There aren’t a lot of kids’ cartoons about guys who want to fuck everything that moves, but any list of them would have to include Johnny Bravo. Created in 1997, Bravo cycles through plots as simple as the classic cartoons that obviously inspired it, but the execution is lacking. Johnny Bravo is a muscle-bound dunderhead whose narcissism and egotism stand in the way of his accomplishing anything. It’s clear we aren’t supposed to sympathize with him, but he doesn’t make a very appealing hero to follow around, either. This wouldn’t be an issue if the jokes were funnier, but the need to appeal to kids means that most of the first season spends time running away from the very things that could make the character funny, like his over-the-top lechery.
Toward the end of the season, Bravo settles into a more absurdist set of rhythms, flipping between pop-culture references, really odd jokes, and references to classic cartoons and kid entertainment. It perhaps isn’t accidental that the most famous Bravo writing-staff alumnus was Seth MacFarlane, who created Family Guy while working on the show. Johnny Bravo reflects a lot of the rhythms MacFarlane later developed in his primetime work—his scripts for the series are among the most consistent, and the ones that dance most easily around the problems of making a show about an ultra-masculine asshole that works for kids.
In its own way, Bravo feels like a dry run for a lot of the things Cartoon Network tried as it grew as a network and expanded into Adult Swim. There’s the embrace of cartoon history in throwbacks to other Hanna-Barbera characters, like Scooby-Doo. (CN’s animation studio also produced Johnny Bravo.) There’s the turn toward absurd humor when the well runs dry on the sorts of gags that can be done with the central characters. And there’s the fact that each and every character on the show is a collection of tics and weird behaviors more than an actual person.
One of the bigger problems with Bravo is that at the time, the animation made impressive use of stylization to cover up its cheapness, but now it just looks cheap. Nearly every cartoon on the air covers its budgetary issues with stylization these days, and the look of those early CN cartoons—all blocky people and bright colors—has spread far and wide. So it’s easier to see the limitations in Bravo’s animation, from the generic backgrounds to the ways the characters don’t really move so much as dance between a set number of poses.
The scattershot approach doesn’t help, with each episode featuring three mini-sketches. There are a few pretty good bits mixed in among everything else, including one where Adam West shows up to help Johnny find his missing mother, a MacFarlane-scripted Schoolhouse Rock parody, and a whole episode with an occasionally amusing set of Twilight Zone send-ups. But the vast majority fall flat. (A mid-season attempt to send up hip-hop culture is particularly embarrassing.) The trick to creating a durable cartoon series is to create a set of rules that are as unbreakable as the laws of physics. Johnny Bravo tries to do this, but the laws it tries to chisel in stone would simply fly over the heads of its primary audience, leaving the whole season feeling mildly confused.
Key features: A weirdly extensive set for a show like this, with three audio commentaries (one features Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman, who voiced a little girl on the show); a temp track of MacFarlane singing his songs from the Schoolhouse Rock episode; a short, fun featurette on the show’s evolution; and two pencil tests.