The First One is Free: Reviewing TV Pilots (Moonbeam City)

About two weeks ago, I downloaded the pilot for Comedy Central’s new animated show Moonbeam City. Clips and ads had been fairly heavy for this series. I rather adore cartoons, so this quickly lodged itself into my must watch list. But now I have to ask, is it worth pursuing?

With only the pilot to go on, I can’t make a summary judgment for or against Moonbeam City. Comparisons immediately flooded my mind making it certainly worth speculating whether or not this toon will rise to the level of Rick & Morty or wallow with the forgotten next to Frisky Dingo. I’m no Vrai Kaiser (who’s writing some of the best television criticism anywhere over at The Mary Sue; seriously go check out the Rick & Morty and Steven Universe episode recaps), but I like to think I know what I like and why I like it.

So let’s consider Moonbeam City.

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It’s been a great time for cartoons, or rather, we’ve experienced an adult animation renaissance over the past ten years with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and Seth Macfarlane’s cash cows (Family Guy and American Dad). But Comedy Central has had a rather poor record with animation.

Although Futurama cultivated a devoted following and no one can deny the impact of the seemingly endless South Park (a show that’s reached The Simpsons level of longevity), other animated shows have not only failed but quite simply been unfunny and poorly animated. Drawn Together was a nice premise that quickly became insufferable; Brickleberry was painfully unfunny; and even though Ugly Americans could have been something, it dissolved into inconsequence.

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Rad, Dazzle, Pizzaz, & Chrysalis

Thus, I have severe concerns about the staying power of its latest offering. However, Comedy Central is pouring voice talent into it: Rob Lowe as protagonist detective Dazzle Novak, Elizabeth Banks as Dazzle’s police chief Pizzaz Miller, Will Forte as Dazzle’s department rival Rad Cunningham, and Kate Mara as Dazzle’s would-be sidekick Chrysalis Tate. Dazzle, Pizzaz, Rad, and Chrysalis: the core police force for Moonbeam City, a locale rooted firmly in a 80s that is equal parts idealized Miami and Los Angeles.

We should never forget just how obsessed with South Florida and Southern California the entire 1980s were. The aesthetics of these cities via tv shows like Miami Vice and LA Law were only rivaled by the decade’s fascination with the 1950s and nascent fetishizing of World War II.

It’s rather clear that Comedy Central intends this show to be its version of Archer. It’s the easiest comparison but not quite as useful as one would like. After watching the Moonbeam City pilot, I felt the need to re-watch Archer‘s first episode, “Mole Hunt.”

In Archer’s pilot, Pam and Cheryl were utterly undeveloped. I don’t think anyone could have guessed the direction those characters were going to take. In fact, I truly believe that Amber Nash and Judy Greer were more than a bit responsible for dictating the development of the characters Pam and Cheryl. Ditto for Krieger (who has turned into one of the most fun and disturbing characters out there), a character that I don’t think spoke until episode four. The big draw to Archer was H. Jon Benjamin, Chris Parnell, and Aisha Tyler. 

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The strength of Archer‘s pilot was how fluidly it introduced its cast having them interact with the eponymous hero revealing their fundamental personalities and interpersonal dynamics. That pilot also did an excellent job through its animation of establishing a queer Cold War/contemporary environment. Simply put, its world-building was elegantly achieved.

How is Moonbeam City not Archer? Well, for a lot of reasons. Unlike Archer, Moonbeam City doesn’t attempt any kind of realism or even satire. If you were to mix the non sequitur that made Harvey Birdman, Attorney-At-Law hilarious and the random violence of Metalocalypse that made it delightfully absurd, then you’ll have a rather good sense of the kind of logic you’ll encounter.

Next, there’s the art. It’s painfully obvious the style of animation grows out of the work of ‘artist’ Patrick Nagel, best known for the Duran Duran album cover for Rio. It’s too easy to let the animation style obscure content. At least, that’s the impression I get from the handful of reviews the show has gotten often giving a middling assessment due mostly to the reviewer getting distracted by just this (yet entirely avoiding the fact this art makes having characters that aren’t glaring Caucasian nearly impossible). But we shouldn’t avoid the legit question, “Does it actually make people laugh or is it just mildly amusing at best?

Mocking or referencing (whichever you prefer) Nagel isn’t new. My personal favorite is the American Dad episode “Fartbreak Hotel” in which Steve goes back in time to discover the muse for a Patrick Nagel painting.

AMERICAN DAD: Steve travels back in time to 1981 to meet the artist who painted a portrait of his dream girl in the all-new

Nagel’s art is simply an ‘in’ to revel in the absurdity that was the 1980s. Make no mistake, Moonbeam City isn’t trying to merely mock the decade (although that certainly happens) or present some imbecilic conception of the 80s by a dipshit planning a frat/sorority party. Moonbeam City is at once smarter and profoundly dumber than any of this, because absurdity demands heighten sensitivity.

