Tyler, The Creator tends to attract a lot of personal readings of his work. Partly, that’s because the material is highly personal, and because it’s so heavily driven by his public persona. (Much of the reception of his most recent album Flower Boy focused on the statements the album made about Tyler’s sexuality.) So there’s a temptation to engage in a semi-autobiographical reading of The Jellies!, the animated series Tyler created with Loiter Squad collaborator Lionel Boyce, especially given the premise of the show: teen boy Cornell (voiced by Phil LaMarr), who looks a bit like Tyler himself, discovers he’s adopted, kicking off a quest to find himself.
But there’s little to nothing resembling the father-directed angst and anger that defined Tyler’s early work, at least not in the episodes made available to critics. Outside of a quick photo of Barry and Debbie Jelly seeming to find baby Cornell in a dumpster, there’s no reference to the adoption at all. In fact, in the original version of The Jellies! that streamed on Tyler’s Golf Media app, Cornell was white—his race was changed in part because, in Tyler’s words, “How many fucking black cartoon characters are on TV right now?” Instead, in The Jellies!, Tyler has made a goofily pleasant sitcom almost scientifically engineered for Adult Swim.
The Jellies are a buffoonish version of your standard sitcom family: Barry, the goofy father, spends too much money on blenders and belly button tattoos and commiserates with his friends at the bar; Debbie, the mother, is an angry drunk willing to be won over by grand displays of affection; and brilliant older sister KY mostly sneers at her brother while dating a Carl Sagan lookalike. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of continuity, at least at first—one episode’s bloody denouement featuring a super-powered Xzibit wouldn’t be out of place on Superjail. (This makes sense: Augenblick Studios, responsible for The Jellies, also animated the first season of Superjail.) And The Jellies! is packed with an almost obscene density of pop-culture references, including one sequence that bounces from the music video for Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby” to 16 And Pregnant to Catfish to True Life, all at Family Guy-level speeds.
Still, Tyler and Boyce’s reference points are a few degrees off from the ones you might find on Robot Chicken. There are jokes about everything from the iconic blue and purple “Jazz” pattern to the aging of ’90s R&B icons to the Watts Riots. (One episode takes place largely in a retirement home for ’90s celebrities operated by a robotic Coolio.) Tyler’s musical ability helps the jokes immensely—he does the score himself, and his capacity to do spot-on parodies (and the occasional original song snippet) makes The Jellies! worth a viewing for fans of his rap career.
And underneath the layers of gags, The Jellies has a warm heart, somewhere. The Xzibit episode begins like an obnoxiously bad sitcom, with Cornell trying to make sure his friend finds a date to homecoming and going full Mrs. Doubtfire, becoming a girl named Jamila. There are a thousand ways this could go horribly wrong, but the complete lack of irony or attempt to “say” anything with the episode makes it feel almost childishly kind and specific. Cornell’s unexamined, unwavering sweetness is reminiscent of something that has been a part of Tyler’s persona for years but has only recently risen to the surface.
The rest of the world around the Jellies has a bit more definition than you might expect from a show relying solely on the next joke. That might partly be because of the Golf Media run, which gave Tyler and Boyce time to hone the characters and tone they’re going for. But it’s also because the jokes rack up in a way that feels specific, and representative of one, broader worldview. Cornell’s dorky friends wear matching shirts to rep their crew, and giving Reggie, one of his white friends, the booming, distinctive voice of Kevin Michael Richardson feels like a gag that would only have come out of this creative team.
Put another way: There are more than a few superficial similarities between The Jellies! and Bojack Horseman. Both shows feature disillusioned celebrities, lovable idiots, and anthropomorphic animals running for office (In Bojack, Mr. Peanutbutter runs for governor, while in The Jellies a whale named Mervin decides to run for mayor after an unfortunate incident with a “no shirt no service” policy at the mall.) But where every scrap of kindness and faith in humanity on Bojack is won through pain and misery, The Jellies is almost pathologically sunny.
There’s a lot to be said for brevity in TV at the moment. With so many options, and so many series demanding at least four or five hours before they “get good,” something like Neo Yokio, which wraps up an entire season in six half-hour episodes, is refreshing almost regardless of its quality. In that respect, The Jellies! has more than enough going for it to justify watching a few 12-minute episodes, especially when each episode is guaranteed a least a couple of laughs. What more do you need from Sunday night TV?