinously depraved. It's also wildly imaginative and has a lot in common with some of the perverse, groundbreaking stuff going on in the graphic novel world right now (anybody else reading Prison Pit? No? Okay, well, I'm not officially recommending it.) and the animation is gorgeous. It's just hard to take, despite being incredibly ambitious and interesting. Usually the A plot will be something completely benign, like main character Tommy Goodman trying to catch a foul ball at a baseball game, and the B plot usually involves Mr. Pickles killing a number of people or driving them to suicide. The gore is clearly supposed to be so over the top it's funny—and sometimes it is! At one point, Mr. Pickles murders a nasty sports fan whose favorite team is abusing Native Americans and reassembles him into a totem pole—but if you're capable of being nauseated by your entertainment, this show will find your threshold.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Ha.
King Star King
What is it? An animated quarter-hour fantasy show; beyond that it's kind of anyone's guess. Best description I can come up with is that it's SpongeBob on even more acid, in that it nominally follows the adventures of the largely nonhuman staff of a fast food restaurant called the Waffle Zone. The hero is a cook named King Star King who has lost his memory after being cursed by God Star God. It started off as a Web series and Lazzo liked it so much it moved to TV. The creator is J.J. Villard, whose personal website is definitely worth a look.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Lotta barf, lotta boobs and penises, lotta exaggerated accents. King Star King snorts a lot of stuff. Not a lot of different powders, a lot of random objects.
Is it any good? It'll make your eyes bleed if you watch it for too long, and narratively there's basically nothing going on, but who cares? The animation is just incredible. It's tempting to just turn off the sound, frankly. The plot structure isn't much different from what you'd see on, say, Uncle Grandpa (also a good show!), but visually it's so busy and cool that each episode supports multiple rewatchings. A lot of it is so far off the wall it borders the Seussian, and it's a little disappointing to go back to look at a telling detail only to discover it's another butt joke, but the sheer volume of never-been-tried things going on in a given frame is staggering.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Beyond content issues, it's not clear whether it's a kid's show or a grown-up's show. I mean, you'd think that sentence wouldn't make senes—content issues make it a show for grown-ups, right? But in fact King Star King has that hysteria that makes the most imaginative kids' programming work, and I think if Villard pitched a network he'd immediately be asked to rework his idea as a family program. I'm kind of surprised it exists at all.
What is it? A live-action quarter-hour send-up of self-important news shows, notably 60 Minutes, starring Mather Zickel, Alan Tudyk and Ray Wise as a crabby, Andy Rooneyish oldster. A spinoff of Children's Hospital.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Clever wordplay, mostly. Sample joke: "Coming up—who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? We'll meet a Denver English teacher with a most peculiar phobia."
Is it any good? It's frequently very funny, although its area of focus is a little narrow. It's got a lot in common with The Onion's own video content and TV series (which it predates), but The Onion reports on news happenings that are truly weird. On Newsreaders, it's the dumb, petty, occasionally insane reporters who are the focus, and they rarely disappoint (Zickel does solid work as the self-important haircut whose favorite part of the job is collecting prizes), and the guest stars are a draw. Ed Begley Jr. shows up at one point as an angry old hippie. [Your joke here.] Wise's monologues are reliably excellent—see below.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Even with the success of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, nobody's willing to try the fake news thing. It's also a little too narrow to be anywhere but cable. Still fun, though.
Mike Tyson Mysteries
What is it? A Hanna-Barbera-style half-hour mystery cartoon featuring Mike Tyson as a fantasy version of himself, Community regular Jim Rash as the Marquess of Queensberry, and SNL deity Norm McDonald as an alcoholic pigeon. Rachel Ramras plays Mike's adopted daughter. It's a deliberate throwback to that period when the Harlem Globetrotters were showing up on Scooby-Doo.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Anarchy. The funniest moment in the pilot is when a Pulitzer-winning novelist turns into a pegasus and flies away with Mike Tyson on his back.
Is it any good? It's trying super hard and sometimes it's really funny. More often than not, its ambition wins out. The series has that great blend of cynical frustration underneath clean-cut fantasy that the network has more or less trademarked—there's a moment in the second episode when the air conditioning breaks in front of Buzz Aldrin. (Ungettable octogenerians are already a feature of this show; the first episode is about Cormac McCarthy. No, he doesn't play himself.)
