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Examining Toxic Masculinity and Race in Ted Lasso Episode 5

Nate tries to psyche himself up in Episode 5 of Ted Lasso. Source: Apple

If you aren’t watching Ted Lasso, you should be. This excellent Apple TV+ series is funny, heartwarming, and genuinely incisive in its politics. I want to dissect Nate’s arc in the most recent episode to examine his toxic behaviour and his experience of racism in this episode, the latter a topic critically under discussed.

To begin, a brief recap of the character and his plot in this episode. Nate is a man of colour who is an assistant coach to the British soccer team AFC Richmond; previously, he was the kit-man (aka an equipment manager). In this episode, Nate wants to celebrate his parent’s 35th anniversary at “A Taste of Athens,” a local, mid-tier restaurant. His initial attempts to get the window table at the restaurant is denied. He seeks advice on projecting strength in public spaces from his white female colleagues, Rebecca and Keeley. That evening, his parents arrive at the restaurant, and are seated in the back. Nate takes a moment to psyche himself up in the bathroom, before firmly demanding he and his parents be seated at the window table, which has sat empty this whole time. The server concedes, and Nate and his parents have a nice dinner at the window table.

This episode is quite revealing to Nate’s anxieties around his role in life: in public society, with his parents, and on his team. Nate’s moment of solitude in the bathroom is quite revealing in how he fights to re-situate himself in all three contexts. Looking in the mirror, Nate initially tried to embody his the psyche up move Rebecca uses, which is to make yourself as big as possible, as if trying to scare away a bear. Nate tries this, but ultimately this does not work for him. He instead stares himself in the mirror, and spits in his reflection.

Film Crit Hulk writes that this moment is an expression of anger, that Nate can feel big by finally releasing some buried emotions. I agree, but I also want to look closer at this moment through the lens of his arc this season. Throughout this season, Nate is worried about his place in the clubhouse, and takes up some elements of toxic masculinity in an attempt to secure his place. He is mean to his replacement kit-man, replicating the exact kind of treatment Nate received in the locker room. I think Nate believes that his replacement needs to go through the same derision and be put in his place, because that’s how it’s always been. Again, this is the logic of toxic masculinity, that you must secure respect through dominance of others. In this private moment in the bathroom, Nate agains puts someone in his place, spitting in the face of his (shadow) self. In the aggressive spit, he puts someone down to assert control. In other words, Nate steadied himself and made himself “big” by psychologically putting down someone else. That Nate spat in his own face in the reflection does perhaps trouble this reading a little bit–how can he both put himself down and make himself big at the same time? That it is a reflection, however, not the true self, put perhaps a reflection of the old self, the old Nate who was disrespected in the locker room, is why I think the spit functions as a means of a put down. For Nate, who’s been expressing traits of toxic masculinity here and there throughout the season in an attempt to be “one of the guys,” he may only truly understand power through the domination of others. This is something I expect will be challenged and ultimately broken in this season by Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, the teams’ sports psychologist.

From my search on recaps of this episode, it appears that no one is talking about race with this episode. Make no mistake, racism is a key reason why Nate doesn’t initially get the window table at the restaurant. I think the series plays its cards here very close to its chest, creating a situation emblematic of what many BIPOC individuals face in their lives. Were there really no more reservations, or does the restaurant not want people of colour at their establishment? Did they really not take reservations for the window table, or did “A Taste of Athens” not want people of colour at the street view window? That the server went back to management to check on window reservations is, I believe, a surface gesture to hide the true purpose: to deny BIPOC guests the best seating at the restaurant.

Further interactions in this episode support this interpretation. Rebecca is surprised, for example, that Nate can’t get a table for a restaurant as pedestrian as “A Taste of Athens.” This is the not the expensive posh restaurant that she anticipated. That the server sprays what appears to be cleaning fluid in the air when Nate enters the restaurant is an inconsiderate move that arguably indicates how Nate is unwelcome in the space. That Nate even promises his family will be out of the restaurant in a timely manner if they get the window table suggests he is aware of how unwelcome he is in the space. That the server Jade says “I’m Picky” in rejection of Nate asking for her phone number is again the series playing close to its chest—is she really “picky” or is she using this as an excuse to not consider a man of colour? In avoiding explicit racism, the kinds we are use to seeing on the screen, I think the series plays well to invite audiences to consider how racism manifests subtly and obliquely in common life.

I understand if the reader is skeptical here, thinking I’m being too paranoid with this analysis. Indeed, I am doing a paranoid reading here. As Eve Sedgewick writes, the paranoid reading is an important interpretive tool. We live in a fundamentally inequitable world, one structured by the imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, as bell hooks notes. A paranoid reading is one that looks towards hegemony and this affects, one that sheds light on issues of inequity.

Potential Spoilers: My Predictions for Ted’s arc this season:

I’m listing out my predictions for the series major emotional arc with Ted not as easter egg sleuthing that many a Marvel fan does when dissecting trailers, for example. Rather I want to put these thoughts to digital paper to fight back against the comments that season 2 of Ted Lasso has “no conflict.” The conflict is there, it’s less visible because it is the conflict of repression and anxiety.

I predict that Ted’s father will be revealed to have committed suicide. We know that his father died when Ted was 16. Ted mentions in an early episode this season that his father took on and was burdened with a lot of hurt, perhaps too much. This is also foreshadowed with Dr. Sharon’s mention that her favourite book is The Prince of Tides which is a football coach moving to a new town, dealing with a suicidal sister, and unearthing family trauma and its current effects. Sounds a lot like Ted’s situation now!

Ted lost his father early; as a result, he wants everyone to like him to ensure people won’t leave him. I believe his behaviour ultimately stems from a fear of abandonment. Now, Ted does genuinely care for others, and makes for a great coach in terms of motivation and team-building. But it’s clear the limits to toxic positivity and perhaps also his worldview of “rom-communism” (i.e. think of your life as a rom-com.) Yes, everything will work out, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t confront your trauma, Ted!

This is why Dr. Sharon is so important this season. It’s clear she recognizes Ted’s issues; her keen observations lead her invite Ted to talk with her. She recognizes his behaviour for what it is. He hasn’t accepted her invitation…yet.

