Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky once had cartoon roommates in college, until Astro Boy finally lost his cool and killed that sanctimonious twerp Ziggy.
"TV, I trusted you! And you made a fool out of me…for the last time!"—Foxxy Love, mystery-solving musician (Cree Summer)
When I first heard the premise to Drawn Together, during its initial weeks when Comedy Central hyped it beyond all decency, I wondered if the world really needed another parody of reality shows. I mean, hadn't the genre already descended into self-parody? Besides, the real appeal (if any) of reality shows is not the gimmicks but our fascination with the damaged personalities that gather in all the boardrooms and islands and whatnot. How could a "reality show" about two-dimensional cartoon characters keep us interested beyond the initial premise?
Facts of the Case
Here's the pitch: put eight cartoon characters in a house together and see what happens. You've got your Disney princess, Clara (Tara Strong), who seems sweet but is really a buttoned-up racist. You've got your sassy, crime-solving musician from a Josie and the Pussycats knock-off, Foxxy Love (Cree Summer). How about a perverted internet cartoon who cannot keep his pants on, with the entirely appropriate name of Spanky Ham (Adam Carolla)? Don't forget the fey, elfin video game hero, Xandir P. Wifflebottom (Jack Plotnick).
Need to appeal to the kids? Then add Wooldoor Sockbat (James Arnold Taylor), a sweet-natured, ADHD-suffering cousin to Spongebob. For the anime geeks, Japanese card game mascot Ling Ling (Abbey McBride) provides untranslatable fun. Finally, we cannot forget the classics. Add Captain Hero (Jess Harnell), an overmuscled jock, and black-and-white Toot Braunstein (Tara Strong), a jazz-age heartthrob from the days when guys liked 'em plump and drunk.
Can this mismatched collection of cartoon stars get along? Who will do the dishes? Can they steal that hot, young male demographic from South Park and The Man Show by piling on the poop jokes and girl-on-girl action? I mean, you've got to have priorities…
I'll cut right to the point: There are moments when Drawn Together is very funny. But they are not the moments you would think of when talking about an animated sitcom on Comedy Central. To capture that coveted frat-minded audience that Comedy Central evidently craves, the show indulges in plenty of gross-out humor. Often, the naughtiness tends to be obvious and easy. Ha ha, look at Betty Boop taking her top off! Ha ha, look at Superman getting drunk! The consistent joke throughout the show is in watching beloved cartoon icons, altered slightly to avoid copyright infringement, acting in disgusting ways.
Want to see a cartoon pig masturbate? I'm sure we all do, and you can enjoy it without pixilation on this uncensored DVD version of Drawn Together's first season. How about listening to a Disney princess carpet bomb the F-word? Yep, no bleeping here.
But it actually gets tiresome very quickly, especially because other, better shows have mined this territory before. What makes Drawn Together work as well as it does is not the effort to be naughty, but the character interaction and development. You heard me right: The show seems to actually care about its characters. Well, all of them except for Toot, who remains annoying throughout the series, perhaps because the writers make no effort to portray her as anything other than a gluttonous, manipulative sleaze.
The other characters are, oddly enough, humanized enough to make the show watchable. The first episode has a hard time making it work, though. It tries to cram in too many jokes at the expense of introducing the cast and overuses Toot (and underuses Wooldoor, whose ability to morph into anything sometimes provides funny and unpredictable gags in later episodes). After the first episode, however, the show picks up steam throughout its short run, until—well, perhaps a short survey of the episodes, their strengths and weaknesses, is in order.
• "Hot Tub": When the characters meet for the first time, sheltered Princess Clara mistakes sex kitten Foxxy for the house servant. Foxxy retaliates by frenching Clara in the hot tub. A dead-on parody of a Disney ballad, "Black Chick's Tongue," shows the level of wit that the series is capable of. But this first episode often falls flat, perhaps because it is a pilot and creators Matt Silverstein and David Jeser feel the need to do too much. It does display the show's potential, especially in its excellent vocal work. Adam Carolla, for example, ably steers Spanky's self-destructive antics from rebellious to just on the edge of pathetic, giving us a sense of a real personality underneath the crass behavior.
• "Clara's Dirty Little Secret": The writing is tighter, the comic timing is smoother, and we actually start to develop some empathy for the characters. The plot: Clara reveals a Lovecraftian monster under her dress. There are plenty of opportunities for parody: gags reference Alien 3, Beauty and the Beast, the trash compactor scene from Star Wars, and even a Scooby Doo–style musical number that rattles off every euphemism for "vagina" the writers could think of. But unlike the pilot episode, the parodies fit into the context of the story rather than feeling tacked on. We begin to see the stuck-up Clara as sheltered and repressed, almost as much a victim of her social class as she is of her ego, which makes the "monster vagina" a crucial part of her character, rather than a gratuitous (and perhaps misogynistic) joke.
