Tom Goes to the Mayor: The Complete Series DVD Review
What may well be Adult Swim's most polarizing program comes at last to DVD in a three-disc set that collects all of the episodes, a healthy assortment of bonus features, and your choice of dips (saltwater, freshwater or brackish).
It's a strange show that mixes live action, animation and photography in an intensely stylistic way, and at times it seems just about ready to topple over into sketch comedy. It manages to be both formulaic and freeform at once, and this requires some explanation. Which is good, because there happens to be a full series and DVD review just below the fold.
Tom Goes to the Mayor was a series of thirty episodes (13 in season one and 17 in season two) that run about 11 minutes apiece. (You can read my exclusive interview with the creators on this very site.) As you'll see clearly from the screen grabs, it has a very distinctive visual style that I'm sure contributes to the polarization of its audience, but more on that in a moment.
The plot of each episode is simple: Tom Peters, the newest resident of Jefferton, has an idea he'd like to present to The Mayor. The Mayor hijacks the idea, alters it to suit his own vision, and sets it into motion. That's the show: purposefully formulaic, right down to its "here's the plot" title. And unlike shows that lapse into formula because they aren't capable of transcending their own boundaries, Tom Goes to the Mayor uses its rigidity to its advantage. With only 11 minutes to work with, time is a precious commodity, and since the setup for each episode is the same, the plot can be up and running with minimal pause for exposition.
It's a bit of a cheat to say that every episode unfolds this way, but the exceptions are few and it'd be unhelpful to highlight them here. The overall rigid structure of the show makes for spare storytelling, which is a good thing, because that leaves a surprising amount of room left over for the comedy of awkward moments and exchanges.
Because, yes, Tom Goes to the Mayor is really a comedy about human interaction, and the dynamic between Tom and The Mayor is brilliantly realized over the course of thirty episodes.
Tom's essentially a good man who is too passive for his own good; he's never made anything of himself, he's married a horrible woman who walks all over him, he has three step-children who don't like or respect him, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a situation in which Tom doesn't voluntarily put himself on the losing end for somebody else's sake. But he's optimistic, as his business ventures and town-bettering ideas make clear.
The Mayor, on the other hand, is everything Tom is not. He wields tremendous power over the town of Jefferton (far too much), but he's mindless. He has the ability to get things done, but can't think of anything to do but distract himself with toys and television. He's good-natured, but he's a manchild. He's selfish, but well-meaning. He takes advantage of Tom constantly, but it's nothing mean-spirited...The Mayor just isn't self-aware enough to realize what he's doing to the man that, in reality, is his closest friend.
But I might be getting into too much detail here for a simple DVD review, so let me backpedal a bit and be more superficial.
Tom Goes to the Mayor has a simple look: flat blue-and-white cutouts of people pasted over full-color backgrounds. It's a misleading simplicity, though, as the special features make clear; a lot of work goes into getting the look of each frame right. The fact that the animation is minimal doesn't mean it requires less work, because everything that is there has to justify itself moreso than in other shows where everything is moving all the time and motion is absorbed passively by the audience.
The animation, for the most part, is about of the Terry Gilliam standard. Lips don't move, limbs only move when it's funny...the characters are static, for the most part, changing their posture or facial expression to get a point or emotion across to the audience, but never moving unless it's absolutely necessary. If you thought the hopping that the South Park characters get away with is simple, you haven't seen anything yet.
It's not the most impressive style of animation, but it's very distinct, and there's never any chance of mistaking it for anything else on television. When you watch Tom Goes to the Mayor, you are watching nothing but Tom Goes to the Mayor. It's a program that exists in its own little universe. This is the town of Jefferton. And for 11 minutes at a time, it's the only place on Earth.
It's worth noting that many characters do actually appear as flesh-and-blood three-dimensional beings...but only when they are on television. (Satire!)
All thirty episodes are presented here as they originally aired. Uncut and unedited. They are spread out across three discs, ten episodes on each (alongside a portion of the bonus features, which we'll get into later).
As I learned from the commentaries, the episode order corresponds roughly to the order in which they were written and produced (the only significant exception is "Joy's Ex," which was written for season one but wasn't produced until late in season two). It's a suspicion I had anyway, as the show definitely seems to get more confident and effective as the episodes progress...despite the fact that each stands pretty firmly in isolation from the others.