"Whenever you turn on the A/C, the heat comes on full blast," Mike explains to Aldrin.
"Why won't it turn off?" Aldrin asks, annoyed.
Cartoon Tyson beams. "That's why we call it the Mystery Mobile!"
Its main problem is also the reason it exists, which is Tyson, who just isn't much of an actor. I mean, that's all right: he's more or less the Michael Jordan of boxing, so he has that going for him, and he's obviously a smart guy. The show is still figuring out how to use him. It's fine to make him the butt of every joke, but it would be nice if he had a little texture, too. Here's hoping they figure it out; it has a lot of promise.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Hard to say. I sort of think it would do just fine; it's a fairly laid-back sitcom with a bankable personality driving it. Lord knows Hugh Davidson (a regular on the Adult Swim writing staff) writes a smarter teleplay than most of this season's rapidly self-destructing sitcoms. Iron Mike has been doing some odd things to improve his rep as an entertainer, including a very brief Animal Planet show about pigeons (which he apparently loves) a few years ago. This is one of the better ideas built around him.
The Eric Andre Show
What is it? A completely insane live-action quarter-hour talk show parody created by Andre and starring the man himself and Hannibal Buress. It's a little like if Between Two Ferns was a full-length talk show, except that the awkwardness is punctuated by moments of extreme slapstick (thing that never gets old: the opening sequence of Andre running around the set breaking pretty much everything while the band members give him dirty looks). The punchline is that Andre is a terrible host with awful one-liners ("It's New Year's Eve, not New Year's Steve!"), and also that it's a public access show with really cheap everything.
Is it any good? Yes. It is very good. Andre seems insane but he doesn't actually seem like a monster; he's totally nice to the obviously freaked-out porn star who does an interview for the show and totally merciless to Seth Rogen, who plays the straight man for what must be the first time in his career. The set destruction is amazing and if you've ever had anything to do with TV or film production you'll laugh at how genuinely cheap it actually appears to be. Buress is perfect as Andre's over-it sidekick.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Too weird. You can expect to see that reason a lot in this post. Also Andre is really into messing with the man on the street and some of the outdoor segments genuinely look like people are are angry about (or afraid of) what's going on. According to Andre, the show had to reshoot some segments in New York because of the laws about photographing strangers. Networks are conservative, and Lazzo has managed to avoid any kind of corporate censure over legally dicey shenanigans except in the rare cases when his guys have done something completely unhinged.
What is it? Black Dynamite is a half-hour cartoon homage to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, animated in the style of the ultraviolent anime of the 1980s and '90s (think Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D), spun off of the movie of the same name. Ars Nova Entertainment, the film arm of Manhattan theater and comedy venue Ars Nova (sort of a Petri dish for the alt-comedy crowd—see also Garfunkel and Oates) is listed as a producer; the creators are writer/actors Michael Jai White and Byron Minns (both of whom also star) and Scott Sanders, who helmed the film and co-wrote it with Minns and White.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Bright blue satire. Plenty of riffs on '70s black culture and punchy dialogue, too.
Is it any good? It is good, yeah. It is also just utterly filthy and it may take a bit for new viewers to get used to exactly how gleeful the show is about pimps and hoes and bitches, so on and so forth. A recent episode opens with an, um, explicit medical exam at Black Dynamite's base of operations, the Whorephanage. (For what it's worth, the female characters are actually really interesting and frequently get more laugh lines than the men, but it's kind of down to the individual viewer whether or not the show gets away with the dirty stuff.) It's also pretty merciless about pop culture, almost always in a good way—the Michael Jackson episode is amazing. And it's that spirit of pointedly not caring what anyone thinks about it that gives the show its moments of genius. There's a great episode where the black community gets so mad after seeing Roots for the first time that they just enslave all the white people in in Beverly Hills, only to find that you can't keep white people alive without caviar and arugula. And Chance the Rapper has a great turn as Bob Marley.
Why isn't it on broadcast? See above. Honestly, though, it's a good idea and the execution is great, and the show is so smart about so much that's being done badly or not at all elsewhere.
Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell
What is it? A quarter-hour live-action workplace comedy set in the domain of Beelzebub created by Too Many Cooks mastermind Casper Kelly and Dave Willis, starring Henry Zebrowski as Gary, a mid-level demon who gets shown up regularly by his intern in front of his boss, Satan.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Absurdism and office hijinks with a certain amount of gross-out, although not as much as you'd expect, given the setting.
Is it any good? It's kind of amazing, really. It's not always funny-ha-ha, but Kelly has such a vivid imagination that it's just loads of fun to look at. The show is live-action but the CGI effects (which are very cheap!) are beautiful and the costumes (which are also cheap!) are imaginative and fun. It's the TV equivalent of a really good Off Broadway show. Also, if you're a comedy nerd, there are a ton of cool one-off guest stars on the show, and it's fun to watch simply for the comedy stylings of, say, Matt Besser.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Well, you know. Hell. It's fine where it is, but that doesn't mean it's not really, really good.
The Venture Bros.
What is it? As with a few of the shows on Adult Swim, it's a very different thing now than it was 10 years ago. The half-hour animated action show is a relic of the network's Hanna-Barbera days, back in the late '90s/early aughts when it was running jokey updates of obscure series from the 1970s like Harvey Birdman and Space Ghost. The elevator pitch for The Venture Bros. is pretty simple: What if boy adventurer Jonny Quest grew up, had kids of his own, and was both a messed-up adult and a terrible father?
What kind of humor are we talking here? Superheroey stuff.
Is it any good? One of the oldest series on the network, it's also one of the most consistent, less because of any Harmon-esque grand formal experimentation going on and more because it has witty dialogue, well-drawn characters (pun!), and a terrific sense of what the viewer won't expect. Good performances elevate this one, too: James Urbaniak brings quite a bit of texture to Doc Venture, and voice-acting comedy fixture Patrick Warburton does a bang-up job as his bodyguard, Brock Samson.
Why isn't it on broadcast? It's such a specific idea that it could only have had its initial life here, where comedians were playing with the Hanna-Barbera toys already. The series is also 10 years old and has a grand total of 63 episodes, including three specials. creators Chris McCulloch and Doc Hammer clearly labor over every line, but if a broadcast show hadn't made enough episodes to get syndicated after 10 years, the showrunner would be found in multiple trash bags all down Wilshire. Or Peachtree, in this case.
What is it? A half-hour live-action sitcom created by Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) and Mike Clattenburg (Trailer Park Boys) about Jesus' ministry to South-Central Los Angeles—Compton, specifically. It's almost completely straight: Jesus is a black man who lives among other black men and women and advocates peace, understanding and kindness in a lot of situations that would provoke the opposite in most people.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Laid-back, talky comedy about neighbors who don't get along; it's the most character-driven program here.
Is it any good? It might actually be great. One of the best things about Adult Swim, and one of the reasons it does so well (which it doesn't get any credit for) is that it bothers to program for black audiences in a TV market where almost no one does. McGruder's The Boondocks was among the network's biggest shows for years. With that series over, he's chosen to go gentle and chill, more or less the total opposite of The Boondocks, and it works well. As is the case several times on this list, the performances are exceptional—Charlie Murphy stands out as the villainous Vic, in particular, and Slink Johnson is great as Jesus. It's not a show that wants to take on the world the way The Boondocks did, but it's surprisingly serious and, as the season goes on, wise.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Because this season's worth of minority-friendly programming on ABC hadn't taken everything else to school in the Dollar Demo yet. I suspect it could do very well.
Infomercials/Off the Air
What is it? Infomercials is an irregularly scheduled anthology series of 15-minute shorts that fit the network's style but don't have anything else to do with each other airing at 4 a.m. There's no season structure as such and the greenlights seem to mostly be at Lazzo's whim. In the same slot, there's Off the Air, which you could mistake at first for a psychedelic stock footage showcase, created by Dave Hughes, who goes all the way back to Space Ghost.
What kind of humor are we talking here? All kinds, man. But if you're looking for a theme, Infomercials segments usually start off as dead-on parodies of various kinds of infomercials (Too Many Cooks is the exception) and devolve into something much weirder and scarier (aaaaand we're back).