Anyway, thanks for coming to my Ted Talk. I hope this motivates you to watch this gem of a series.

Why the latest Attack on Titan opening hits different [video essay]

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve made my first official foray into video essays. Hope you like it! Pasted below is a transcript of the video as well.

Why the latest Attack on Titan opening hits different

Intro:

The anime Attack on Titan is in its final season, and with it comes a fascinating new opening sequence that is radically different from the rest of the series, in what appears to be attempts at an anti-war aesthetic.

Attack on Titan has been rightly criticized for its fascist subtexts. Much of the discourse, while valuable in critique of fascism, has been limited to narrative analysis of the series. In this video, I want to unpack some of the ways the anime supports fascist narrative subtexts through its aesthetics, and how this new opening sequence attempts to break from that tradition. This video will first 1) go back to the very first Attack on Titan opening sequence to unpack its aesthetics, 2) then contrast that opening to this new opening sequence of the anime, and 3) finally think about what these aesthetics mean for the series.

  1. OP 1

In his book, The Anime Machine, East Asian Media scholar Thomas Lamarre describes two different tendencies of movement that frequently manifest in animation, what he terms cinematism and animetism. 

Cinematism is an aesthetics of movement that replicates forms of cinematic realism through animation. It’s frequently characterized by realistic movement into depth or a recreation of cinematic space. Lamarre describes it this way: 

“The essence of cinematism lies in the use of mobile apparatuses of perception, which serve (1) to give the viewer a sense of standing over and above the world and thus of controlling it, and (2) to collapse the distance between viewer and target, in the manner of the ballistic logic of instant strike or instant hit” (Lamarre, 2009, p. 5). 

Animetism, by contrast, is an aesthetics of movement that is not necessarily invested in this kind of reproduction of cinematic space. It is a kind of movement in animation that often favours what Lamarre terms “open compositing.” Lamarre describes animetism’s use of open compositing this way:

“[Animetism] favors an “open compositing” in which layers of the image are allowed to move more independently of one another. While open compositing tends to work against sensations of movement in depth, it makes possible other sensations of movement” (Lamarre, 2009, p. 37).

Lammare proposes the following: what if instead of aligning our vision with cinematic exploration of space, pushing forward into space like the front of a train, we looked sideways.

Lamarre uses the example of looking out the side of a train as akin to the experience of  animetism. Such a perspective favours lateral or sliding movement of layers as opposed to the entry into cinematic space that cinematism embraces.


We see this animetism at play in the beginning of the first Attack on Titan opening. As we watch the layers of the image move laterally, we see our main characters in dramatic poses. Contrast this to the later action sequence, where we see cinematism at play. The camera, and thus, the viewer moves like a bullet through space, as we watch the action unfold. In this sequence, the enemy is trackable, viewable, and overall knowable. The titan’s monstrosity is clear. Cinematism offers a controlled view of the violence, and a clear view of the strike.

Many of the action sequences in Attack on Titan rely on this kind of ballistic movement into space, usually occurring during scenes of military violence. This depiction of cinematic space, these aesthetics of movement in which we as the viewer are in control, aligns with the narrative embrace of militarism in the series.

2) OP 6

This kind of cinematic movement into space is in stark contrast to the newest opening.

The opening is disorienting. Puffs of coloured smoke often obscure the image, creating a flat effect. While we see aspects of animetism in the lateral moving of layers in certain sequences, we also see images of destruction that overwhelm and confound. While the first opening depicted aerial shots of an army, again, giving the viewer control, this opening  places the camera at ground level, with the viewer seemingly at threat of being stomped by the army’s march. When I watch this opening, I see images that refuse comprehension. We as the viewer do not have the sense of control that cinematism gives us, instead, we feel like a target ourselves.

None of the characters in Attack on Titan are depicted in the opening sequence, with the scant exception at the very end of the opening, where we see the protagonist, Eren Jaeger in his attack titan form, petrified in stone. Ominous!  The lack of anime characters here goes against anime’s media tradition, and counters the aesthetics of previous openings as well. Anime openings feature characters for a reason. Anime and its marketing is predicated on characters for their transmedia properties, what we call Anime’s Media Mix. Characters, after all, are key to generating merchandise to cross-promote the series. By not featuring characters, this goes against not only the aesthetics of the previous Attack on Titan openings; it goes against how anime markets itself, period.

On the aural level, the music is challenging, with heavily distorted vocals and lyrics difficult to parse. Whereas the first opening pumped you up for the action, this opening leaves the viewer unsettled and anxious. 

Why is there such a dramatic change of movement aesthetics in this Attack on Titan opening? Production changes in part explain why. Studio WIT, who made their name creating the first three seasons of the anime, opted to not adapt the fourth season, with Studio MAPPA taking over production in their place. With the change in studio came a change of staff to key creative roles, and perhaps a change in perspective as well.

This season also starts at a remarkably different point in the series narrative, after a time skip of four years. We spend the first couple episodes with mostly new characters and a different side to the story that we were privy to earlier. In short, the narrative has changed drastically, and it seems MAPPA is combining this dramatic narrative shift with a dramatic aesthetic shift as well.

3) Conclusion

The French film director François Truffaut famously questioned whether it was possible to make an anti-war film, because any film that depicts war will perhaps inevitably sanitize and glamorize it. While it remains to be seen how this latest season of attack on titan as a whole will treat the fascist subtext of the source material, at the very least in this enigmatic and experimental opening sequence, we’re seeing a different approach to animation that I think is attempting a kind of anti-war aesthetic. Instead of the aesthetic embrace of cinematism, an aesthetic that (intentionally or not) aligns with the fascist subtexts of Attack on Titan’s narrative, we see imagery that resists viewer control, that brings the viewer into the impact of destruction itself. In short, on an aesthetic level, this latest opening sequence troubles our viewership position, and attempts to undo this kind of aesthetic embrace of violence the series is known for.

I hope this video has been informative in the ways in which animation aesthetics, in particular, movement, have an affective dimension that plays a part in the overall meaning of a text. If you found yourself confused or put off by the latest opening, hopefully this video has helped you understand why. 

