Superjail!

“Hotchick” confirms my suspicions regarding the nominally character-driven new approach that Superjail’s creators have given the show’s second season. Series co-creator Christy Karacas has said that she wanted to make Superjail more about the characters and less about the paradoxically formulaic but largely free-form narratives that made season one such a blast. Which is why it’s a good thing that Karacas and company haven’t strayed too far from the show’s winning formula, whose main appeal is its choreographed tableaux of anarchic violence. “Hotchick” proves that, like last week’s episode, which was also scripted by John Miller, the show’s new character-driven approach hasn’t totally sucked the fun out of Superjail, just made it a little too neat to be as good as it once was.

Allow me to backtrack a moment and lay out why Superjail’s first season is the standard by which the show’s success should be judged. In episodes like “Time-Police, Pt. 1” and “Time-Police, Pt. 2,” the show’s writers, who used to have multiple credits on every episode, proved that their cartoon worked best when it moved as fast as its absurd ideas. The 10-minute format that the show has adopted is perfect fit for the show’s content because the show’s events only ever made logical sense to a point. That point was whenever the writers decided to remind viewers that none of what they were seeing could logically ever make sense.

For instance, the title setting of Superjail only makes sense when the Warden is in charge, enforcing its arbitrary rules. But when he gets abducted in “Time-Police, Pt. 1” by the, uh, time police, singing prison guards in the time prison of the future, his employees Jared and Alice’s first respective reactions to his sudden disappearance are, “Where’d the warden go?” and “Who cares?” Superjail’s first season didn’t have a serious bone in its body. Its rules were (and still mostly are) made up on the fly, and its sole authority figure (the Warden) is a lunatic who constantly puts down the show’s sole voice of reason (Jared).

When Superjail’s writers decided to ditch the melee-oriented episodes of season one in favor of more plot-oriented, character-driven episodes, the impact on the show’s berserker sensibility was pretty salient. Compare the backstory that the writers provided the Warden in “Time-Police, Pt. 2” with the one they gave the Twins in “Hotchick.” In “Time-Police, Pt. 2,” the Warden thinks back to when he was little and he watched his father accidentally kill himself. The Warden flashes back to a childhood scene where he shows his father a toy model of Superjail. The Warden’s father, being a killjoy, protests that he doesn’t have to time for his “Rainbow whatsits.” He starts to tell the Warden that jail is, “…a serious place where serious men take serious time to…” And then he slips on what looks like a Duplo version of Jailbot, Superjail’s robotic prison guard (duh); falls out of the nearest window; gets hit by a flag pole; smacks his head on an awning; gets kicked by a horse; and then falls into a noose and hangs by the neck until he dies. If that’s not a spectacular testament of the show’s abject refusal to conform to normal cartoon standards of normalcy, I don’t know what is.

“Hotchick,” on the other hand, features a fairly straight-forward self-contained story about where the Twins, identical brothers that cause havoc around Superjail but rarely ever abuse the residents with malicious intent, come from. An alien “Hunter” lands on the planet and stalks the Twins, who lament to the jail’s prisoners that they are the last of their species and must be hidden from the Hunter lest she exterminate an entire race. Naturally, the inmates can’t process anything beyond the fact that A) the Hunter assumes the form of a naked blonde with huge boobs, and B) the Twins claims to know her. They’re more interested in finding out if she puts out than anything else. But still, the fact remains that now we kinda sorta know who the Twins are and where they come from.

At least, we think we do until later in “Hotchick” when the floating head thing that the Hunter takes orders from is revealed to be the Twins’ father. He tells them that they’ve stayed away from home too long and have to return from their vacation immediately. That last minute reversal is a cute way of reminding viewers that Superjail! hasn’t sold out. But it’s also a reminder of how finite the show’s sense of play is now.

While I appreciate that this additional backstory only serves to complicate and undermine the main narrative imperative of “Hotchick”—Hunter hunts the last members of a dying species, Superjail residents try to save her—the fact remains that Superjail’s second season thus far just hasn’t been as happily disorganized and hence not as immediately funny as season one was. The changes that the show’s writers have made are largely cosmetic, but they’re also pretty significant, if that makes any sense.

Another aspect of the new and not-really-improved Superjail! that irked me in “Hotchick” is the show’s relatively cleaner and more, well, animated look. The choppy, hyper-convoluted, Underground Comix-inspired style of the first season really suited the show’s mood, especially in typically absurd moments like when the Twins unleashed Spanish flies on a gymnasium full of co-ed prisoners in “Ladies Night” and the bugs’ bites turned the female prisoners into sex-crazed maniacs.

Don’t get me wrong, Superjail’s proudly crude sense of humor is still complemented by tongue-in-cheek images. Last week’s episode, “Lord Stingray Crash Party,” featured a fun sight gag in the scenes set in the Warden’s office where the show kept showing the same footage of a robot shaped like the Warden’s head with cannons for eyes walking past the window over and over again. That repeated image seemed to be a wink at how the show’s production values look to have gotten more expensive since it started its second season.

But the cleaner look of Superjail! is still ultimately rather bothersome. The rubber-limbed movements of the Warden in “Hotchick” are an unwelcome reminder that Superjail! is now a slightly but notably tamer version of what it once was. I look forward to what happens next on the show, but I really hope they go back to embracing season one’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink m.o. soon.

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