Preview episodes of Axe Cop and High School USA! air tonight on Fox at 9:30 and 9:45, respectively. On July 27, both shows move to their regular spots in the Fox Animation Domination High-Definition bloc, Saturdays at 11 p.m.
Adult Swim is a fantastic idea. Creatively and commercially: Cartoon Network’s late-night companion has been home to some of the most uncompromising and original TV programming of the past 12 years—programming with a specific appeal to a young audience that’s largely given up on watching TV on its TVs. Through a curious bit of alchemy (and, it must be said, some extremely shrewd marketing), a space once devoted to strip-mining old Hanna-Barbera cartoons and salvaging animated network castoffs became one of the last honest-to-God TV innovations that didn’t require an ethernet connection.
So it’s mind-boggling that it’s taken this long for anyone to offer a legitimate challenge to the King of Cartoons Up Past Their Bedtime. Sure, MTV was airing offbeat and off-color animation before Mike Lazzo ever chopped up his first Space Ghost short, and FX has had its share of success with the Williams Street expatriates behind Archer. However, Fox’s Animation Domination High-Definition—also known by the cheekier, fleeter sobriquet Fox ADHD—represents the first broadcast-network attempt to play Adult Swim’s game, and the folks in charge haven’t taken many chances. Former Adult Swim executive Nick Weidenfeld has been handed the reins to ADHD’s motley crew, which has been stealthily flooding the Internet with topical GIFs and animated standalones for the past year and change, all the while building up a backlog of short-form programming that takes its first bow in the company of the Simpsons, the Griffins, and the Belchers tonight. ADHD is a perfect fit for the Fourth Network: Though more crudely animated and less invested in sitcom tradition, Axe Cop and High School USA! are part of a twisted lineage established by The Simpsons’ expansion into a full-fledged series at the dawn of the 1990s. In much the same manner that these first ADHD installments are being smuggled into Animation Domination proper, “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” made its unassuming debut among Fox’s original Sunday-night staples, shows like Married… With Children and The Tracey Ullman Show (which, none too coincidentally, birthed The Simpsons).
But enough with the history lesson: What are we looking at here? In its first two series, ADHD hews closely to proven products, on Adult Swim and off. Axe Cop articulates the popular webcomic of the same name, the co-creation of artist Ethan Nicolle and his pre-adolescent brother, Malachai. High School USA!, meanwhile, comes from Adult Swim fixture and one-time Greendale Community College student Dino Stamatopoulos. Dressing Degrassi-like social issues in an updated vision of Archie’s Riverdale High, the school-set satire wouldn’t have been out of place among the tweaked Saturday-morning cartoons Stamatopoulos helped make for Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse franchise.
This gives ADHD something of an identity crisis in its early stages. If the aim is to present an alternative option to Adult Swim (and possibly siphon some viewers away from Saturday Night Live, an act with which Fox has only had fleeting success), then the new bloc couldn’t have gone with two options that embody the look, feel, and length of the average Adult Swim offering better than Axe Cop and High School USA! The latter has all the exaggerated violence and surrealist machismo of Aqua Teen Hunger Force or The Venture Bros.; the latter channels the same “seedy underbelly of a seemingly spotless setting” vibe of Stamatopoulos’ Moral Orel. Whereas ADHD has proven nimble, reactive, and downright provocative in its online form, these early looks at its flagship programs can feel a bit creaky, as if they’re racing to catch up with the late-night animation vanguard of the mid-’00s.
However, there’s a refreshing side to the three episodes screened for critics—the previews airing tonight, alongside next week’s Axe Cop première—found in the shows’ general points of view. High School USA! bears the darkly comedic mark of Stamatopoulos’ previous work in animation, but an episode where the main joke is on the shifting straw men of teenage ridicule is a long way’s off from the soul-scarring depths of Moral Orel’s fucked-up morality plays. And for all the chaos and collateral damage induced by Axe Cop, there’s a leavening positivity to the proceedings, the inevitable byproduct of a series partially inspired by the ideas of an 8-year-old boy.
In fact, Malachai Nicolle could end up as the defining voice of ADHD: Excitable, given to fits of grotesquery, and blissfully ignorant of the rules that dictate other TV shows. Speaking to the Television Critics Association this past January, ADHD boss Weidenfeld explained the importance of channeling the spirit of the Axe Cop comic through the efforts of full-time TV writers; a crucial facet of achieving that goal appears to be barreling ahead with whatever zany premise or sophomoric digression presents itself within Axe Cop’s limitless world. Whereas the default mode of many contemporary TV comedies is to maintain a remove and self-reflexively comment on the action as it unfolds, the two episodes of Axe Cop I’ve seen barrel ahead with abandon, building from one ridiculous premise (Axe Cop must help his associate Bat Warthog Man locate his missing friends) to the next (The King Of All Bad Guys has eaten Bat Warthog Man’s friends, which necessitates swift, dinosaur-based vengeance) without hesitation. There’s a bracing positivity embedded in all of this, a welcome antidote to the creeping cynicism that infects even the best of Adult Swim programming.
That’s not to suggest that world-weariness is bad for adult animation, and there’s certainly a risk that ADHD’s energy levels could grow wearying. (Axe Cop, for one, could make for prohibitively breathless binge-viewing.) Until that point, however, there’s a thrill about something like Animation Domination High-Definition entering the increasingly fraying TV landscape. It’s making its home on the only broadcast network that makes sense for such a venture, but the mere fact that a broadcast network is trying experimental and/or short-form programming merits attention. It’s a few years too late—as are most risks being taken in the twilight of the Big Four—but if it works, it could be a boon to a generation of animators and comedians raised on Adult Swim. As ADHD itself has illustrated, there’s a whole Internet out there for testing out this type of material, but as long as the broadcast-TV model exists, someone ought to use its last breaths to sound a call as rambunctious, uninhibited, and fun as Axe Cop and High School USA! at their best.