If you want to learn more about cinematism and animetism, the excellent youtube channel Pause and Select did a two-part interview with Dr. Lamarre on his work. Links in the description below.

If you liked this video, let me know by giving a like, or a comment, or a subscribe. Depending on how this little experiment goes, I might produce more videos in the future. Thanks very much for watching.

Pause and Select Videos:

Sources:

Tom Speelman, “The fascist subtext of Attack on Titan can’t go overlooked”

Gene Siskel Interview with François Truffaut, 1973

Thomas Lamarre, The Anime Machine: 

Kim Morrissy, “Attack on Titan Producers Discuss Reason Behind Studio Change to MAPPA”

Marc Steinberg, Anime’s Media Mix

Audio + Video:

Attack on Titan (2013-present)

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Dir. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise 

The Polar Express (2004), Dir. Robert Zemeckis 

your name. (2016), Dir. Makoto Shinkai

Train stock footage provided by Videvo, downloaded from www.videvo.net

Music:

Inspired by Kevin MacLeod

Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3918-inspired

License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Speakerphone by RYYZN 

Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0

Free Download / Stream: https://bit.ly/-speakerphone

Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/X1U8OygWfm8

Archer: Danger Phone Review

I’ve been a fan of Archer since its debut in 2009. It came at an important juncture in my life where everything had suddenly changes. I was in college, I had stable access to the internet; in short, I had the freedom to consume any kind of content I wanted. Archer debuted the same I started college, and was one of the first “adult” animated series I followed, watching the series on Hulu. For me, the series is one in a collage of memories where I slowly became my own person, pursued my own interests, and generally grew into myself.

I’m also a fan of idle tapping games. I literally unlocked every plant in Terrarium within a matter of weeks, and I was pretty active on Steven Universe: Tap Together before the game went defunct in 2019. So when I got an ad for Archer: Danger Phone, I was understandably thrilled and downloaded the game right away. How much do I love this game? Well, I love it enough that I’m even putting in the effort of writing this short review!

The conceit of the game is that Krieger and his digital anime waifu Mitsuko (though she’s only called “anime bride” in the game) are running simulations on how to best promote his new crypto-currency, the Kriegerrand. As the game describes this is “All in the name of saving the economy… definitely not to make Krieger rich!”

The main goal is to play through these simulations, generating cash and Kriegerrands through a variety of means, from buying influencers to upgrading characters and situation rooms, all while watching your favourite Archer characters interact.

If you enjoy the grind of RPGs or Idle games (optimizing stats, upgrading characters, maximizing resources), you’ll enjoy this game. If you are an Archer fan, but are unfamiliar with idle games, this game is a nice stepping stone into the genre. Idle games are nice in that you have control in how actively involved you want to be. You can check in as little or as often as you wish to maximize your stats and resources, while also getting fun character interactions along the way.

Speaking of interactions, this is a excellent entry into what we might term the Archer-verse. The nuggets of story, jokes, and interactions throughout the game that you unlock as you play are quite good, and fit seamlessly into the Archer universe. The level of writing is on par with the television series, which, if you’ve seen the show, is quite the compliment. This is because the writers of the show are involved in making this game and their storylines. Some stories are recycled from the television series, through from what i’ve seen so far, this is few and far between.

Above: The first simulation of Archer: Danger Phone.

Additionally, since I’ve started playing the game a few weeks ago, there has been a consistent stream of special events to keep the game interesting, even offering new perspectives on the series. A recent special event, taking place in the Archer: 1999 dreamscape, shows Ray’s storyline during the episode “Bort the Garj,” building a richer Archer-verse overall (Ray mostly spends time trying to put an ad for his courtesan services on Space Craigslist.) In other words, the game rarely bores, and adds to the world of Archer in cool and interesting ways.

The attention to detail throughout this game is—dare I say it?—impeccable. From the soundscapes, to the character animations, to the room backgrounds, the entire game captures the spirit of Archer perfectly. I appreciate the iconic horn blasts of the opening theme songs, to the smooth, jazzy background music. The flicker of the character models (they are hologram simulations, after all) is also a nice touch. You can see all these elements at work in the gameplay footage below:

Above: Gameplay footage taken on November 26, 2020. Note the layers of 3D objects within the simulation rooms that give the experience that these spaces are real and lived in by the characters.

To truly maximize your profit-generating potential, you have to watch some ads, and/or buy some Kriegerrands with real money. This is usually where idle games get a bit of flack. Idle games can be incredibly addictive, and paired with the option to spend real money, this can result in a dangerous combo for your wallet. Do you want to grind yourself, or treat yourself once in a while to an extra boost in resources? The best answer I can give here is play that suits you best, so long as you’re mindful of your wallet and don’t succumb to FOMO.

In short, I highly recommend this game. It is free to download with in-app purchases, and is available on both Android and iOS.

Making Memes in the Time of Coronavirus: A Note on Process

Introduction:

A week or so ago, an idea hit me: why not re-write the lyrics of Peter Gabriel’s “I Have The Touch” to make them be about social distancing? Peter Gabriel’s early solo work is littered with songs of paranoia, isolation, panic, and fear. One could easily play with this material to reflect the current conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. So I set out to do so.

I turned a song about the desire for contact and repurposed it to reflect the lack of contact occurring during social distancing. This blog post charts all the work it took to make this happen, from the initial idea, to producing a fully realized piece of media. We’ll begin with a chronological look at my workflow, and finish with some reflections on what I learned throughout the process.

Timeline:

Friday, March 21st: The idea first springs to mind. Instead of “Shake those hands” in the chorus of “I Have The Touch,” I record a version saying “Wash those hands”? I came up with a few ideas for lyrics.

But where to find an instrumental track of the song? Thus begins a long rabbit hole regarding a piece of lost media –  an 80s direct to video VHS about the famous Japanese puppeteer Tsujimura Jusaburo that uses instrumental versions of Peter Gabriel songs. Titled Jusaburo, this strange piece of media will be the subject of a future blog post.

Regardless, I secure an instrumental version of the song thanks to the clever searching of my friends Evelyn and Zoë – follow them on Twitter! The track cuts off halfway through the song, but seeing as it’s the only instrumental track available, it will have to do.

