Empire Square Review
Created by Dave Rowntree, Ant Cauchi and Lloyd Salmons Empire Sq started life online before Channel 4 picked up the first series (comprising 12 episodes) and broadcast them earlier this year. With basic sprite based animation that harks back to the classic age of 8 and 16 bit video games the series follows the misadventures of delinquent school leavers Richie, Hooks and Rabbit as they experiment in bestiality, cannibalism, electro-shock therapy, crucifixion and other more topical issues in a short 2-3 minute format.
Adopted by the British press as our answer to South Park one can certainly see the connection, but where Trey Parker and Matt Stone's creation thrives on its television based restrictions with originality born out of censorship Empire Sq, in its initial few episodes at least, flounders in the freedom provided by the Internet. One of the characters, Richie, is a foul-minded young man whose teenage disposition for the perverse is only underlined by his struggle with Tourette's Syndrome, something used here purely for comedic value as he spouts out all manner of inanely offensive comments at inopportune moments. Through this single character however the series progression can be chartered as in amongst the more topical storylines which give rise to some excellent parodies of British television and celebrities, we see the quest for the overtly and completely unnecessarily offensive dropped. In the final episode they tackle their usage of Tourette's Syndrome for comic value face-on, weaving it into another topical issue and curing Richie of his ailment so he can presumably come back stronger than ever in series two.
Both the quality of animation and method of storytelling are born out of the series internet origins, where to hook your audience instant gratification is required. This not only sheds further light on the shows early episodes' love for the pointlessly obscene but explains the complete lack of character introduction or overall setup. Instead the episodes play out as a series of sketches, growing increasingly more topical with issues ranging far and wide, often melding seamlessly with TV Chefs and immigration tackled in one hilarious fell swoop. Internet issues in general are a very popular subject, from buying babies online to selling your arse for a quick buck on ebay, even the oft-parodied topic of downloading music is subject to the Empire Sq treatment whereby the music industry employ the services of Gary Glitter to pay young downloaders a house visit. Richard Maddley, The Passion of the Christ, exploitative television documentaries and much more are covered, the majority ironically found in abundance on the same channel which ended up broadcasting the series, and all handled with verve presenting some amiable laughs without ever demanding much from its audience beyond tuning in and sitting back (preferably with a beverage in hand).
Alongside the 12 episodes which make up the first series you will also find 24 shorts running just over 6-minutes. Giving the secondary characters more screen time these shorts continue the sense of humour found in the main series in a quick fire succession of sketches.
Picture and Sound
Presented in anamorphic widescreen the episodes (1.66:1) and shorts (1.78:1) look just about perfect. The sprite based animation could have caused some problems such as blocking and aliasing but I could detect nothing beyond crisp colour definition and as much detail as the animation will allow. The only audio track is a Linear PCM 1536Kbps stereo mix which suits the dialogue heavy nature perfectly.
There are no subtitles included.
Here you'll find the Pilot Episode which offers more of the same topical humour, running a little longer than the episodes used in the main series it features more of Rabbit's TV Chef antics so is well worth a look. A Character Guide features witty descriptions for several characters featured in the series coupled with original pencil designs and final sprite artwork. The animatic for episode two is also present offering you a chance to see the rather crude storyboards while my favourite extra, Ho Song Karaoke gives you a chance to sing along to Richie's astonishingly accurate take on 'Hip Hop'.
Empire Sq starts out quite woefully as the first episode really left this viewer cold, almost wanting to hate subsequent episodes but from "Stupid Ho" onwards the level of parody increases considerably making the shock tactics more agreeable giving rise to numerous shouts and giggles. That said, I'm not entirely sure this is something I'd revisit often as the episodes’ lack of a narrative arc and short run time make them an unlikely choice for an evenings viewing, instead they're better served as a quick fix in-between more substantial viewing or, as originally foreseen, internet browsing. But don't take my word for it, you can find out for yourself by watching the episodes online at www.empiresq.com