Is it any good? Both shows are super. The whole internet has seen Too Many Cooks, but For-Profit Online University (see below) and Broomshakalaka are terrific, too. As mentioned, individual Infomercials tend to start off so similarly to real live direct marketing that there are long stretches where they're indistinguishable from the thing they're parodying. But without exception, during those stretches the writers and directors are building a narrative behind the vapid façade, and that story is usually something that wouldn't be out of place on Doctor Who. Think of it as The Outer Limits or Black Mirror, but much, much funnier.
And Off the Air... Off the Air is in the same category as King Star King among things that are so cool and strange that they look like they should probably be part of a video installation in an art gallery somewhere. Its production status at a given moment is kind of unclear, but a current season is definitely happening. Also if you're actually up at 4 a.m., it's the best possible thing that could happen to you, especially if you're into, say, Don Hertzfeldt.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Largely because, like a lot of stuff here, both of these series are a function of Lazzo's stable of creators bringing him really good ideas and then honing them to a razor's edge. It's an outgrowth of the creative environment the network seems to foster, and it's hard to duplicate. It gives its audience a lot of credit, and that might not be wise on every channel, frankly. Breaking the rules is Infomercials' key feature, and Off the Air is nonnarrative. Both are concepts with which broad audiences have limited patience.
Rick and Morty
What is it? Created by star showrunner Dan Harmon and kids television veteran Justin Roiland, Rick and Morty is a half-hour sci-fi cartoon about a mad scientist and his doofus grandson who travel through time and space having adventures against the backdrop of the domestic strife between Morty's mom and dad (Rick's daughter and son-in-law) and Morty's pubescent troubles at school.
What kind of humor are we talking here? Domestic comedy laced with a lot of sci-fi absurdism.
Is it any good? Within that mashup of lighthearted tropes, Rick and Morty is a strong contender for the darkest, weirdest, most messed-up series on TV, and also the best. Morty's parents' relationship is the opposite of the traditional sitcom relationship—a time bomb of won't-they-or-will-they threats and hostility, so the question isn't whether they're going to get divorced, but when (my money's on next season). Rick is legitimately insane, and his bond with Morty has a distinctly unhealthy tinge, especially as the audience learns more about Ricks and Mortys in parallel worlds. In fact, as Rick grows to care about Morty, you might even find yourself wondering if that will make things worse for everyone. The performances, too, are a cut above; Roiland is funny as both title characters but the show's secret weapon is Chris Parnell, who plays the self-absorbed ad exec dad—a guy constantly trying to do the right thing and getting in his own way. It's a brilliant sitcom, with some of the funniest punchlines on television (Morty, reeling from having escaped to a parallel world: "What about the universe we left behind?" Rick, digging a grave for his doppelgänger: "What about the universe where Hitler cured cancer? The answer is 'Don't think about it.'") and it's incredibly compelling on its own cockeyed terms.
Why isn't it on broadcast? Lack of vision. At one point Rick and Morty was doing better among 18-to-49-year-olds (the all-important Dollar Demo for advertisers) than Harmon's equally inventive Community. I suspect it would come on like gangbusters on Fox, which skews young, has an established animation block, and doesn't shy away from content issues the way its competitors do.
That's it for the round-up. For what it's worth, over the course of writing this I was impressed by how far the network goes out of its way to make it fun to watch its shows. At one point I had to play a little Flappy Bird-like video game for about 15 minutes before the Adult Swim website would let me watch the last episode of King Star King ("Leave me alone, I am working!").
And while not everything here is awesome, nothing is old hat. There's some stuff between renewals I wish we'd gotten to—Tim & Eric, for example, and Robot Chicken—but look at the size of this slate. Granted, some of the slots are only 15 minutes long, but there are 17 of them.
And our top five here are as good as anything on television. One thing Adult Swim has been able to demonstrate to my satisfaction, at least, is that smaller episode counts are a good indicator of eventual quality. While some of these series are better than others, it's hard to imagine, say, Black Dynamte would be improved by a 22-episode season. It's one reason the British model resonates so strongly with American viewers who go nuts for, say, three-episode seasons of Sherlock—the writing is tight and nothing feels rushed. This seems to matter a lot more than high-budget flash—so much more that the network doesn't even bother to show up for the scheduling wars, and it does well anyway.
More of that, please.
And now, this:
— [adult swim] (@adultswim) Nov. 13, 2014