Tuesday, March 24th: This is the first day I actually get serious about production. I finalize all the lyrics, and begin recording the vocal track in my recently cleaned and emptied living room. I use QuickTime Player to record the audio, trying the built-in microphones of both my 2011 MacBook Pro microphone and my Sony MDR-ZX310 headphones. My Mac’s recording was tinny and caught too much of the ambient room sounds, while my headphones produced a warmer sound, if a touch muffled. I consult with my friends, and they agree to go with the headphones. I record 8 versions of my newly re-written lyrics with my headphones, changing the lyrics part-way through to add a line about flattening the curve of coronavirus.

Once satisfied with the audio recording, it was time to start mixing and editing. I knew that this would have to take place in video form (video is key to virality), so I needed some sort of software to work with.

The first of many issues began here. Ideally, I should just use iMovie, the free Apple software that came bundled with my 2011 MacBook Pro, right? Well, I had removed that software years ago to make room on my hard drive. I try to download it again from the App Store, only to find my computer specs were too outdated to download the software.

Thus begins the search for editing software. I download Davinci Resolve, a free and respected software, only to find that the software could not find any opencl capable gpus. In other words, there was an issue I could not comprehend or fix, so I uninstall.

I then download Open Shot Video Editor, and I could actually get it to work. Better yet, I could actually open the software! But it is too simplistic and unable to edit in fine detail. Uninstall.

Finally, there is AVID Media Composer. I was actually trained on AVID in undergrad in my only media production class. I sign up for a 30 day free trial. It takes over an hour to download. I take a nap.

I also download GarageBand (another application I had discarded years ago to make space on my hard drive), thinking I could use it to mix the audio I recorded. Unfortunately, in order to use it, I would have to record the audio through the program, which would have meant more recording sessions I didn’t care to do again.

Wednesday, March 25th: Post production begins. I use the Photoshop-like application Pixelmator (something I’m actually decently proficient in) to edit the album art of Peter Gabriel’s Security to add my twitter handle. I then use QuickTime Player of the edited image to produce a screen capture as my “footage.” I want to jump into editing, but need to relearn everything I was taught in 2012. I watch a five-part series on how to “Get Started Fast with AVID Media Composer.” It takes up time and delays my progress, but it was necessary for using the software going forward.

Thursday, March 26th: I try to begin editing today, but AVID isn’t working. What could it be? I download Open Shot again in mild panic and frustration, hate it again, and uninstall it again. I then realize that I didn’t have my external hard drive plugged in (where a lot of the AVID files are being stored). I plug it it, and AVID opens without a hitch.

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 8.49.09 PMWell, that’s not entirely true. AVID always warns me that I don’t have the required 8GB of RAM to run, but I proceed anyway. This makes the entire editing process like pulling teeth: playback of my edits often halt after a few seconds, the software slows my computer, but I press on. I have a meme to make.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 9.28.31 PM

A screenshot of the editing process

Thus begins hours of editing. I slowly relearn the system as I edit the instrumental track, my vocals, and the edited album art footage, with the original song serving as a guide to synchronize everything together. Throughout the editing process, I finally figure out:

  • how to get waveforms to show on my audio tracks
  • how to split up tracks, and trim
  • how to fade in and out of the footage and audio
  • and more!

Once I finish the edit, I feel incredibly accomplished. Then I realize I still need to add the captions. What use is a lyrics-based joke video if there aren’t any captions? I get back to work. After figuring out how to add the text, I work to figure out how to export it. I began this project with a terribly low-quality image of the album art (which is low-res to begin with), so this constrains the video quality and final output.

I celebrate with my friends on a job almost done. Zoë reminds me that I need a clever title image if this is going to get any traction. I sigh, return to my room, and open up Pixelmator. I add a facemask to an iconic image of Peter Gabriel (from his So album era). It looks so good I regret not making this the main image for the entire video, but doing so will require more work, and it feels too late now.

I upload the final video YouTube and Twitter. I try to upload to Instagram, but the app does not take .MOV files. I download Wondershare UniConverter to convert .mov to mp4. But the software requires purchase if you want to convert your full video. I uninstall in frustration. I google search again for .mov to .mp4, find a simple website, and convert the footage. I still have trouble uploaded to instagram as a standalone post, but I am able to add it as a story. I go to bed.

Concluding remarks:

You may be wondering why I went through this production process with such meticulous detail. I wrote this because I wanted to illustrate that the actual production process (especially for someone half-trained in media production at best) is often full of dead-ends, frustrating break downs in production, and limitations in hardware and software that significantly shape the production process and final output. If only I could use the lab equipment at my university! Now that I’ve tried my hand at media production, I feel much less timid, and am much more eager to try producing more things.

A list of applications and other equipment used to produce a video

A list of everything used or tried in the process of making this video.

What did I learn from this? AVID is a bitch, for one, but works quite well once you know how to actually use it. I also learned its best to plan out everything you will need to use in advance. This sounds obvious, and anyone training in media production knows this, but this relates to people who want to make quality memes as well. Think about the space, equipment, software, hardware, and other things you will need (time, energy, etc.). Knowing what I know now, I would have done things differently. But that’s always going to be the case, so really the point is to constantly try new things. Every step is going to improve your quality of work if you take the time to reflect on the production process.

Looking at my video, I know I could go back and edit in my high-quality image of Peter Gabriel with the face mask to make the image a little more palatable. I could buy a decent microphone and record the audio in GarageBand, and add some much needed reverb to my vocals. I could do a lot of things to make the video even better. But this would take more time and possibly money, and if I’ve learned anything from this production process, it’s that I also need to know when to stop and say “good enough.”

Five Anime To Watch After Steven Universe: Future

Steven Universe Asteriod in Love Land of the Lustrous

Steven Universe ends tonight with its final episodes of its sequel limited series, Steven Universe: Future. The series as a whole is going down as a landmark series in animation, queer representation, and just overall good storytelling. It’s a beloved series that’s going to leave an indelible mark on its fans, many of whom will likely be looking for similar television shows to consume its conclusion.

