Ugly Americans premieres tonight on Comedy Central, 10:30pm EST
The most impressive thing about David M. Stern's new animated sitcom is that it's based on the 5ON web series, where a reporter asks monsters and aliens about everyday problems. Impressive how? Well, it had no plot. It's not the worst place to start, though, as even though the short films were created by lesser-known animator Devin Clark, they were written by stand-ups Pete Holmes, John Mulaney, and Nick Kroll, three masters of blending the silly with the surreal. Along with Clark's inventiveness as an animator (a huge, menacing spider robot giving the interview via an extra long microphone), the series was, at the very least, a fun sarcastic world to occupy for a short time. Stern, whose credits include The Wonder Years and some of the funniest Simpsons episodes ever, manages to successfully transition that world onto the big screen and build a story around it; it's not always the most compelling story, but for a pilot, it ain't bad.
One of 5ON's strengths was its arsenal of characters, and Stern needed a way to keep new ones coming in. Thus he created Mark Lilly, a do-good social worker who exists in an alternate Manhattan occupied by zombies, vampires, robots, and giant koalas. Lilly is an immigration specialist—he helps them adjust to city life—so there are plenty of opportunities to introduce newbies with a shelf-life comparable to an online video; those with something to them can stick around. Lilly lives with a roommate who became a zombie just to attract a girl, and now is stuck with the lifestyle that comes with his decision to go undead. He's sleeping with his demon of a boss (literally) and it becomes problematic when his part of the company is facing financial difficulty. There's the pervy wizard he works with, the police Lt. out to make his life hell, the stable of weirdos he watches over on a regular basis. The typical sitcom roles are there, just played by characters who make jokes that are double entendres; at one point the zombie Randall is having a massage, about which he says "This place is a total rip-off," then cue the masseuse literally ripping skin from his leg.
The episode's weakest moments are just those: jokes and scenes utilizing the supernatural guys that might as well end with a rimshot. Plus the drama in this pilot feels a bit arbitrary—to save their jobs, Lilly has to keep acclimating newbies to city life, and at the same time Lt. Grimes is given a quota of 20 illegal aliens to kick out by day's end. I understand why they did it (to provide an excuse for introducing a bunch of different characters at once), and thankfully it's not the primary focus.
Instead, Stern sets out to demonstrate the grown-up sensibility this Ugly Americans cartoonish world is going to play with in the coming weeks. Leonard the wizard is a highlight, simply because it's funny to see a wizard, always the stuffiest of mythical beings, act like such a slimeball. He conjures kids out of thin air just to have an excuse not to follow Lilly around all day, then later he consoles Lilly while sitting on a beach, using a hologram image to be two places at once. (The dialogue is a dead giveaway: "Now, mash those breasts together.") Even though it's Lilly's job to get to know the creatures, it becomes clear there are going to be some cultural barriers in the way, like when all the monsters advise him to "hit all the walls" of his boss, if he knows what they mean (he doesn't). There's a point where he almost eats baby arms disguised as breadsticks, too, and another where he finds himself consoling a hyper-intelligent brain relegated to doing menial housework. It all elicits that feeling of helplessness when plopped in a big city for the first time, with a bunch of responsibility and little clue how to make things happen.
There's a lot Lilly still has to learn, and the humorous lessons round out Ugly Americans: a place I'm excited to get to know.
- Yes, he's related to Daniel Stern. It's his brother.
- "What part of 'Friday is African dance class' don't you understand?"
- "Why you pinch baby's vagina?"
- My favorite guy: The pantsless eagle who flies around pooping on strangers. God bless America.