There's really no great over-arching plot, and this has led many people who watch the show to draw the conclusion that every episode is actually a reboot of the same situation, with Tom having a different idea to present to The Mayor each time, which then sends the course of events spiralling off in thirty different directions in classic chaos-theory way. They even see The Mayor's forgetting of Tom's name as evidence, when it's pretty clearly just a running joke.
There's plenty to suggest that these episodes do not reboot...causality might not be an absolute in Jefferton, but there are definite details and developments that carry over into next week's episode that allows the show to mature and complicate itself.
On the whole the episodes of Tom Goes to the Mayor are very, very strong. The first three episodes of season one are a bit shaky, but by episode four, "Toodle Day," the show is in full swing, the characters have locked into their roles, and the episodes to follow really only get stronger.
This is especially evident in episodes like "Vehicular Manslaughter," in which Tom accidentally kills Dr. Michael Ian Black, which manages to cram an awful lot of plot development into 11 minutes without it seeming overfull in the slightest. Some other highlights from season one are "Porcelain Birds" (which escapes all attempts at summary), "Vice Mayor" (which sees Tom become mayor of Hobo Town), the Christmas-themed "Rats Off to Ya!" and the balloon race episode, properly known as "The Sandalman's Son" but for some reason called "Boy Meets Mayor" on this DVD.
Season two took a significant turn for the darker. Tom's ideas were no longer just failing, they were resulting in mass-murder ("Jeffy the Sea Serpent"), enslavement ("White Collarless"), disfigurement ("Undercover"), blindness ("Glass Eyes") and even suicide ("Spray a Carpet or Rug"). What's important to note here, however, is that the quality of the writing is even higher than in season one, which means the show actually earns these horrible situations, rather than just slapping them in for the sake of seeming edgy, as most Adult Swim programs are guilty of doing.
Season two does manage to produce some of the most emotional moments as well, which goes a long way toward redeeming it from being too depressing. Tom's attempts to spend 11 minutes with his father in "Layover" are painfully sincere. He tries to rectify his problems with his wife Joy in "Couple's Therapy." And he spends one entire episode mourning the loss of his stepson Brindon in "Puddins."
Almost every episode features at least one guest star, and most of them are very good. I'd have to say that Michael Ian Black and John C. Reilly are probably the best of the batch. They are such a good "fit" for the show, and it'd be unfair to mention how good their respective episodes are without acknowledging their contributions.
Some other great performances are turned in by Jeff Goldblum ("Toodle Day"), David Cross ("Calcucorn"), Sarah Silverman (unrecognizably fat-suited in "Pipe Camp"), Fred Willard ("Vice Mayor"), Fred Armisen ("Jeffy the Sea Serpent"), Robert Loggia ("Saxman"), Bob Balaban (as Tom's father in "Layover"), Gary Shandling ("Couple's Therapy") and Bob Odenkirk, who happens to appear in practically every episode.
Tom Goes to the Mayor: The Complete Series comes in a nice DVD package without any covers, slipcases, gatefolds, digipacks, cardboardograms or other such things. It's refreshing. You snap it open and get your DVD and snap it shut again. God I miss simplicity...
Each DVD is on its own hub so there's none of that half-hub crap that makes replacement difficult. The onbodies each feature an intentionally unappetizing foodstuff (a running joke from the series) and there is a booklet that takes the form of a Fishanelli's menu (from the "Layover" episode). It tells you where to find each episode (they are presented in order of original airdate, by the way), but the bonus materials are lumped together at the end, so you'll have no way of knowing which disc contains which feature. Not a huge letdown, but worth mentioning.
Booklet mistakes? I've spotted two. Well, one, and possibly another one. The "Porcelain Birds" synopsis credits David Cross for an appearance, but he's not in that episode. John Ennis, Cross's Mr. Show co-star, is in that episode, and I suspect that's who they meant. Also, as mentioned above, "The Sandalman's Son" is listed here and on the menus as "Boy Meets Mayor." No idea why that would have been changed, and it's even referred to in the commentaries as "The Sandalman's Son."
Intentionally ugly, which fits the style of amateur Power Point presentations and webpages that run through the show. I like these menus, because despite their hideousness they are much easier to navigate than most menus. Everything is clearly labelled, the cursor is visible (ugly, yes, but visible) and it's so spare that there's no chance of getting lost. Some lovely elevator music from the show plays in the background...a different track on each disc.