Before rewatching Steven Universe again, consider these five anime series to help fill your content needs. Why anime in particular? Anime’s influence on Steven Universe has certainly been written about in a few places. But I feel attention to this interesting influence has waned in recent years, so I want to 1) bring back some critical attention to a few particular anime series that influenced the development of Steven Universe, and 2) encourage North American-based consumers to stretch themselves a bit more and watch more transnational animation content. Without further ado, here is the list!

1. Land of the Lustrous (Hoseki No Kuni, 2017)

Phos Shattered in Land of the Lustrous

Phos shattered in Land of the Lustrous

If you loved: Cute female gems envisioning alternative forms of life

Where to Watch/Buy: Stream on Amazon Prime/ Buy at RightStuf

This is perhaps the most obvious recommendation: it’s a series about queer, non-binary fighting gems! How more Steven Universe can you get? Michelle Villanueva has written an excellent run-down of the series and how it compares to Steven Universe here,  but I want to draw attention to what’s been less discussed: how this series envisions forms of non-human life through animation.

Both Steven Universe and Land of the Lustrous animate decidedly non-human figures (in each case, gem/jewel beings), and their life in a post-apocalyptic world. While Steven Universe takes place thousands of years after the Diamonds ravage Earth (and all Gem life) with their Corrupting Light, producing a radically different geography, Land of the Lustrous is set in a far, distant future where the Earth had been struck six times by meteorites, reducing all land to a single coast, with new life emerging as immortal jewels. What intrigues me is how each series are radically similar (post-apocalyptic world, radically transformed Earth, gem people), and how each series envisions forms of non-human life through animation. Animation as an art form has the ability to produce any kind of world, be it the quirky Hollywoo of Bojack Horseman (2014-2020), the stark simplicity of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow (2015), or the historical materialist environments of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997). Animation’s world-building ability produces new opportunities to envision alternative forms of life, and produce new bonds between ourselves and our environment. Land of the Lustrous does just this, through non-human life, post-apocalyptic world-buidling, and innovative 3D animation.

Another similar recommended series: Flip Flappers (2016)

2. Revolutionary Girl Utena (Shōjo Kakumei Utena, 1997)

Utena protects Anthy in revolutionary Girl Utena

Utena protects Anthy in Revolutionary Girl Utena

If you loved: Magical girls surrounded by rituals and symbolism

Where to Watch/Buy: Stream on YouTube/ Buy at RightStuf

Revolutionary Girl Utena is ultimately about teenage quest for freedom and and a queer future. Director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Revolutionary Girl Utena is the most well known influence on Steven Universe, mostly due to the clear references made towards the series. If you loved Steven Universe‘s layers of symbolism, metaphor, and foreshadowing, as well as its magical girl genre-bending, this series is a must watch.

I’ve written a book chapter where I argue that Steven Universe‘s queer representation is specifically influenced by Ikuhara. This emerges in a few ways, but I’ll focus on one here: weapons and the materiality of bodies. In Steven Universe, gems drawn their weapons. Each weapon is unique to their gem type, and reflects their personality. For example, Amethyst has a whip, which reflects her wild and spontaneous nature. This comes straight from the second arc of Utena, where characters draw swords from each other, whose design subtly reflect each characters’ personality. This kind of fluid materiality is, again, something the animation as an art form is uniquely able to articulate. Furthermore, each series uses animation to envision bodies are not static things, but fluid and changing, giving form to queer theoretical interventions that question the traditional binary categorization and static assumptions surrounding bodies.

Another similar recommended series: Revue Starlight (2018)

3. Princess Tutu (Purinsesu Chuchu, 2002-2003)

Princess tutu logo.jpg

From left to right: Rue, Mytho, and titular Princess Tutu

If you loved: A young magical child protagonist brimming with emotional honesty

Where to Watch/Buy: Stream on Hulu; Amazon Prime/ Buy on RightStuf

This is a lesser known influence on Steven Universe, perhaps because it’s a series more directly aimed at children, but its influence on Steven Universe is quite strong. Compiling numerous fairytales, operas, and ballets, this series follows a duck named, well, Duck, whose given magical girl powers to transform into the mythical ballerina Princess Tutu. The story follows her as she tries to save the shattered heart of Prince Mytho. Drama and meta-level layers of storytelling ensue.

This is where Steven Universe‘s bleeding heart comes from. It certainly does not come from Utena, where characters rarely say what they mean, and cloak themselves in metaphor. While Princess Tutu certainly has some similarities to Utena, its approach to magical girl storytelling is subversive in a different way.  While Utena is a deconstructionist masterpiece, Princess Tutu deconstructs storytelling itself by getting meta, prompting the (presumably young) audience to think about the purposes and affects of storytelling, question the aims and motives of who is writing the stories, and encourages the audience to write their own.

Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar mentions that she watched the series in Steven Universe: Art and Origins (2017), and its influence on Steven Universe is quite clear through the character of Steven. Like Duck (or Ahiru /「あひる」 in Japanese), Steven wins battles not through violence, but through emotional intuition, compassion, and love.

Princess Tutu‘s influence is also seen through Steven Universe’s focus on dance as forms of expression and embodiment. In Princess Tutu, the titular Princess Tutu will ballet dance with a troubled soul, work out their coiled emotions, and help them come to a resolution through graceful movement and emotional honesty. Dancing is envisioned as a means of emotional and embodied connection. Fusion in Steven Universe works in the same way.

Princess Tutu‘s graceful, emotional honesty, paired with its rather astonishing meta-level storytelling, makes for a compelling series that I heartily recommend to everyone.

Another similar recommended series: Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica (2011)

4. Asteroid in Love (Koisuru Asuteroido, 2020)

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Ao and Mira gaze at the stars in Asteroid in Love

If you loved: Geology, space, and lesbians

Where to Watch: Stream on Crunchyroll

This is the most recent series on the list, and just debuted its final episode today! It’s a wonderful yuri (a genre involving lesbian or female homoerotic relationships) anime with similar aesthetic sensibilities of softness that Steven Universe is known for.

