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Comedy Central’s new sci-fi cartoon should be called Jeff & Some Unrealized Potential

Image: Comedy Central
Image: Comedy Central

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It’s fair to wonder where a show can conceivably go when it kills its title character in the first episode. It’s a pretty nihilistic way to introduce a new series: Have the protagonist accidentally murder an alien being, and then be required to kill a fellow human to even the scales, leading him to murder several people and then himself, only to have it all be reset by episode’s end. It doesn’t exactly promise much in the way of narrative stakes when the first installment of a program suggests any subsequent story can be completely rebooted before 30 minutes are up—even American Horror Story: Coven didn’t let its lack of dramatic tension go that far.

Then again, Jeff & Some Aliens, the new animated series from Comedy Central, isn’t technically the first appearance of these characters. The show began life as a segment from the channel’s crude animation anthology TripTank, and even at the time of its premiere we picked it out as the most promising and ripe for a spin-off. Which is to say, it actually has some signs of life apart from the crude and scatological humor it uses as the default setting. The first few episodes of any adult-themed animated show tend to skew more heavily toward the gross and profane, as though testing the limits of the medium before settling into a more established narrative momentum. (Not always: Some, like Brickleberry, just repeat their puerile gags straight into a dead end of storytelling.) By the end of the second episode, Jeff & Some Aliens is still struggling to find its voice, but a few promising elements hint at the potential for this middling series to become something more.

Image: Comedy Central

A lot of the reason to invest in the early going resides in the voice work of Brett Gelman. The comedian voices Jeff, a man who ends up living with three aliens sent to study him by virtue of his being selected as “Earth’s most average guy.” (This backstory is briefly explained by the theme song, the episodes themselves glossing over the origin of this state of affairs to pick up in media res.) Gelman’s performance, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s a fan of his previous work, doesn’t exactly scream “embodiment of average guy,” the implication being that there may be a slight flaw in the alien’s methodology of selecting the mean norm of humanity. Minutes into the pilot, he’s fantasizing about murdering people, suggesting there are untapped levels of rage in Jeff simply waiting to be revealed. But Gelman finds the human in the cartoon, and later on, when the character is bonding with his father, the show manages to briefly pull back from its pessimistic worldview and offer enough of a grounded reality to sustain interest in an ongoing series, if it can remember to maintain a commitment to real personalities.

If only the aliens shared a similar commitment to verisimilitude—at least, as much as can be done when talking about animated dim-bulb aliens. Jeff’s extraterrestrial roommates are named Sammy, Ted, and Jimmy, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they were all just named “alien,” given how interchangeable they are. All three are voiced with sort-of distinction by Alessandro Minoli and share a predilection for spouting obvious or reductive exposition, occasionally paired with humor stemming from their culture-clashing sensibilities. The most that can be said is one of them seems more childish than the others. The show is going to have to find ways to give solid identities to each of the three if they’re going to become anything more than plot devices.

Image: Comedy Central

The laughs are spotty in the first few episodes, in part because the characters’ personalities still remain in flux and at the service of plot requirements, rather than the latter being tailored to strong and consistent points of view. The dialogue and stories are too on the nose to begin with: When Jeff is required to find a strong middle-aged human for his sacrificial lamb, it immediately cuts to his boss working out and bragging about how “strong” and “middle-aged” he is. And the second episode, which finds Jeff using an alien machine that can create whatever matter he desires in exchange for taking years off his life, is a predictable just-so story, delivering a lot of plot in service of not much character development. But it does imply the show knows it needs to locate a more humanistic outlook to keep from becoming a cheap, Family Guy-esque bauble.

The best laughs come when the series locates small moments of everyday absurdity among the outsized stories. When he’s disposing of an elderly woman’s body in the middle of a lake, Jeff accidentally knocks the oars from his boat into the water with her, and helplessly watches them sink along with the corpse. Similarly, upon returning home from a more successful homicide, his alien compatriots welcome him with a spontaneous celebration, featuring a banner reading, “Congrats Jeff! (on the murder).” Dark laughs to be sure, but they’re grounded in a lyrical sense of the mundane, demonstrating the humor to be found amid all the alien insanity. And these downbeat chuckles are far more effective than the show’s reliance on dumb gross-out gags, like Jeff accidentally brushing his teeth with an alien “butt brush” that just so happens to be indistinguishable from a toothbrush. The sooner the show can locate the souls of its main characters and ground them in some consistency, the quicker it can leave behind the adolescent humor that maroons so many other animated shows. Jeff & Some Aliens may have a rewarding interstellar mission to come, but the trip begins with a turbulent launch.

Created by: Sean Donnelly and Alessandro Minoli
Starring: Brett Gelman and Alessandro Minoli

Debuts: Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on Comedy Central
Format: Half-hour animated comedy
Two episodes watched for review