The Random, Idiotic, and Profoundly Non-Jewish New Face of TV
Fox’s new animated block replicating the popular Adult Swim means the end of TV’s Golden Era and its great Jewish sensibility
Almost everything worth knowing I learned from TV. I taught myself English by rewinding and replaying old, scratched-up VHS tapes of The Honeymooners. When my own childhood was derailed by a string of very bad decisions, I found comfort in the Keatons and the Cosbys and the Conners, families whose every quarrel was amusing and resolved within 22 minutes. I remember rushing home one afternoon in 1993—a prehistoric era in which humans, having yet to discover the DVR or Netflix, had to sit in front of their sets at a particular hour to watch their favorite shows—eager to make it in time for Beverly Hills 90210. I ran into my room, and as I was about to grab the remote I noticed a brown envelope lying on my bed. It was a letter from the Israel Defense Forces, into which I was to be inducted the following year, and I knew that it contained the verdict about where I would serve and at what capacity, the Israeli equivalent of the American letter from the college of one’s choice. It was heady stuff, and I was eager to find out, but I was also eager not to miss a second of my beloved show. I stared at the envelope, then at the TV. It wasn’t really a fair fight. The IDF could wait; Brandon, Dylan, and Kelly could not.
My infatuation with television has since grown into a more mature and nuanced love, which is why the news last week that Fox will soon allot a stretch of its Saturday-night programming to a new, off-beat animation strip made me more despondent about the future of the medium than I’ve been since that low moment in which the aforementioned Kelly, forced to choose between her two aforementioned lovers, announced “I choose me” and set a new record in terrible TV writing. It’s unfair to judge any work of culture sight unseen, but if reports of Fox’s new endeavor are any measure, the future of American television is grim.
As we live in the age of The Wire, Breaking Bad, and other peaks of TV genius, that last sentence requires some explaining. Isn’t television now as good as it’s ever been? Aren’t we amidst a small-screen renaissance? We’re not, or at least not entirely. And we’ve cartoons to blame.
Starting in the mid-1990s, animation studio executives, led by Hanna-Barbera president Fred Seibert, aggressively pushed their genre up the age range, producing content increasingly targeted at young-adult or adult viewers. One by one, shows like Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, and Dexter’s Laboratory featured saltier language and rowdier ideas than anything Bugs Bunny and his pals could’ve ever imagined. Being just the sort of concoctions our perennially adolescent culture is primed to admire—two parts self-referential humor, one part punning, stirred and served in small and potent shots—these shows were all hits, producing anything from Primetime Emmy nominations to an endless stream of merchandise, DVD compilations, and video games. But they were, at heart, traditional shows, with characters and story lines and emotional arcs, a sensibility hardly changed since the 1950s. And then came the Internet.
Like all media, the Internet, too, contains multitudes that are difficult to reduce to short and simple definitions, but it isn’t too much of an injustice to argue that the Web reserves its greatest rewards for the brief and the obvious. Post a 5,000-word essay analyzing the root causes of the riots in Brazil, say, and, no matter how well-written or erudite, you’re likely to get no more than one reader per word. A listicle of the 30 greatest one-hit wonders from the 1980s, on the other hand, is the stuff Internet dreams are made of. Which means that the television shows that could now make it rain online were the ones with an abundance of lightning flashes, quick and furious bits of content that needed neither context nor explanation to spread widely and rapidly online.
Into this digitally enhanced universe walked Family Guy, a show whose plot lines were nothing more than shotgun shells containing small and cutting pellets of vignettes spoofing bits and bobs of pop-culture detritus. Family Guy’s approach to storytelling was so stark that South Park, an animated show from an earlier era, mocked it by suggesting in one episode that Family Guy scripts were generated by a tubful of manatees pushing around balls with random words printed on each one.
Family Guy premiered in 1999; by 2002, it was canceled, decimated by Friends running against it on NBC. Two forces, however, united to bring it back to life: One was the Internet, which turned many of the show’s random gags into viral videos, and the other was Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s nighttime animation strip. Launched in 2001, Adult Swim was everything the new wave of adult-themed animation always wanted to be but couldn’t before the ascent of the GIF, the meme, and other forms of rapid transmission of small portions of content. To describe the shows that have made Adult Swim a monstrous hit would be futile; they exist to mock television’s very need for definitions. Instead, imagine a show about a clan of anthropomorphic Appalachian mud squids who live in Georgia and whose paterfamilias, crudely drawn and badly voiced, is fond of giving speeches like this one: “Lord, please allow these scratched lottery tickets with their slivery seasonings to nourish our bodies as they were unable to do the same to our wallets. And thank ya fer the untimely frost which claimed my bananer orchard. Oh, I was a fool ta plant bananers on a mountain! You made sure of that. So, in short, thanks for nothin’.”
That last nugget is taken from Squidbillies, one of Adult Swim’s crown jewels. It doesn’t make more sense when viewed in context. It’s not supposed to: Like all the shows in that strip, it is a celebration of the random, the bizarre, and the unpleasantly surreal. The monologues these shows throw together—and they’re mainly monologues, as dialogues require fully fleshed characters to deliver them and fully fleshed characters require plot lines, and plot lines are, like, not cool for the gaggle of young men and women at the center of Adult Swim’s creative universe—sound like the fevered dreams of smart but unmotivated junior-high students walking home alone in the heat: They’re grandiose and sweet and silly and senseless and entirely too solipsistic to be taken seriously. Once upon a time, these kids used to grow up, go to college, then put in time in a writers’ room, learn the craft, and only then get the green light to make shows of their own. That temperate pace is no longer in vogue: On the Internet, as on Adult Swim, instant stardom is not only sexy but the way we now do business.
Family Guy is a case in point: When the show first aired on Fox, its creator, Seth MacFarlane, was 26, with nothing more than a few Hanna-Barbera cartoons to his name. The network eventually balked at his sensibility and pulled the plug on his show. That, in the traditional television life cycle, would have been that, but the show’s reruns were picked up by Adult Swim immediately after its cancellation, generating a crescendo of ratings boosted by robust fan traffic on the Web. Fox had no choice but to pay attention, bringing the show back from the dead and surrendering most of the network’s Sunday-night lineup to the same 20-something it had unceremoniously fired just five years before. That gambit worked so well that Fox decided to fashion its entire new strip after Adult Swim, opening the door to a cadre of creators who fit the mothership’s feverish sensibility. When the New York Times, for example, profiled a host of these new show creators, the paper noted that a few “still come off as if they’re just talking to one another, not for public consumption.” In the new Internet-powered TV landscape, that’s precisely the point.
And that’s a shame: This new strange sensibility is a complete reversal of everything that American television used to be and of everything that has made it great.
A recent wave of performances turns Jewish composers into shadow images defined only by their status as Hitler’s victims