Robot Chicken: Season One Review
It’s very probable that you never saw the best ever episode of Star Trek. It had a very limited broadcast, almost twenty years ago now, and unless you were looking through my bedroom window at the time you would have missed the opportunity to see the finest adventure ever to befall Captain Kirk and co (and frankly, if you were looking through my bedroom window at the time, I’d just as soon not know about it.) To the uninitiated Attack of the Klingons! might not have seemed to have had the most sophisticated of plots: it started off with an eight-inch plastic Commander Kor telling a seven-inch Captain Kirk (both with fully movable limbs) that he was going to get him, to which James T replied “Oh yeah?” The two then engaged in a peculiar form of combat in which they bashed against each other repeatedly until Kor, realising the futility of continuing, threw in the towel and changed his ways – until the next day anyway. But boy was it good, superior to many of the TV episodes both in that there was none of that kissing nonsense that so often got in the way of the action and also for the surprise cameo in the last act of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, who fought a surprisingly small Enterprise before he, too, fell over and was thus vanquished. Sadly at the time Star Trek wasn’t on TV so no one at school knew what a Klingon was (aside from the star of that joke to which the punchline was “Give it another flush”) but Thundercats was, and He-Man (and She-Ra of course, but one did not admit to watching such girlie rubbish) and, a little later Turtles, so there were many other brand new episodes created in a more collaborative process, none of which the world has ever been fortunate to see. Sadly at age eleven tall my cast were given away in a sale, partially because I was now apparently too old for such things but really I suspect because space was needed on the shelf. “You’ve grown out of them,” I was told as I watched the box disappearing out the door, Mumm-Ra sadly sticking his head out of the top in one, last-ditch effort to escape his fate.
But, as Robot Chicken amply proves, you never grow out of them, not really. The age at which it comes time to put away childish things is a myth, it’s just as you grow older your perspective on such things changes You no longer necessarily think that shouting “Cowabunga dudes!” is a cool thing to do, or that Snarf is the funniest creature you’ve ever seen, or that all that kissing is necessarily a waste of Captain Kirk’s time (although actually, thinking about it, much of it is, isn’t it?) But despite a growing cynicism that creeps in, one which recognises that actually He-Man was little more than a very long toy commercial, your love for such things never fades away, nor does a sneaking wish one could go back to those simpler times when the best shows were those enacted on one's own carpet. A show like Robot Chicken - and it’s by no means the first – is the inevitable result. Shameless in its affection for all things that its makers grew up with and never grew out of, it’s what would result if Comic Book Guy had a sense of humour and access to a film camera, a sketch show which lives and breathes film and television and comic books while at the same time realising that much of it was and still is pretty inane. It is, in short, what happens if you’re still playing with action figures when you’re thirty.
The idea of animating action figures as a way of simultaneously poking fun at and celebrating their franchises is nothing new – the ever underrated Adam and Joe did exactly the same thing over a decade ago (indeed, if you rewatch some of their old sketches now there really is very little difference in writing or look to RC) - but unsurprisingly it was the internet which gave birth to Seth Green and Matthew Senreich’s show. Back in 2001 they were invited by the website Screenblast to come up with a series of webisodes which at the time they called Sweet J Presents but were in effect prototype Robot Chicken episodes. These caught the attention of [adult swim] a niche channel for twenty-somethings which was already doing something similar with shows based around Hanna-Barbera cartoons in series such as Harvey Birdman, and soon this first, twenty-episode season was commissioned. Two years later, Robot Chicken has become the channel’s most popular show, not only winning an Emmy but also the appreciation of that same fanboy culture which this weekend is feverishly debating the look of the new Enterprise set and wondering why the hell Kirk is wearing that black top.
Even if one didn’t know its origins, one could tell the show had its genesis on the internet, the lightning-fast pace and restless, channel-hopping motif a perfect reflection of the Youtube age. Each eleven minute episode consists of two or three main sketches surrounded by a number of smaller, one or two line throwaway gags which are often as funny as the main attraction. Although its main attention is focused primarily on the genre worlds of sci-fi and comic book, no aspect of pop culture completely escapes its scattergun approach, from Michael Moore documentaries right through to Paris Hilton’s sex tape. Given the freedom it has of being on a reasonably obscure channel it has the same healthy habit of not caring to whom it gives offence that South Park and Family Guy have, happy to one minute joke about Transformers and the next the abuses at Abu Gharib, an example that shows that very occasionally they cross the line. That said, the tone is Family Guy mischievous rather than having the savagery and anger of Parker and Stone’s work. the overriding sense being an almost cosy expression of “Isn’t this subject daft? We love it!” Which isn’t to say it isn’t critical at times – far from it - with the sketches particularly target the vapidity of much of the music scene, treating figures such as Britney Spears with far less respect than, say, the Incredible Hulk. But while the exasperation at TV bubblegum such as shows with word “bloopers” in the title is there, the satire is fused with a loving forgiveness which means it is never as condemnatory as it might at first appear.
Unsurprisingly, the tone of the sketches is juvenile, the humour coming from the concepts rather the dialogue. There are no Wildean bons mots that you will be quoting for years to come, and whenever an idea begins to run out of ideas a bit of slapstick and/or gross-out humour is thrown in to perk things up - the closest this show gets to erudition is having Benjamin Franklin appear in a bout of pro-wrestling. However, that’s not to say there’s not an intelligence to much of the material. The majority of the sketches of are the “What would it be like if Alien went on a dating show?” kind but every so often a sketch or an idea comes along that stands out as being exceptionally good. In the Star Wars episode it was A Day in the Life of Ponda Baba that was head and shoulders above any of the rest of that show, and there are by my reckoning four or five similarly good pieces scattered among the twenty episodes here, including my own personal favourite, Donkey Kong Meets Halo which is a lovely concept and beautifully executed. There’s also a certain affectation to the show which tries to put across it is somewhat ramshackle in execution but actually works very hard to get the style of what it is parodying exactly right, from the character movements through to the realisation of such icons as Charlie Brown and his gang.