I want to take a bit of time here to discuss the political power embedded in said aesthetics of softness. As describes in her piece “The Cultural Politics of Softness” for GUTS Magazine, radical softness is “a general orientation to the world that foregrounds vulnerability, emotionality, and earnestness.” Steven Universe certainly embodies this approach, exploring emotional honesty and vulnerability through its characters. Yuri anime does this as well, generally animating its world and characters through a quality of softness, both in emotion and aesthetics.

This kind of aesthetic softness in yuri (and moe) anime is usually typified by a number of aesthetic choices: gentle music (unless it swells in an important emotional moment), soft sound effects, quiet atmosphere (unless there is bombastic humour), cute characters, and uncomplicated storytelling that lays bare all emotions. This kind of affect also opens us space for queerness.

Asteroid in Love begins its plot with a queer moment. As a young girl, Mira meets a boy named Ao, they bond over their love of space, and make a commitment together to discover an asteroid. Years later, Mira meets Ao at her high school’s earth sciences club, only to find that Ao is actually a girl. The rest of the anime follows Mira and Ao as they reconnect, while the club as a whole attempts to discover an asteroid. Asteroid in Love, like Steven Universe, uses softness to open up queer spaces of emotional vulnerability, while engaging with the wonders of space and geology.

Another similar recommended series: A Place Further than the Universe (2018)

5. Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir (2015—)

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Marinette as Ladybug in Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir

If you loved: Magical girls shenanigans and cool powers

Where to Watch: Stream on Netflix

In keeping with this list’s desire for greater transnational consumption of anime, this co-production between studios in Japan, France, Italy, South Korea, India, and Brazil will round out this list. A straightforward magical girl tale, this story revolves around two teenagers in Paris, Marinette and Adrien, who, when trouble arises, transform into Ladybug and Cat Noir, respectively.

The series 3D animation is occasionally playfully adventurous in its moving camera angles and composition , which is welcome in the contemporary massive array of 3D animation, which is often competent but rarely adventurous. Much like Steven Universe‘s first season, the series is episodic, which means you can jump in pretty much anywhere.

Another similar recommended series: Bee and PuppyCat (2013—)

And that’s it for the list! Let me know in the comments if you have any other recommendations to share.

Terrible Fantasy Adaptations Double Feature: Dungeons & Dragons (2000) and Eragon (2005)

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons 

Post-2000, Jeremy Irons’ output falls into a couple of distinctive genres. Euro-trash, boring biopics, bad pop culture adaptations, are just some of the categories we’ll cover soon in on this blog. Certainly, sprinkled between are the outliers to look forward to, such as the well-made indie darling High Rise (2015) or the old-fashioned Western throwback Appaloosa (2008). By comparison, today’s entry is on the genre/category I’m calling bad fantasy adaptations, because, well, they’re bad.

Dungeons & Dragons (2000) and Eragon (2005) are lesser entries in the Jeremy Irons catalogue. Coincidently, they focus a lot on dragons. Not as coincidentally, they also rip off Star Wars. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

An adaptation of the titular, iconic role-playing game, the film Dungeons & Dragons (henceforth referred to as D&D) was a flop upon release, but has some cache in certain circles (we’ll get to that). The plot is not worth going into much detail, as it is rather ramshackle and relies on a series of fetch quests. In sum: The scheming villain Profion (Jeremy Irons) wants the MacGuffin (a red sceptre that controls red dragons) so he can attain enough power to dethrone Empress Savina (an incredibly stiff Thora Birch) of the Izmir Empire. Our band of outsiders (a pair of thieves, a mage librarian, a dwarf that lives in the sewers) take it upon themselves to seek out the sceptre to save the Empire, despite (or rather because of) the class divides between Mage and non-Mage citizens.

Most scenes can be described as perfunctory. Scenes just appear to happen; characters often state their line as if it was their first read (they probably were). The script arbitrarily isolates our….”protagonist” thief Ridley to solve fetch quests twice in the film, with the flimsy excuse of “magic dictates it so.” A similar excuse is rendered in the very end of the film, a piss poor decision that is one of the film’s delights. There’s a preponderance of garish CGI elements that will make you wish you were watching other fantasy films like Labyrinth (1986), or worse, like Dragonheart (1996).

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Jeremy Irons reacting to the critical and commercial response to Dungeons & Dragons

D&D is not a movie you watch because it is good — far from it. It is a film you watch because it is a rather decent entry into the pantheon of “so-bad-its-good” movies. Its joys come from its eccentricities. A poor script and poor director leaves the actors floundering. Whereas her role in American Beauty (1999) as a sulking teen made good use of her deadpan nature, Thora Bitch is hilariously wooden in the film. And on the other end of the acting spectrum is Jeremy Irons, chewing up the scenery left and right.

Right in the very first scene, Irons delivers a masterfully camp performance. It is helpful here to turn to Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (1964) to understand the camp elements of his performance. As she writes:

“One must distinguish between naive and deliberate Camp. Pure camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying. The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.”

Indeed, there is no knowing winking in Irons’ performance throughout the film. He is serious. He ushers us into the film with open arms, as he wrings every emotion in his body to deliver a performance for the ages.

I’ve come to believe Jeremy Irons is a good actor. He’s great, nay, masterful, in Brideshead Revisited, Dead Ringers, and Reversal of Fortune. I wouldn’t have dedicated a whole running series on his films if I didn’t like his work on some level.

This movie made me question whether Jeremy Irons is a good actor. Why is his performance so over-the-top? I think the reason lies in the clumsily integration of visual effects. In most of Irons’ scenes, he is supposed to be reacting to or interacting with CGI elements to be added in post-production: whether it be casting lightning spells or fighting dragons. These especially ostentatious moments have the effect of wide gestures to open air, and Irons seems to make up for the space with his scene-swallowing performance.

By contrast, his performance is more grounded (and may even have an element of knowing fun) when he acts with real people, such as the council scenes where he attempts to undermine the Empress’ rule.

Irons’ performance isn’t the only hilarious element to the film, though it is certainly the highlight of the film. While the film has a number of annoying elements (Marlon Wayans as the thief Snails comes to mind), what follows are a few of my favourite moments from the film that establish its “so-bad-its-good” nature, in no particular order:

1) Profion’s right hand guy, Damodar (Bruce Payne), kills Snails via stabbing (Snails’ death is more a relief to the audience by this point), then YEETS his body off a castle.

