Robot Chicken

What the hell is up with all the Star Wars parodies lately? Sure, the Clone Wars show is still on the air, but the franchise hasn't been truly culturally relevant since we choked down Revenge of the Sith in 2005. The occasional Jedi reference or Darth Vader sketch, sure, I can believe that, but Family Guy and Robot Chicken have churned out hours of material riffing on the series. Some of those riffs are surprisingly obscure, too, although most tend to be familiar low-brow gags or comic stereotypes wrapped in a sci-fi blanket. I don't exactly object to this. I like to have my nostalgia buttons pushed as much as the next guy, and lord knows, I love seeing the prequels take their shots. But this is Robot Chicken's third Star Wars special, it runs an hour with commercials, and there's not a whole lot going on here that hasn't been already covered. It's watchable enough, certainly, because that's how this kind of comedy works. But an hour is a bit much for this kind of thing, and seeing how sharp Robot Chicken can be when the writers actually make an effort, it takes a lot of the fun out of sitting through the same old crap.

Starting with the good, Seth MacFarlane's Emperor Palpatine is back. Palpatine is easily the break-out character of the RCSW episodes, probably because he's pretty much the only character in the episodes, and the special starts off with the smart idea of structuring around Palpatine flashing back over his past after Vader gives him the shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi. It's a loose enough concept to allow for plenty of wiggle room, but it also could have provided a helpful sense of progression. Sketch comedy lives and dies on the strengths of its ideas, because there's no depth or characters to invest in when a concept falls flat. Palpatine is well-established at this point, and tying the episode together around him would give the illusion that we were watching a story, even though we really weren't. Admittedly, this doesn't always work (too much story, and the obvious break between plotting and skits is distracting), but it might have been fun.

However, the Robot Chicken gang is very, very lazy. They can be deadly when they come up with a strong idea (and there are a few here), but they're just as likely to fall back on a handful of stock routines. (The annoying Jedi in tonight's episode is a concept they've run into the ground in other shows. It's cute, and the pay-off wasn't bad, but it's been done.) So the Palpatine introduction is largely dropped after those first few minutes. The character gets some good bits, and there's some narration surrounding the commercial breaks, but it all seems like a concept that got dropped in the early stages because it was  too much of a pain in the ass to maintain. The sketch with a young Palpatine getting involved in politics was clever, and it did something new. Shame that was pretty much the last we saw of that. 

I've watched the previous Star Wars Specials (I've got the second one on my iPod, and it's not a bad way to kill time at work), but I never really paid close attention to them before tonight. That's key to their success, I think, much as it's key to the continued success of Family Guy. The asides which compromise at least half of any given FG episode are short bits illustrating a single idea. They're designed to appeal to our short attention spans by making television even easier to watch; once we grasp the idea, we get the joke, and we can zone out and think about puppies or something. Robot Chicken is all sketch, obviously, but it mixes longer routines with one-offs, and nothing lasts long enough that it forces you to care. It's only when you actually watch what's happening on screen that you start to notice how much of just plays as stalling. 

The good? As mentioned, a lot of the Palpatine bits landed decently, although the finale was weak. Luke's encounter with the wampa he disarmed on Hoth was striking, and there were a lot of great lines sprinkled throughout. Padme's striptease was funny (although I may be appreciating it more because I'm just happy somebody else notices she wore a freaking dominatrix dress when she tried to break up with Anakin in Clones), and a lot of the quick one-offs were clever. (Obi-Wan's Jedi mind-trick pep talk was great.) But there was also a lot of repetition here from earlier specials, and the show wastes too much time on characters who talk funny and then just go on talking funny ... and that's it. Unless they can figure out some new way to mine this material, Robot Chicken should probably give a pass on any more Star Wars-centric episodes. And even then, unless they can justify the length, they should stick to short and sweet. 

Stray Observations:

  • Well, that stealth ad for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 was something. 
  • Best Writer's Note joke: "Part of the fun of casting each Robot Chicken Star Wars special is getting a resounding "NO!" from Harrison Ford's manager. On that note, please don't go see Morning Glory."
  • "Is my dad gonna kiss the Emperor?"