Indeed, it’s so jolly and entertaining and gleeful about what it does that everything in my soul wants to award these episodes a bright shiny eight. However, I can’t, for it has one major problem. Just as many of the sketches are bang on the money, there are many – not a majority, by any means, but a substantial minority – that miss their aim completely. This wouldn’t be a problem if all the sketches were of similar length, but the show has an unhappy habit of stretching its least successful material out the longest. There can be episodes in which half the slender running time are made up of an extended gag that either doesn’t work or would work if at a quarter of its length. A good example is the Incredible Hulk’s lifestory, or one in which Michael Moore tracks down what happened to characters such as Lion-O once their shows came over. In themselves the ideas aren’t bad, but they aren’t developed, with too much reliance on the initial concept to satisfy. There’s the faintest whiff of padding about some instalments, with the result that if this season was only half as long it would be twice as good, and verging towards the brilliant.
However, that in and of itself isn’t enough to bring the show down too long. Even the longest and least amusing sketches don’t last more than four or five minutes, and the great joy is that even when there’s something less good, one has enough confidence in the show to know that there will be something better along in a minute. That’s why watching it in this DVD collection will probably be more satisfactory than on initial broadcast, as it’s very easy to watch four or five episodes in one sitting. Taken as a whole, it’s a gleeful subversion of everything that I lost in that box when it went to the jumble sale, both mischievous and affectionate, nostalgic and forward looking, and it would take a heart of stone for someone of my generation not to find much to amuse. That said, it’s not a patch on Attack of the Klingons!
All twenty episodes from the first season of Robot Chicken are presented on two dual-layered single-sided DVDs. The discs are housed in an extremely attractive, well-designed fold-out case housed in a sturdy glossy sleeve, which comes with a leaflet advertising the November release of Season One of another ace [adult swim] series, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. There’s a picture from each episode to act as a guide in the foldout part, as well as a list of their titles and an unusually detailed summary of the Extras. The only thing that lets the side down a little are the DVD labels themselves which are surprisingly bland and don’t really suit their homes. The Main Menus of each disc are nicely designed and based around the lab of the mad scientist from the show’s opening sequence – the only oddity, in fact, is that the episode titles are only displayed when one selects them, which seems a mite unnecessary. There is, however, that all-important Play All button, while the Extras are split equally across the two discs.
The episodes themselves are presented in production order rather than that in which they were broadcast. Unfortunately they are not all uncut. An entire sketch from Vegetable Funfest, in which the Teen Titans recruit Beavis and Butt-Head to their ranks, is missing, while a music track on a sketch in Nutcracker Sweet featuring a breakdancing Voltron has been changed. There’s also not the alternative version of The Sack which was aired fairly recently. These are the same problems that afflicted the Region One release a while ago, and it’s a shame that the rights issues on the missing sketch in particular haven’t been resolved in the meantime. However, at least they look and sound fine: the Video is clean and bright with the odd blockiness hardly detracting from what is, after all, a series full of blocky characters, while the Audio is equally decent. All the episodes are subtitled but none of the extras are.
Speaking of which, a few weeks ago when I reviewed the Star Wars: Robot Chicken release, I swore blind I would never go near another RC DVD because the sheer number of extras for just that one episode were so numerous as to be totally exhausting. Perhaps it’s perhaps they cover a greater a number of episodes this time around but the Extras this time don’t feel as overwhelming, although there’s probably an equal amount. There are Commentaries for all the episodes, which feature a mixture of the actors and production staff, and are very enjoyable. They’re very reminiscent of those on The Simpsons and Futurama discs, relaxed and jokey but informative at the same time. There’s also a Behind the Scenes (12:32) featurette, in which Seth Green talks about how the show is put together and visits various production areas - intentionally casual, it’s a fine if vague Making-of. There’s also a better-than-average Photo Gallery (3:13) which, like the commentaries, comes with amusing but explanatory captions.
The collection of Deleted Scenes (18:08) almost entirely consist of snippets cut off from existing sketches, with the majority of the runtime showing where those cuttings would have fitted into the aired material. The selection does include one completely excised spoof, introduced by Green and Senreich, which fuses the worlds of Britney Spears and Citizen Kane and goes on for about four minutes too long. Both the Animatic to Episode Comparisons (5:32) and Wire Comparisons (4:59) do exactly what they say, run split screen sketches in their original format (without any special effects in the Wire case) and the final product, and won’t be news to anyone who’s seen multiple similar examples on other DVDs. More interesting are the clips taken from Animation Meetings (13:56) in which Green talks through the animatics to a room full of animators and explains exactly how he wants the sketches to be made, underlining how seriously he actually takes the crafting of the show. Disappointingly, only three of the original Sweet J Presents (14:26) shorts are included (in an introduction, Green and Senreich explain the others weren’t suitable for the DVD, which seems somewhat unlikely, although never having seen them before I can’t pass judgment on that). Finally there are what looks to be a complete collection of Bumps (10:03) for Season One, the on-air captions [adult swim] used to promote the series and introduce each episode – even though they mainly consist of text on a black screen, they’re funny in their own right.
A couple of niggles aside, this is a fine release of a very enjoyable series.