Christmas With Adult Swim, Part 3
As our look back at Adult Swim’s Christmas originals comes to a close, I’ve noticed that at least two specials were missing from the uploaded lineup (funnily enough they were the two I mentioned in the introduction to part 1: Assy McGee and Space Ghost Coast to Coast), so maybe next year we’ll get some different ones and I’ll add a fourth installment.
Until then I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the most unique animation television has to offer. If you haven’t received the present I mailed you, dear reader, it must have gotten lost somewhere in transit. I apologize for that. I suggest you take immediate legal action against your postman.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Stroker and Hoop - I Saw Stroker Killing Santa (a.k.a. A Cold, Dead, White Christmas)
I don’t understand Adult Swim’s attitude toward Stroker and Hoop. Despite ending on a cliffhanger, the network decided not to finance a second season. Nor have they expressed any interest in releasing a DVD of the first season. And yet—and yet!—the network seems to find any excuse it can to dig up the old show and put it on the air. I catch it more frequently than I catch most in-production shows. Do they like Stroker and Hoop or not? I can’t tell.
Regardless of how they might or might not feel, I enjoy the show quite a lot. It’s not as strong as the best stuff Adult Swim has to offer, but it’s light-years beyond the bulk of its minimalist, absurdist siblings. As an animated send-up of 1970s American cop shows, it’s great. And it strikes exactly the right balance between parody and homage. (See also The Venture Bros.)
Okay, maybe it’s not very interested in building strong characters or developing them over the life of the program, but neither was its source material. Stroker and Hoop managed to be very funny and very clever without over-estimating its own abilities. And while I wouldn’t petition the network for a second season, it is a little sad that the show died so quickly.
The Christmas episode is no better and no worse than any other episode of the show…and maybe that was the problem with Stroker and Hoop. It was almost too consistent. There weren’t any duds, but neither were there any serious triumphs. Sometimes a variance in quality is a good thing.
Here we find Stroker refusing assistance to a mall Santa, unaware that it’s actually the Real St. Nick, while also busting a lottery-number-related crime ring among the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. It’s a little more fantastic than Stroker and Hoop are used to dealing with, but it’s a Christmas special, so we can allow a slight bending of the rules…and it’s a shame that a lot of these shows can’t manage to be even this brainy.
The Boondocks - A Huey Freeman Christmas
The Boondocks has been one of Adult Swim’s overall most pleasant surprises. Based on the comic strip of the same name, which I used to read when I was younger but can’t particularly remember, the half-hour animated incarnation wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Eventually commercials started appearing, and I foolishly wrote it off as a misguided attempt to capitalize on black culture. I didn’t tune in to watch it. That was my loss.
Preconceptions aside, The Boondocks is a powerful indictment of the same small subset of “black entertainment” that I had been afraid it was trying to emulate. Creator Aaron McGruder has fashioned an important racial document with his program, and he understands that many gestures toward cultural harmony only serve to emphasize the differences and foster isolation. McGruder has free intellectual reign of the middleground, creating a tremendously funny show that manages to conjure up sympathy for both the historically oppressed and the historical oppressors. (And can’t somebody be both at the same time?)
The show centers on two brothers: Huey, who is a young, free-thinking radical, and Riley, who has immersed himself in the “gangsta” culture and bought into its vision of reality. Here the two of them wage appropriately-themed assaults on Christmas: Huey wants to stage a play at his school portraying Jesus as black, and Riley intends to inflict brutal revenge on Santa Claus for not bringing him the rims he asked for last year.
Each half of the story threatens to cross over into self-importance, but neither of them do. Huey manages to make his grand statement, but the moral is that he was so caught up in conveying his vision that, by the time the curtain lifted, his stubbornness had driven his audience away. And Riley? Well, Riley doesn’t learn lessons if they don’t come from rap songs, so his segment serves instead as energetic comic relief.
In the end we get a special that owes a specific debt to Charlie Brown (one of McGruder’s obvious influences) even as it suggests that we might have a little further to go. Charlie Brown’s pageant is not the real Christmas, and neither is Huey Freeman’s. This episode doesn’t give us a direct answer, but we are certainly invited to gravitate toward the center with its McGruder, where maybe we can work it out for ourselves.
Moral Orel - The Best Christmas Ever
Moral Orel made its debut with this episode, though it wasn’t intended to go out first. In fact, this schedule rearrangement interfered with series continuity and resulted in tense relations between the creators and the network. While I respect the creators’ opinions on the matter, I personally think that airing The Best Christmas Ever first was actually a very good move.
Moral Orel was designed to develop as a series over its run. The earliest episodes focus on Orel taking his Bible literally, to absurd and often dangerous lengths…but it was all presented against the prim-and-pretty backdrop of the sort of “perfect America” you see in educational films. What was meant to happen over the course of the episodes was a gradual reveal of the ugly side of family life. The masks would begin to slip and relationships between characters would change significantly. Moral Orel was meant to surprise the audience with its depth…a depth that arrived with almost explosive suddenness in this episode.
But Adult Swim was right to put it out first, I think. Their audience is fickle, and they don’t expect shows and characters to evolve. If they had tuned in for the first few episodes and didn’t respond well to the decades-out-of-place religious satire, they might never have come back to discover what the show was really about. This episode told the audience, right off the bat, that beneath Orel’s comic misapplications of Christ’s teachings, there was genuine drama unfolding around him.
The Best Christmas Ever is my favorite of Adult Swim’s Christmas episodes. I think it does absolutely everything right. It’s hilarious, it’s sharp, and every single time I see the ending—a devout Orel gazing heavenward, expectantly, for God to intervene and keep his family from coming apart…the camera pulling further and further away, leaving him stranded and alone…—I tear up. It’s a profound and affecting moment, and it caps off a Christmas special that manages the very tricky feat of being both snarky and full of heart.
A strongly recommended 11 minutes of television.
Moral Orel - Honor
Though it wasn’t intentional, Moral Orel began with a Christmas special. And now, here, in 2008, it ends with one as well.
By this point in Moral Orel’s run the writers cared much less about members in the audience who weren’t keeping up with the episodes, and so this particular Christmas special relies on an awful lot of past revelations…and though I’m a fan, I’ve missed enough of them that a few moments had me scratching my head. For that reason, and a few other minor ones, Honor does not measure up to The Best Christmas Ever. It is still, however, very good.
Orel experiences—for the first time, it is suggested—a sincerely happy holiday. Only it’s not with his family…it’s with Coach Stopframe, who finds a kinship with the young boy. The two of them see each other as family surrogates, but the weight of previous episodes is hanging down, and this isolated domestic bliss cannot last. Their festivities are crashed by Orel’s father, who is jealous of the relationship between Stopframe and his son (for several reasons…ahem…), and Orel is dragged off to another miserable Christmas with the family that won’t show him love.
Toward the end of the episode I wasn’t very impressed…it seemed average. Not great, but also not much of a conclusion to the show. And then, in the last minute or so, we got a beautiful flash forward to a much older Orel…a silent scene that suggests a much happier Christmas with the family he will have himself one day. We watch Orel grow older and expect his face to become the face of his abusive father…but it doesn’t. He becomes a completely different person instead. He actually managed to achieve the happy family life the other characters were only pretending to lead.
Moral Orel always tried to pass itself off as a series of riffs on religious hypocrisy, but it was actually something much deeper and more intelligent than that. It handed us a boxful of stereotypes, but then allowed them the freedom to grow into real people.
The show is canceled now, before its time, but for all those who were fortunate enough to catch it, it will have left an important mark. Here’s hoping its replacement has half as much heart.