Sunday, September 11, 2011

Frisky Dingo 1-01: Meet Killface

Writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller get a lot of credit for what they did in the 80s, but let's face it: deconstructing and parodying the superhero genre is pretty damn easy. Whereas most science-fiction stories have at least one foot set in reality, the superhero (and especially the supervillain) is a figure who is completely divorced from the world around us. Batman, for instance, has no supernatural aspects to his character, but at the same time there are no Batmen in the real world, whereas in the comics world there are tons of people who decide to put on a costume and fight other people in costumes. It's an unreconstructed relic of an earlier age of pop-culture, and promotes a good versus evil divide, both of which are easy to take apart when approaching from a modern standpoint.

Frisky Dingo is, then, not a show that starts out by breaking much new ground. In addition to the long history of superhero parodies stretching back to 50s MAD magazines, it follows in the more recent tradition of Adult Swim cartoons, a series of minimum-budget shows consisting of 15-minute shorts. By the time Frisky Dingo premeired in 2006, this format was already firmly established (and, some would argue, starting to become stale). This is even acknowledged by starting off "Meet Killface" with the first few seconds of the Sealab 2021 opening, before cutting abruptly to the new program.

While animation is often used to invoke a more vivid and artistic picture of the real world than live-action camerawork could create, in Adult Swim shows there's nothing real being referred to at all. The characters are not real people repurposed for the world of animation, but animated characters repurposed for more satiric animation. In early shows the characters were literally old and forgotten cartoon protagonists repurposed for comedy in a kind of new-age detournement (e. g. Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021), whereas in more recent shows it's the more familiar repurposing of parody (e.g. Moral Orel, The Venture Bros.) The animation is blatantly artificial and sloppy, letting the audience see all the tricks and seams, never letting them forget for a moment that they're watching a TV show. Frisky Dingo is then the merging of two kinds of spectacles (in the Baudrillardian sense, as signs with no real-world referent but simply a vast network connecting to other signs) : the superhero genre and the Adult Swim parody show.

This metafictional spectacle shows itself through the opening of the first episode, "Meet Killface". It begins with, as previously mentioned, the beginning of the opening for Sealab 2021, but then cuts to Killface, the eponymous supervillain, having ostensibly taken over the airwaves and addressing the viewer directly with his typical doomsday plot/threat. Of course, no one is meant to be fooled into thinking that this is a real commandeering of the airwaves, but it immediately disrupts the viewer by mediating their relationship with the screen: instead of being a real viewer watching a real fictional program, they are a real viewer assuming the role of a fictional viewer watching a fictional real program (that is, a program that is real within the fictional, animated world of Frisky Dingo.) That was kind of confusing to explain, but I think that's the point. After making his threat, the camera lingers on Killface staring straight forward, not moving or speaking, for a solid fifteen seconds -- he doesn't even move his eyes until ten seconds in.

Fifteen seconds of stillness doesn't sound like a lot, but it's very rare to see it on television, especially the kind of hyper-kinetic short-format Adult Swim shows. I watched this part twice, and both times I checked to make sure that I hadn't actually paused the video, then wondered if something was wrong with the file. It's a profoundly uncomfortable moment, jarring the viewer out of the fictional world and reminding them that what they're watching is a TV show with a physical and temporal form. It's a sudden break with the fictional viewer persona which Frisky Dingo has foisted upon its viewer in the first minute.

This break is made permanent by what follows, a more conventional comedy sequence in which Killface argues with his cameramen, a group of fast-talking, vaguely irritating film students. The argument over the staging of the archetypical supervillain threat video undercuts the tropes that so easily established what was happening in the first minute, revealing what seems natural to us to be artificially created, and the threatening supervillain to be neurotic and somewhat effete. Still, this is fairly conventional stuff, and I sort of wish the fictional-viewer persona hadn't been discarded so readily.

All the same, there's a persistent sense of unreality throughout Frisky Dingo (or at least this episode), caused mostly by the animation style but also by some sly bits of directing. The long, check-your-video pause returns again, albeit in a shorter format, at various points during the conversation. Again, this is not so much unnatural for real conversation, but unnatural for television. After an angry rant by one of the identical twin film students Killface blasts him in half with some kind of death ray. The twin's top half sails through the air onto the couch, looking less like a person being blown in half and more of a cardboard image of a top half with some oddly detailed guts attached being moved across the screen -- which is just what it is. Later, when his twin brother is killed, he splits in half exactly the same way.

From here we're in more conventional comedic territory. The main thrust of the gags is that despite Killface's evil genius and plans for world domination he still has to deal with ordinary business problems, like the difficulty of advertising and the disquieting notion of settling for direct mail. The joke is in taking a seemingly elevated, otherworldly subject (here a supervillain, but it can be a lot of other genre tropes -- show creator Adam Reed would take a similar approach to the Bond-esque superspy genre in his (hilarious) series Archer) and giving them mundane, ordinary problems, creating humour through the contrast. Interestingly, the same technique is also used to create likeable dramatic characters -- you could probably fit The Sopranos or Big Love into this model, although those shows were always half sitcoms anyway.

This is a pretty common joke setup, but instead of repeating it in numerous iterations "Meet Killface" is essentially one long version of the gag. We start with a full minute of the straight-faced (well, relatively so) supervillain monologue, firmly establishing the pulpy elevation of our supervillain. And then it's just nine minutes of dragging that elevation through the muck of our beauraucratized present, complete with douchey assistants, technical errors, and insufficient funds. It doesn't re-invent the wheel, and some of the bits here are definitely tired, but there's just enough of a spin on the standard-issue parody here to put it into that Adult Swim zone of "just a little off".

"Meet Killface" is written by series creators Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, and both are also identified by Adult Swim as the uncredited director. This is true for every episode of Frisky Dingo. Reed also stars as the voice of Killface, making this pretty much a two-man operation. Of course, no production as major as even the most low-budget of late-night cable shows is truly made by a pair of individuals, and I don't want to neglect the communal character of the medium. But as far as TV goes, Frisky Dingo is pretty close to being an auteur project (the epitome of auteur TV is probably Louie, which I would argue suffers considerably from it.) There are advantages to this approach -- I've talked about how shows like The Shield strive for a consistency of voice despite the multiplicity of their writers, but this isn't really a concern if the same guys are writing every single script. The ideal of pure artistic creation is certainly better served this way. But I'm not sure that this ideal is what we should by into, because I'm not sure that individual creativity neccesarily creates better shows than communal writing. Frisky Dingo certainly isn't something that couldn't come out of a focus group, and one could argue that it could use a few more writers to fill in the gaps between jokes. When given creative freedom some will create genius, some crap, but a good number will turn out something pleasant but safe anyway.

All in all, "Meet Killface" is an unconventional series premiere -- the other major character of the series, Awesome-X isn't even in it, and as an audience we're dropped somewhat in media res without any chance to catch up. But today something this unconventional is almost conventional -- it fits the Adult Swim house style, and is following in a long line of genre parodies. What makes Frisky Dingo distinct is not any obvious element, but that general feeling of off-ness, that something's not quite right. It's an intangible atmosphere that's the trickiest part of the AS formula to nail, and that Frisky Dingo does it so well in its first episode is a sign of promise for its future.

Next week: Steins;Gate goes for the flowered throne.

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