The Special Features:
Several of the features are actually very similar, and so I'll deal with them all in one swoop: That's Amazing, The Night of 1000 Stars and Bob Zone are all short behind-the-scenes pieces that focus on one aspect of the show. The first one is a general sort of feature about show construction, the second one is full of footage of the guest stars reading lines and posing for the photographs that will be used in the show, and the third one spotlights Bob Odenkirk's involvement. I understand the urge to keep all of these in their own categories, but I personally would have preferred to see them all edited into one big "making of" featurette. Elsewhere we have...
On all thirty episodes! Fantastic. Tim and Eric appear on all of them, Bob Odenkirk on several, and editors and artists from the show drop in from time to time to discuss their contributions to the series. It's surprisingly helpful, given Tim and Eric's habit of complete irrelevance when discussing their work, and they demonstrate a clear fondness for the show. The commentaries are an absolute delight, and are often very funny.
Funny, but I don't think I'd argue for any of them to be re-edited back into their respective episodes. In fact, the "Glass Eyes" outtakes are a great illustration of what you don't need to tell the audience. They were rightly removed, and their inclusion here is pretty educational from a writing standpoint.
Original music and songs from the show, composed by the brilliant Davin Wood. I'm not a fan of jukeboxes on DVDs because the songs don't normally work out of context, but I understand why others enjoy them.
A Look Behind:
The behind-the-scenes special that followed the original airing of "Vice Mayor." There's commentary on this feature, if you'd like to hear it, by Tim, Eric and Doug Lussenhop, who edited it together. I enjoyed this hugely when I saw it on television and I'm very glad to see it included here. It shows how much work goes into even the small details of the show, but also how much fun is had in putting it together. It's fantastic, and I'd rather have had another one of these than the three skimpy themed featurettes listed above.
The original web cartoons that Bob Odenkirk saw and enjoyed so much that he threw his support behind getting Tim and Eric on television. By no means canon, but very funny. David Cross turns up in the second on as The Mayor's nephew. Sadly, however, there's some censoring to that cartoon. The game that The Mayor is playing on his computer is totally obscured (a big letdown as it was a full-screen sequence...) and the photograph of Roy Teppert (obviously not the same person who later appeared in the show under that name) has its face blurred. Presumably Tim and Eric didn't have the rights to use the game or that man's image...whoever he was.
Married News Outtakes:
A selection of outtakes from the Married Newsteam live action segments on the show. Fun to watch, but nothing absolutely necessary here.
An Artist's Touch:
A gallery, set to music and broken down by episode, of artwork from the show...backgrounds, object designs, books, posters...they're lovely. They're really, truly great, and this is a beautiful featurette. It's especially valuable as a lot of this didn't make the cut into the final episodes, and you get nice, long, lingering views of what would normally just flash past. I love these little presentations. They're so much better than photo galleries on DVDs.
Boiling Point: Behind the Scenes, Season Two:
A specially-filmed "documentary" about Tim Heidecker being fired from season two of Tom Goes to the Mayor. Probably not produced specifically for this DVD as it features Louie Anderson, Bob Odenkirk and Michael Cera, who were all featured in season two and wouldn't have been worth paying to return just for this. It is very funny, though, even if it's completely unhelpful.
A handful of commercials Adult Swim used to advertise the show. It's missing, however, what is probably the most important one: a commercial in which The Mayor plays distractedly with the height of his desk-chair while Tom descibes his idea for a buffet restaurant. It's footage of Tom Goes to the Mayor that wasn't included in any episode and seems to have been made especially for the commercial. Why wasn't it included? A shame. It's now officially the "lost" meeting between Tom and The Mayor. (I'd also have liked to see the remix of The Mayor and Michael Ian Black doing their handshake dance...it aired quite a lot on Adult Swim before the episode and the music was fantastic. Presumably that's down to rights issues on the song, though.)
A larger distributor could have done much more for this package, but considering the skimpiness of other Adult Swim DVDs, there's really very little room for complaining. Tim and Eric provide an awful lot of value for your money, and even the weakest episodes are worth re-watching again and again for all the subtleties you're bound to miss. Easily one of the best programs Adult Swim has ever had, and with the two other best programs (The Venture Bros. and Moral Orel) getting DVD releases this month, April is a very good time to get your wallet out and introduce yourself to some truly clever, innovative television.