Good Vibes debuts tonight on MTV at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
Someday, decades from now, there’s going to be a book called The Films Of David Gordon Green, probably written by some British film scholar, because Green is the kind of person who will eventually make enough of the kinds of films that get scholarly books written about you, and he’s also got, let’s say, eccentric taste. Green started out his career with some very pretty, very tasteful, very well-done films that seemed to be trying to pin him down as Terrence Malick: The Next Generation. George Washington, All The Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels are all the sorts of moody art films that people who like to talk about film enjoy discussing. Some are modern classics; some are weird misfires. But all have things in them well worth talking about.
After Snow Angels came and went without much attention, however, Green took a weird, hard left into making stoner comedies, a move that appeared to have happened for no apparent reason whatsoever. His Pineapple Express is raucously funny and gloriously goofy, but he followed it up with the curious Your Highness, a film that perhaps seemed good on paper but didn’t work at all on screen, and the upcoming The Sitter, about which the less said the better. He’s also dabbled in television, ending up as one of the primary directors on the gloriously white trash Eastbound & Down, a series that features a protagonist who would almost certainly kick any of the protagonists of Green’s earlier films in the chin if he caught them staring wistfully into the middle distance.
Now, Green has created, again for no apparent reason whatsoever, an animated surfer/coming-of-age comedy for MTV that may, ultimately, end up the Rosetta Stone for our presumed future film scholar. For all of its faults—and in tonight’s pilot especially, those faults are many—Good Vibes balances the earlier wistful sweetness with the over-the-top humor of Green’s later work. There are only a couple of chuckles in tonight’s pilot, most of which stem from the animation (by studio Six Point Harness), but a later episode centered around spring break offers a better opportunity for the show’s quirky charms to shine. This isn’t a recommendation exactly—there are still a few too many problems with the surface level of the show—but the undercarriage is sound, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this developed into a surprisingly sweet and winning little show given enough time.
The protagonist of the series is the unfortunately named Mondo Brando (voiced by Josh Gad, probably best known for his work in The Book Of Mormon on Broadway), an overweight teenager who’s been transplanted from New Jersey to California because his mother moved out to the West Coast to take a job at a bank. Mom, the very well-endowed Babs (Debi Mazur, doing her most stereotypical Jersey accent), quickly discovers that maybe her new plan wasn’t the most thought out of plans, and a tiresome running gag in the pilot has her hoping to find a job that won’t involve her having to work a pole or be on her knees or some other sexually suggestive phrase all day, followed by quick flashes of perfectly normal jobs that involve working a pole or getting down on your knees, accompanied by Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.” (There are a lot of easy, cheap gags like this in the pilot, so if that sounds like your thing, you might be in heaven.) The Babs stuff is disappointing because it seems like all involved with the series started to think about what it might be like to be a woman with large breasts who wishes to be taken seriously, then just got distracted by the large breasts, even though they drew them in the first place.
Mondo, for his part, bumps into the laid-back surfer burnout Woodie (Adam Brody, whose voice you wouldn’t recognize if you didn’t know it was his), who gives Mondo the lay of the land in one of those sequences where every character trots out to do something so perfectly in character that Mondo immediately realizes that, say, this guy (Turk, voiced by Jake Busey) is the bully and this girl (Jeena, voiced by Olivia Thirlby) is the girl he’ll have a crush on and so on and so forth. This whole section seems based on somebody reading an illustrated guide to Jay Leno monologue jokes about California beach towns, and it comes complete with the usual gags about how Californians are just so different and wacky and groovy when compared to the rest of America. There’s a rivalry between Mondo and Turk, there’s a stoner who lives in a van voiced by Alan Tudyk, and there’s really nothing here that you haven’t seen before, along with an irritating overreliance on gags about reality TV shows and other cultural detritus. (There’s also an overweight sex-ed teacher named Miss Teets, voiced by Kenny Powers himself, Danny McBride, who adds nothing to the show and is just an opportunity for more, “Oh, she’s so fat; isn’t that disgusting?!” gags.)
But the other episode sent out for review—the fourth produced, though God knows when it will air—is a clever little bit of television, one that suggests the show’s producers and writers (who include legendary TV producer Tom Werner) have found the earnest core of Green’s concept and expanded some cool ideas around it. In it, Mondo and Woodie wish to celebrate spring break drinking but discover that the local beach patrol is zealous in tracking down underage drinkers. Turning to the Internet with their new, hyperactive friend Wadska (Tony Hale, best in show and hilarious even when given lines that aren’t particularly funny), the two discover the concept of international waters and float their inner tubes out just far enough to sail under the flag of Jamaica and do whatever they want. Soon enough, all of the other teens in town—including Geena and Turk—hear about what’s going on and float their tubes out, creating a new floating paradise of hedonism called Floatopia. There are solid jokes aplenty in this episode—including the line “Why does that weird little kid have so many sexy bathing suits?” which should be worked into conversation as often as possible—and the dialogue meshes well with visual gags, like a few riffs on the classic “angel and devil over the shoulder” routine.
It’s impossible to know which way Good Vibes will skew going forward, which is why I’m hedging my bets a bit with the grade. (Critics I know who’ve seen one additional episode say it’s more in line with the pilot, but that MTV sent out the spring break episode at all suggests the network knows the show is a work in progress and they’re hoping it’s more like that in the future.) But it’s easy to be inclined to hope for the best, simply because Mondo himself is such an appealing protagonist. Though he starts out a little too much like every fish out of water you’ve ever seen, Gad and the show’s writers eventually find the sweet center of the guy, showing that he’s more than just some Jersey stereotype or some pop culture joke machine. Like the protagonists of some of Green's best films, he’s someone who’s generally trying to do the right thing, and he’s someone who’s a good and loyal friend who doesn’t take advantage of those around him, even when they offer. That’s not the most original character in the world either, but in the hands of Gad and Green, he feels surprisingly sympathetic and real.