I mean, for fuckssakes, a third of the way through the episode a moustachioed Dazzle beckons you with a come hither smile in the midst of a wild spray of Skittles. It’s a sex scene with Aiaiaia/Aiashashashe, a quasi-Iranian mall singer whose song ‘Flight of the Windstress’ is both a brilliant parody and a fucking glorious tune shaming all current pop music. According to Jesse Schedeen this “’80s-worthy, synth-heavy soundtrack [is] (courtesy of Synthpop band Night Club).”

She is the mournful dolphin crane
from a starship in the stream
she cloaks him in a crystal cape
and a quilt made of her dreams

flight of the windstress

she summons her dragon friend
and they climb aboard his tail
he’s actually a whale

flight of the windstress

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This is the closest you or I will ever come to having sex with an idealized Nick Offerman. But I’m certain this is what Megan Mullally sees nightly.

The plot of the pilot ‘Mall Hath No Fury’ is nonsensical. A mugger robs an elderly woman using the money to become the cocaine lord of the city. Dazzle gets knocked down to #2 Cop on the force, pouts, and ends up managing Aiashashashe. The mugger ‘El Diablo Malo’ (“A nickname as uncreative as it is terrifying”) hides in Aiashashashe’s band as the rainstick player (alias Manheim Crowkicker, a name that is brutally metal for a synth band) in order to spread his product all over the city. While this is going on, Dazzle and Rad get into a ridiculously violent game of one-upmanship expressed via their management of competing mall starlets. The climax comes in the form of a chaotic and violent mall concert that ends in deportation. So, yeah…fucking great.

I can’t help but feel that Will Forte is wasted. Forte has an extraordinary gift for turning the banal and casual into comedic gold through his deadpan normalcy (his portrayal of Barney’s friend Randy in How I Met Your Mother was fantastically funny). In this show, his character Rad is an ordinary dick. He’s Canadian (a joke that fails to land) and is animated to look eerily like The Joker from the first Batman The Animated Series. Much like Pam, Cheryl, and Krieger from Archer, I can see Rad becoming a much different character if Forte is allowed to make him weird.

Elizabeth Banks is perhaps the most in the groove with her character delivering well balanced lines with what feels like an already thorough understanding of her personality. In contrast, Kate Mara gives a pointless and forgettable performance as Chrysalis, a toon version of Arrow‘s Felicity Smoak. It seems the only joke Chrysalis gets to deliver are corrections of Dazzle’s malapropisms. The character also owes more to Diane Nguyen of BoJack Horseman than to anything original.

As an aside, this isn’t the only BoJack steal of the series. Keith Olbermann appears in Netflix’s BoJack Horseman as Tom Jumbo-Gumbo, a whale who is a 24-hour network news anchor,  to provide viewers the necessary backstory to move the plot along while also offering bitterly accurate satirical cultural critique. It’s damn funny (squid vs whale jokes aside–I’m not going to explain it to you, just watch it already). In Moonbeam City, we get Genesis Jones, a quasi-Colbert giving us updates that serve to move the plot along but little else that wasn’t implied by the characters or could be inferred by viewers on their own.

Back to my point, one has to wonder why Mara and not any other woman in existence? Similarly, Rob Lowe does well as Dazzle but his failure to modulate his tone leaves the character a one-dimensional throw away that gets increasingly irritating. Performances will even out as the series goes on but will viewers be willing to wait for Mara and Lowe to figure out how best to play the characters or for the writers to figure out how best to deploy Forte? I doubt.

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According to Variety “the show has also lined up an impressive roster of guest voices for its 10-episode run, including Powers Boothe, Kate McKinnon, Catherine O’Hara, Andy Richter, Susan Sarandon, Molly Shannon, Paul F. Tompkins, Patrick Warburton and Adam West.” I have to wonder if all this voice talent might end up being wasted. 

But don’t get the wrong idea, there are some brilliant jokes in Moonbeam City. From the bold stupidity of Dazzle’s first line “I hope your brain is hungry; it’s having bullets for dinner” to Aiashashashe’s desire to just “sing songs about prisms and coyotes getting married to ghosts,” there are solid jokes here, good writing writing, and loads of potential.

The next couple of episodes will determine if this series is worth the bother. But I believe it could become something more than just nostalgia riffing and also-ran humor. We’ll see come Wednesday 9:30 Central, 10:30 Eastern on Comedy Central.

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5 thoughts on “The First One is Free: Reviewing TV Pilots (Moonbeam City)

  1. Pingback: September Songs: The Best Songs Heard This Month | Misanthrope-ster

  2. By the end of the first episode, I was both thrilled to have discovered something on TV worth watching and saddened at the thought that it would almost certainly be cancelled before too long. This happens whenever I like a show–Max Headroom, Twin Peaks, Firefly, etc. Bah.

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