• "Gay Bash": It is time for Xandir, who keeps insisting he is "on a mission to save my girlfriend," to finally come out of the closet. Meanwhile, Ling Ling, who increasingly resembles a cute but rabid koala bear, reveals a talent for making designer shoes, which makes Spanky taste sweatshop profits. This is the episode that turned a friend of mine completely off to the show: He was deeply offended by a scene in which, um, let's just say it involves God and a glory hole. I mention this in order to remind you that Drawn Together works hard to see how far it can test the patience of Comedy Central's Standards and Practices Department—in some cases even farther than South Park tries to go. And yet, as I've already said, what stands out to me are not the deliberate provocations to the audience and censors, but the strong vocal performances that anchor interesting characters.
• "Requiem for a Reality Show": When half the gang loses an immunity challenge and is forced to starve, Spanky takes the loss out on the milquetoast Wooldoor. Toot eats so much that she makes Mr. Creosote look like an Auschwitz survivor, and Foxxy turns Captain Hero into her S&M love slave in return for a meal. The good and the bad in equal measure here: Clara's efforts to empower Wooldoor are funny; Foxxy and Cap's pathetic romance is funny; the shrill and shallow Toot is not funny. And you can see that Jabba the Hutt gag coming a mile away.
• "The Other Cousin": Clara's "special needs" cousin comes to visit in this parody of that notorious Facts of Life episode about Blair's cousin with cerebral palsy. Captain Hero takes a liking to cousin "Bleh," but is he only after sex? Meanwhile, the others discover that Ling Ling secretes a hallucinogen when he gets depressed. The funniest sequence of the episode, though, is played totally deadpan: a game of "spin the bottle" between a bored Captain Hero, Spanky, and Wooldoor.
• "Dirty Pranking Number 2": Clara longs for something more in life, so Spanky teaches her to play a disgusting prank on the pizza guy. Poop jokes as empowerment? Actually, the episode works not because it is transgressive (it pales next to Mr. Hanky), but because the transgression is linked to Clara's efforts to develop a rebellious streak that has always been denied her. Of course, you have to get past the poop jokes first.
• "The One Wherein There Is a Big Twist": The season finale dumps the character-driven humor of the previous episodes for a more sustained and self-conscious parody of reality television. The housemates battle the show's "Jew producer" and demand a prize for all their hard work. So we end up with jokes like a minute and a half of the housemates sitting around and blinking. What is this, Family Guy? Then, Richie Rich—I mean, Bucky Bucks—shows up for a riff on The Apprentice. If you like that show, you might enjoy this. Frankly, I felt bored.
"Bored" is a word I cannot use when talking about the commentary tracks, however. Producers Silverstein and Jeser pull in most of the voice cast (Carolla is noticeably absent) and a few other writers and producers for four tracks that are sometimes funnier than the actual episodes. They point out scenes they battled over with the network, make extremely politically incorrect jokes, and wander off on bizarre tangents, like revealing their first gay experiences or telling jokes about retarded people. They talk candidly about fights among the members of the show's creative team, answer e-mails from their critics (often agreeing about the show's failings), and by the commentary on the finale, they even drag some guy in off the street (assuming he is real and not a plant) to see what he thinks. Occasionally, the voices fade down for a moment and then return in mid-conversation, suggesting that Paramount's legal team probably got a hold of these recordings before printing the DVDs.
All the episodes on the disc claim to be extended versions with material not aired on Comedy Central. None of the new material stands out (relative to what I remember from watching them on air), but it is nice to know that while a lot of television shows are being released in syndication edits, this one is more than complete. As I noted before, none of the genitalia is pixilated or the foul language bleeped out, so keep this show far away from the kids. Since most of the previously deleted footage has been reinserted, there is little left for the "Deleted Scenes" section of Disc Two, apart from character introductions cut from the pilot and two extended scenes from the season finale.
The other extras are amusing but thin. Decide which lines of dialogue got past the censors and which ones were cut. Watch some funny "previously on Drawn Together" gags. Sing along in karaoke style to five songs from the show, including Ling Ling's lament in fake Japanese.
Drawn Together is a show that has yet to form a consistent identity. At times (particularly the first and last episodes of the season) it offers the same sort of parodies that you can get a hundred other places, mocking an already creatively bankrupt genre with gross-out humor. Other times, it surprises with genuine wit. The ratio of funny to merely stupid makes Drawn Together worth a look. Plus, Paramount throws in some deliriously naughty commentary tracks that make the DVD set a better value than just catching the reruns on Comedy Central. In short, Drawn Together is surprisingly good. I hope Matt Silverstein and David Jeser can keep up their momentum for the show's second season.
The creators of this show are released, as this court finds enough socially redeeming value to negate the obscenity charges against them. But the cartoon housemates are all cited for indecency and ordered into rehab.
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