Axe Cop and High School USA! — “Zombie Island...In Space” and “Sexting”

Axe Cop and High School USA! — “Zombie Island...In Space” and “Sexting”

Last night was the official launch of Fox’s Animation Domination High-Def (ADHD, get it?), a block of adults-only animation, because every once in a while, a network just wants to painstakingly craft a millenial-synergistic infinitely self-referential short-attention-span narrative/music video/microcommentary experience for the late-night demographic and try to make it seem raucously careless, you know?

And the endeavor doesn’t go weakly into that good night. With hipster-friendly voices (Nick Offerman, Vincent Kartheiser, Mandy Moore, Zosia Mamet, and Tyler the Creator stop by tonight’s episodes), early-MTV Technicolor title cards, and shameless ads (both the You’re Next and We’re The Millers trailers get animated intros), it’s clear that Fox is making savvy jabs at its target demographic. So pinpointed is ADHD to the Tumblr generation that the short-film-packed official site includes a built-in .gif maker, featuring a video tutorial by the unlicensed ghost of Steve Jobs.

Thus armored in self-awareness, Fox commits, with mixed results. In microcosm, this can be seen in its bumper shorts; one is a lackadaisically jaded 8-bit ode to Fun Dip, X-Files, and Falcor, pining for the days when space was cool and ending with the anvillicous title card “Insert Childhood to Continue.” The other is a much cleverer ditty begging sympathy for Slender Man, in a folksy She & Him pastiche that vacillates nimbly between charming and creepy.

Its flagship shows–Axe Cop and High School USA!–have it harder.

If ADHD has a tentpole, it’s Axe Cop, making the jump from hugely successful webcomic by Malachai and Ethan Nicolle to network series, and bearing the ironclad but double-edged elevator pitch of “My 5-year-old brother tells me cop stories and I write them down.” This playground of the id has led the webcomic on rambling, often circular, stories that share extremely loose continuity but reflect the singular imagination at work. In crossing mediums, there’s some pressure to insert realism, for values of realism that might apply in a show where pissy conversations about renting vs. buying happen about dinosaur horn rentals, and some inevitable loss of Malachai’s turn of phrase, but the show largely retains the gonzo delight of its surreal, Felix the Cat levels of narrative freedom and childish love of the absurd. And “Zombie Island...in Space” certainly provides; aside from what it says on the tin, one of the villains this week is Dr. Doodoo, the smartest poop in the world.

The show wears its many influences on its sleeve, from the Daria under-credits montage and Archer-esque interpersonal animosity to The Tick economy of animated action. Interestingly, beyond the breakneck jokes and the inevitable Ron Swanson affect, Axe Cop has the potential to be an accidental master class in tropes: how soon they’re absorbed, the ways they’re projected through a slightly distorted lens, how the pacing and dialogue requirements of trained professionals map over a child’s dream-logic, bluntness, wish fulfillment, and transparent earnestness. (Axe Cop breathes fire; also he banishes all poop to space and for no one to poop ever again, because poop is gross.)

ADHD’s other offering, High School USA!, doesn’t worry about sincerity for one second. Its very titles are parable chirps on After School Special current events (sexting, bullies), and accompanied by animation straight out of an Archie comic, every episode circles tightly around the central joke, dropping one episode at a time into the dark, hopeless center of 21st century high school life with the forced optimism of a Mean Girls convention (complete with Amber’s Cool Mom and her stories about how hard it was to send a dick pic in the old days when you had to scan it first).

The vaguely character-shaped vessels that form the moving parts of High School USA! are operating with Breakfast Club levels of complexity at this point (Brad’s a bully, Cassandra’s conniving, Marsh the relentlessly upbeat social center), and it’s yet to be determined if more than this is necessary. Moral Orel (another Dino Stamatopoulos outing) let characters build slowly amid blasé horrors, and High School USA! seems happy, so far, to concentrate its venom on the nihilistic ouroboros of its anti-morality tales; “Sexting” presents a dick pic gone viral, as Marsh decides the only way to solve Brent’s shame is for every boy in school to send a dick pic to every girl. Unfortunately, it does Brent no good; he took so many dick pics he got cancer and died. Still, Marsh discovers his biggest turn-on is friendship. (Group hug!)

It’s solidly built, but somehow the satire rings a little empty; it doesn’t quite reach the punch of the first episode, “Bullying,” which ends at the It Gets Better After High School High School Dance, as Marsh explains bullies’ vital purpose in teaching others their place in the social structure, while his father sobs over a “ur a dork” text and telling the camera, “It doesn’t get better, it just gets the same.”

The fact that flipping from one show to the other doesn’t feel like tonal whiplash is a good sign for ADHD; the messages from Adult Swim (done in their signature text-only style) is a reminder that this is only the first step to actual animation domination.

Stray observations:

  • Nick Offerman Axe Cop delivery of the week: In response to Isabella’s plan to atone for her father’s Hitler-ordered experiments by letting her father eat her brains and then curing them both: “That’s a gross plan.”
  • Early in “Zombie Island...In Space,” Isabella suggests to a curious Axe Cop, “Honestly, I think you’d look better with crazy pizza hair and a super curly beard and moustache with a robot ghost inside.” The Daria montage under the end credits confirms this is super true.
  • High School USA!’s Bully acronym: Bullyish, Ungood, Like him? (Nope.) Like him a lot less now? (Yep.) whY?
  • Broadcast of the premiere blocks was delayed more than 15 minutes because of Fox News overlap; this is less a note on the priorities Fox is placing on this fledgling attempt at late-night numbers and more because someone put a skunk in the bathroom of a store they didn’t like, and that made the national news, and if I have to know it, so do you.