2) Ridley’s reaction to Snail’s death:

My career!

“My career!”

3) The dwarf. He does nothing in the film, yet seems to have the most shenanigans. He tries to escape Damodar’s guards in a bar by literally yelling “Bar fight!” He also breaks the fourth wall partway through the film for a terrible joke, and discusses how dwarf women are great for sex because you can use their beards to hold onto and help you thrust. Ew.

4) I have written in my notes: “bad haircuts.” I think I found this equally both humorous and aggravating.

5) Ridley’s out of place biker/punk (?!?!) look at the very end of the film:

cyberpunk

6) Irons’ and Payne’s scenes together. Irons is overwrought and gushing, while Payne quietly sputters out his lines with some sort of evil pseudo-regality. A demonstration of camp in contrasts.

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I’ll leave it up to your imagination to what’s happening here.

While I’ve made a clear case for D&D‘s status as a so-bad-its-good film (indeed, Irons’ scenes are worth watching at the very least), the same cannot be said for Eragon. 

Eragon is not a good movie. Whereas D&D has a preponderance of camp moments next to boring as dirt generic moments, Eragon is mostly comprised of the latter. The plot’s pretty simple: Boy meets dragon. They bond. They save the empire in the final battle.

Eragon isn’t worth delving much deeper because it’s mostly boring. John Malkovich (another master of the camp performance) hams it up as the film’s villain, but he is barely in the film, mostly confined to a dark chamber and gesturing to maps. The film is notable for being another attempt by Hollywood to get into the YA fantasy adaptation market and catch the post-Harry Potter boom. It’s also notable for being a terrible novel, and a Star Wars ripoff, but with dragons and magic instead of spaceships and the force. There was an active community of anti-Eragon critics of the original novel, and the film by extension.

While Ed Speleers plays the titular chosen hero Eragon, Irons plays Brom, Eragon’s father figure and trainer throughout the film. He’s probably the best thing in the film; while his lines and role are generic, he lends a sort of gravitas in his posture and tone that makes him at least mildly watchable. While there is little to be said about Eragon proper, both films together make for an interesting contrast. Whereas Profion preens in regal white linens, Brom sulks in dark blue and brown garments; whereas Profion is ostentatiously campy, Brom is tepidly understated. While Brom is the the far more muted character, I cannot say whether it is the better acted character. Brom is Obi-Wan from A New Hope: seemingly wise with little backstory, who sacrifices himself partway through the film to save the hero.

While Eragon is known for being a Star Wars ripoff, I found D&D seemingly swiping elements from The Phantom Menace, which came out one year before it. The Empress is Padme; Profion, Palpatine. They fight ideologically over power before chamber of aristocratic councillors, which eerily reminds me of the Galactic Senate.

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The Empress (Thora Birch), before the… Galactic Senate?

What can we surmise from these two films? Both D&D and Eragon are largely forgettable, save for Irons’ performance in the former. D&D is perhaps Irons’ most conventionally terrible performance, or at least the most obliviously campy. While it certainly mars Irons’ track record of good performances, his campy contribution to so-bad-its-good cinema (which really is just camp cinema) is a genuine treasure.

Nijinsky

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons 

I had originally skipped Nijinsky (1980) for 1) being too hard to find as a semi-obscure art house feature, and 2) for also being a minor footnote in Jeremy Irons’ career. But I encountered a DVD copy of the film tonight, and I couldn’t resist.

Sadly, the film will remain a footnote, as its not all too good, though it has its moments. The film details Vaslav Nijinsky (George de la Peña) and his relationships with ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (Alan Bates). On a plot level there isn’t too much to detail. Nijinsky is Diaghilev’s favourite, no matter how much he tries to sweet talk his tempestuous choreographer Mikhail Fokine (Jeremy Irons). There’s drama, and misunderstandings, and Diaghilev and Nijinsky break up. Professionally of course…..but also romantically. Nijinsky marries Romola de Pulsky (Leslie Browne) in a fit of heartbreak and madness, and soon succumbs to mental illness. Like many Euro-trash art house features, Nijinsky reveals itself to be a soap opera.

A profile of the film’s creation in the New York Times promises that “there will be no ducking of the homosexual relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev.” There will be no fucking for that matter as well, as while the film makes clear there is a homosexual relationship at play, the film prefers to treat gay desire in the abstract. The film can only reach the homoerotic through implications. Aside from the beginning scene of Diaghilev comforting Nijinsky in bed (a kiss on the cheek, but through a handkerchief, leaving the audience an out to believe that he’s not gay, just… European), the film refuses the embrace, the touch, the tactile sensations of queer desire. Part of this arises from the films’s pretentious to art house (this film has some good Euro-trash moments), but it also arises from the film’s consistent portrayal as an innocent, naive man enslaved by passions he cannot control. When asked why he ended his performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune by making masturbatory gestures on stage, Nijinsky merely replies that “it was the faun,” not him. Nijinsky asks Diaghilev about sex with the innocence of a child. When approached by a young man while distraught with his relationship with Diaghilev, Nijinsky, instead of having a romp with him all his own, brings the young man to Diaghilev as a means to satiate his appetites. Diaghilev refuses, saying, essentially, that he only wants to fuck for love, even going as far to finally admit that he loves Nijinsky. But this is too much for Nijinsky, the film says, as Diaghilev is not just positioned (or rather, implied) to be a lover, but even more so, a father figure. Such a power relationship (the naive ingenue and the older possessive queen) just can’t quite shake out in the end. This is a film that doesn’t understand queer desire, and it suffers for it.

