Cartoon Graveyard: Jailhouse Rock

August 13, 2009


Animation is a hugely versatile medium, which can be a double-edged sword.  The ability to depict just about anything onscreen makes for wildly imaginative storytelling, but if the audience’s imaginations aren’t on the same wavelength as the creators’ there’s a risk of going too far.  That’s one reason animation is so successful in children’s programming and less so for adults.  Kids are more open to bizarre and silly images in their TV, and trying to supply that with live action is difficult at best.  I mean, you try watching H.R. Pufnstuf these days.  It’s harrowing.

The reason I bring this up is that today’s subject really exemplifies the line between imaginative and demented.  It’s very inventive, with a loose, free-associative aesthetic that is really impressive, but the actual stories and images it presents can be kindly described as “off-putting.” With a lead-in like that, you pretty much knew it would be on Adult Swim, didn’t you?

Title: Superjail
Network: Adult Swim (Cartoon Network)
Premise: So… there’s this jail…

A good introduction to this show, to my mind, is placing it on the Adult Swim Stoned-Viewing Appropriateness Scale.  This metric, of my own invention, categorizes shows by the appropriateness of watching them while under the influence of controlled substances.  A show is rated from 0 (watch while sober as a judge) to 10 (altered consciousness mandatory).  The Venture Brothers falls at 0, Harvey Birdman gets a 5, and  Robot Chicken a 10.  Don’t conflate this scale with level of weirdness, however.  Superjail gets a 0, not because it’s not bizarre but because watching it on drugs is guaranteed to send you on a bad trip.

So much work, and for this.

So much work, and for this.

The titular correctional facility is a vast, mysterious structure apparently jointly designed by Walt Disney, Rube Goldberg and Hieronymus Bosch.  It’s run by a purple-clad, Wonkaesque imp called the Warden, who is assisted by diminutive worrywart Jared, killer automoton Jailbot, and sasistic, bullying transsexual guard Alice.  To digress a bit, is it just me or has there been a marked upswing in tranny characters in these kinds of shows in recent years?  Have we entered an age of transploitation?  Or are they just cheap jokes?  The latter, probably.  You know, people, The Crying Game kind of had other things going for it.

How is a mutilated prisoner the LEAST disturbing thing in this picture?

How is a mutilated prisoner the LEAST disturbing thing in this picture?

Every episode opens with Jailbot collaring the same prisoner, who manages to escape at the end. The robot flies him away to the strains of the (actually pretty catchy) theme song until they reach Superjail, where weird shenanigans invariably arise.  Like many Adult Swim shows, Superjail runs only 15 minutes, so the plots can’t be all that complex.  Usually they involve some excuse to mutilate, torture, and kill every non-major character as quickly as possible.  Obviously this means forging emotional connections to anyone is not recommended, but on the plus side I finally found a show with a higher body count per episode than Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Superjail’s animation is very fluid and detailed, even though it’s made with Flash.  The character designs themselves are simple, but the scenes are clearly painstakingly drawn.  It looks like a really weird kid’s doodles come to life, which gives the show a very unique look but also entails a contradiction that makes it hard to watch.  Combining such stylized animation with frankly gruesome subject matter makes for a discordant viewing experience, which means that the humor (oh, yeah, this is a comedy show) doesn’t really hit home.  In one scene, for example, Alice the guard offers a starving inmate a sandwich, only to force him to dance the Hustle to get it.  That’s a funny idea, but the way it’s depicted, with the inmate as a pathetically withered, sub-human husk, just comes off as very unpleasant.

Now, this is obviously a judgment call.  Some people will respond better to grotesquerie than others, and if Superjail’s aesthetic appeals to them, well, more power to them.  I don’t think it’s going to warp kids’ minds to watch it, although they shouldn’t watch it anyway because it’s past your bedtime, young man.  And it might cause a nightmare or two, but that’s not really that big a concern.  What is a concern: it’s just not that funny.  The bizarre and ultraviolent subject matter doesn’t really tickle the funnybone as much as the WTF-bone.  I applaud the creators’ willingness to push the envelope of animation, but they could stand to toss in another joke or two.

Final Judgment: Everybody in the whole cell block, was dancin’ to the OH GOD MY EYES!


One comment

  1. ooh. Cool it good.Thanks for sharing this with us!

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