“Adolf Hitler! I had a feeling you were behind all this.” “Say hello to my parents—in Hell!” “We have bad guys to hypnotize!” “Aw, you’re kidding me. I’m a dinosaur now?” “We’re going out through the butthole!” These lines, any of which would have greatly enlivened, and set a more spirited tone for, just about any episode of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, instead appeared on Axe Cop, the lead entry in Fox’s long-awaited effort to duplicate the success of Cartoon Network’s late-night stoner-comedy block, Adult Swim.
In a medium as imitative as television, it’s a wonder that it took a dozen years before a rival network devoted as much as an hour a week to trying to cash in on the basic idea behind Adult Swim, which to the lizard brain of the average network suit must boil down to something like, “Doodles to get baked to.” For that very reason, it’s just as remarkable that Fox’s Animation Domination High-Def lineup isn’t much worse than it is. High School USA!, which premiered in tandem with Axe Cop last summer, and two new series, Lucas Bros. Moving Co. and Golan The Insatiable, are respectable-to-promising, in a grungy, low-stakes kind of way, but none of them matches the anarchic highs and “pure pop for buzzed people” energy level of Axe Cop.
Axe Cop is based on a web comic illustrated by Ethan Nicolle (the creator of the Chumble Spuzz series, which is printed on dead trees) and written by his brother, Malachi. As the opening titles of the TV version proudly boast, the original creators are, respectively, age 29 and age 5—or, at least, they were when the web comic started in 2009. The setup is simplicity itself, though it’s also a small boy’s idea of a complex, deep-dish mythology. The title character is a cop who discovered a “perfect axe” at the scene of a fire and was moved to become a superhero, working out of an office with his sidekick, Flute Cop. As Axe Cop explains his daily routine, “When I arrive at the Axe Cop station, the first thing I do is print out a list of bad guys to kill, and then I kill them.” He works at it non-stop: “I don’t work the day shift, or the night shift. I work the always shift, because I am a hero.”
The detail of the perfect axe is nice, but compared to Peter Parker or Bruce Banner—mild-mannered sorts unexpectedly elevated to the status of heroes by some quirk of fate—Axe Cop was always meant for this life. He killed his first bad guy at 8, when he snuffed a rabbit who was “breaking all the rabbit rules,” sauntering around on its hind legs and eating coconuts instead of hopping around, noshing on carrots. (When the rabbit’s spirit comes back in a new form and protests that it only wanted to walk around enjoying coconuts, Axe Cop snorts, “Then you shouldn’t have been born a rabbit.” When it comes to explaining the logic behind his law-and-order philosophy, Axe Cop can make Judge Dredd sound like William Kunstler.)
Square-jawed, with his features hidden behind his sunglasses and badass ’stache, Axe Cop is—inevitably—voiced by Nick Offerman, who has become a specialist in the kinds of characters that Patrick Warburton’s characters must daydream of becoming. He’s well matched with Ken Marino’s tranquilized crooning as Flute Cop. If nobody can say a line like “While we were sleeping for 28 days, I dreamed that we’d be saved by a man with the power of all the seasons” quite like Offerman, nobody can respond to it with a perfectly inflected “Huh!” quite like Marino.
Axe Cop isn’t campy; it’s too completely invested in its pop-drunk boy’s conception of heroic adventure, complete with bloody violence, gratuitous mayhem, feats of strength, occasional outbursts of pedanticism (“I now pronounce you the King and Queen of London, England.”), broody suggestions of personal depth (“I wasn’t happy or sad. I was medium. And medium is the happiest that I’ll ever be”), aliens, and dinosaurs. It all adds up to a brightly colored vision of a world drained of anything that wouldn’t inspire a fist pump and a cry of “Awesome!”
If Axe Cop stands out so brightly in the context of ADHD, it’s partly because it’s the only show on the lineup that doesn’t recall a show, or a batch of shows, on Adult Swim. It recalls a show broadcast in the earlier recesses of the Cartoon Network, one that probably has the most solid claim to being a work of art: Adventure Time. That show is an amazing crystallization of childhood fantasy and experience, but it’s filtered through an adult imagination. Its main character, Finn, lives in an adult’s dream of childhood, but when his own head hits the pillow at night, his dreams probably look a lot like Axe Cop.
Developed by: Nick Weidenfeld and Judah Miller
Airs: Sundays at 12:00 a.m., Eastern
Format: 11-minute animated series
Entire season, minus season finale, watched for review