A brief word about Nijinsky’s wife, Romola. She doesn’t come fully into play until the last third of the film, as Nijinsky suffers a mental breakdown from Diaghilev’s seeming apathy. As she sweeps into his life to pick up the pieces, she does literally embody, quite humorously, the heterosexual agenda. The film asserts, at least in part, that its false heterosexuality pushed by his marriage to Romola & breakup with Diaghilev that pushes him into madness. Romola regrets her actions (essentially capitalizing on a man’s fragile mental state to finally get the man she pined for all this time), ultimately telling Diaghilev that she “tried to make him what he can’t be.” And what he can’t be is straight.

nijinsky

When you realize you’ve fallen for the heterosexual agenda

Onto lighter things, Jeremy Irons’ performance! This is Irons’ first film, coming out a year before his breakout performance in Brideshead Revisited, and his character is exactly what you’d expect from him in an arthouse film. He plays a choreographer, defensive of his work, with tense body language to mirror is tense demeanour.

jeremy irons nijinsky 2

When Fokine leaves in a fit after essentially being let go from Diaghilev, he encounters Nijinsky, calls him a “pederast whore,” and huffs away. This brief encounters can’t help but feel is a prediction onto what Irons’ filmography would become, as Irons’ whole career is filled with perversity. I’ll write about this in more depth another time, but Irons tends to play two roles: perverts or priests. One are figures of perversion, the other figures that uphold the law against perversion (but are often found to be perverse anyway). Fokine is the opposite of Nijinsky in some ways. While Nijinsky is wild and expressive, Fokine is wound tight and closed off emotionally. Until, of course, he has his outbursts.

jeremy irons nijinsky

I found myself comparing this film a bit to Brideshead Revisited, as both are early 80s works that vacillate between subtext and text around heterosexual desire. But at least Brideshead Revisited, we see Charles and Sebastian hang out, get drunk, have fun, live life, together. Nijinsky, sadly, is not so gay.

How Guy Maddin Makes a Philosophy of History Out of Frozen Horses

This is a wonderful post on thinking through history and animation. A few thoughts come to mind that I would like to add:

One thing that came to mind was Andre Bazin, the patron saint of the indexical, and how notes how film (or more specifically, photography) ’embalms time.’ I can’t help but find resonance between this piece and Bazin’s writing here. This also helps explain why, by contrast, Basin’s theories don’t make room for animation.

Another idea I took from this piece is how it demonstrates that how animation and its use in documentaries can help us understand how history is active and still working.

Finally, I was thinking about the film Waltz with Bashir, and how it’s ending is an affirmation of the ‘truth’ through photographic verifiers. But I also think we can read the film’s ending sequence as the linkages between live action photography and death, and how death is immutable, static, literally the loss of animus.

Evvycology

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My Winnipeg is an audio film before it’s a visual experience. Its skeleton is oral poetry, mythology, the voice of Guy Maddin that manifests the pictures around it. Animation is just one medium that this documentary-fantastic poetry evokes like an incantation, freely jumping from archival footage, new footage, reenactment, colour, black-and-white film, and the illusory images of the poem’s fantasies.

I want to highlight the way the poetry of the film and its visual manifestations conjure up a kind of philosophy of history. Namely: the film’s use of animation, its creation of a “critical cartography” of space (and, I’ll argue, time), demonstrates the power of history gone intimate and non-linear.

The narrator of the film describes a scene where, on a frigid night in Winnipeg, a squirrel electrocutes itself on a power line and starts a fire with its body that spreads to the stables of the nearby horse track…

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Summer Anime Recommendations

Well, it summer — time to stay indoors and watch anime! But not just any anime: here are a couple recommendations that capture in some way the spirit of summer. All of these series, you can watch on Crunchyroll.

Recommendation 1: Tsuritama 

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Tsuritama is a lovely series about friendship with a plot involving fishing and aliens. Taking place in a beach town, it perfectly captures many of the joys of summer. Also, there is dancing!

Recommendation 2: Harukana Receive

harukana receive.jpgHarukana Recieve is a new show for the summer season about girls playing beach volleyball. I liked the first episode and want to see more – its seems worth while!

Recommendation 3: Free! Iwatomi Swim Club

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Swimming is love, swimming is life. Free! Iwatomi Swim Club understands this. Any of Free! is good for some good swimming summer vibes, and there is even a new season starting this summer!

Recommendation 4: Non Non Biyori

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Non non Biyori is about the quiet life in the Japanese countryside, and captures the best kind of chill vibes you can get in the summer. If you need something even more relaxing for this season, this anime is a great experience for that.
All of these series get at some essential aspect of summer and are all definitely worth checking out!

Duckman Review

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I finished the series Duckman a few months ago, and it was certainly worth the watch. Based on a short lived Dark Horse comic by Everett Peck, the animated series ran for three season from 1994-1997 on the USA Network. The premise of the show is that Duckman (voiced by Seinfeld actor Jason Alexander) is a private detective with his partner pig Cornfed (Gregg Berger) whose has a colourful home life with his sister-in-law Bernice (Nancy Travis), and son Ajax (Dweezil Zappa) and conjoined genius twins Charles (voiced by Dana Hill and later Pat Musick) and Mambo (voiced by E. G. Daily).

While the premise is Duckman as terrible P.I., the series becomes less and less about private detective work, and more about “let’s throw these characters into a wacky situation.” The show changes the dynamic enough to keep thing interesting, supplementing and then outright replacing Bernice’s harsh candour with the long lost sister Beverly and caring and concerned demeanour.

And the show is funny. Like other mile-a-minute writing like Daria (1997-2002), I can’t quite envision a show like this today, save perhaps Rick and Morty. Duckman’s references can range form the esoteric, to the mainstream (well, the mainstream of 20 years ago.) Catching references can be a delight, and may require specialized knowledge. The show itself makes clever homages, from the Marx Bros., to Star Trek, Bridges of Madison County, and everywhere in between. It’s a good show for the pop culture connoisseur. I only understood references to Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield, for instance, because i watched Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). The series also peppers in jokes of high culture, and tips its hat when it does. (“Their called books, kids,” Cornfed utters in the last episode).

Duckman’s selfish nature can sometimes be irritatingly predictable, and the series could dip more into why he has such craven lust as a response to his crippling loneliness and inadequacies. But when the series does get into those complicated issues, it can be compelling material. His cravenness meshes well with the texture of the series, an almost gritty animation style from 90s animation powerhouse producer Klasky Csupo.

Nothing looks like the series anymore, and the series’ brazen exploration of any kind of episode premise (from a musical episode, to a pitch-perfect film noir send up) makes the series a delight to watch. The entire series is on Youtube, so there is literally nothing to lose. Watch it!

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