Let’s Get Weird

 

Miranda Davis, Columbia University

 

When I say HBO, you think…Well I’m guessing you don’t think neurotic cartoon animals navigating themselves around average social situations. Compared to HBO’s usual fare, Animals, which premiered on HBO at the beginning of February, sticks out like a sore thumb. It played at Sundance last year and was promptly picked up for two seasons by HBO, thereby surprising everyone who thought they had at least a slight grasp on HBO’s vibe.

Animals is a strange bird. Or an odd duck. An eccentric fish? HBO is known for out-of-the-box television, but frankly, Animals is like 45% weirder than anything else they’re airing these days. It’s like Seinfeld meets Garfield. Or like The Tale of Desperaux meets College Humor. The first episode centers around a rat at a party who has never “made babies” (quite literally, as it turns out). Spoiler alert: he dies of rat poisoning at the end of the episode after having sex with his best friend’s daughter, who incidentally has journeyed from infancy to adulthood over the course of the party. The second episode features a pigeon who decides to transition genders after mistaking a golf ball for an egg. The animation is static in a way that calls to mind picture books; the animals’ mouths don’t move when they speak, making the viewing experience both disconcerting and oddly comforting, oddly nostalgic.

There are a few human characters, but they never speak, although they do grunt in an interesting human-animal reversal. The humans get a complicated subplot involving murder, prostitutes, corrupt government officials, and an undercover police investigation, all of which are introduced to us in short dialogue-less vignettes that serve as establishing bookends for the actual animal plots. Starting to see what I mean? It’s kind of bizarre. The show, taking a page from Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, gets a lot of play from the whole animals who talk and act like humans but at the same time also still act like animals thing. Rats get excited when someone brings one cracker to their party and bed bugs discuss the undertones in human blood. The main joke of the first episode is a rather involved running bit about bringing rat-sized paper plates to a rat party.

            On its own, Animals is interesting, perhaps fresh, but not incredibly remarkable. It mixes animal humor with neurotic New Yorker humor, in a dark and sometimes crass way, with varied effects. It’s a funny-ish comedy, an interesting idea that cannot really sustain 13 30-minute episodes. Personally, I’m a sucker for any type of animals behaving like humans humor, particularly of the dark and off-beat variety, so I’m enjoying Animals quite a bit. But I know what you’re thinking. “Miranda, we’re in Peak TV. There’s so much quality television out there I simply don’t have time to even think about a sometimes funny comedy about insecure vermin. THERE ARE OVER 400 SCRIPTED SERIES. Call me when you’re ready to talk about something more important. Ain’t nobody got time for this.” And I feel you, but I would also like to posit that you’re being myopic and stupid.

Because it is exactly in this larger context of Peak TV that Animals becomes worth noting, worth thinking about. If Animals had aired on, say, Adult Swim, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought, because Adult Swim is filled with bizarre little shows with out-there premises and slightly off-key senses of humor. (Even their website is so trippy I get kind of dizzy looking at it.) But Animals is on HBO, and there are legitimately thousands of adjectives I would use to describe HBO’s vibe before I got to whimsical. Animals is whimsical. It’s also dark and unfit for primetime in a way that helps to explain why HBO picked it up, but it is very much not an “HBO show” (if you will allow me to generalize a bit here and use HBO as an adjective). HBO is Oz, The Wire, Sex and the City, True Detective. HBO does interesting, groundbreaking, unexpected, but they don’t really do just straight up strange. Until now.

So why now? And why should we care?

It seems to me that Animals is both the product and the answer to Peak TV.  Peak TV of course raises the question: what happens after the peak? What now? Where do we go from here? Does television start declining in quality? Quantity? Both? Animals argues neither. The next move after this glut of good television is a jump out of the system. With so much television out there, much of it quality television, audiences are smaller, critical acclaim is more important than ever, and it’s almost impossible to distinguish yourself by just making a solidly good show. How does a show separate itself from the pack in this era of Peak TV? The obvious way, the way that got us into this Peak TV mess in the first place, is to keep making more shows, and hope that one of them will be amazing enough to stand out.

Animals takes a new strategy. Don’t make a better show, just make a weirder one. Now don’t get me wrong, HBO has not invented weird, or even what I will call the new era of Weird TV. Animals is merely representative of a larger trend in television. You only have to look as far as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy about a female stalker on The CW, the past few seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, (which was pretty damn weird to begin with, but at least back in the day none of the characters were a. senile [Frank] or b. honest to God sociopaths [Dennis, of course]), or ABC’s decision to reincarnate The Muppet Show, to see that television is descending into madness. Jk on that last one. But there is a general shift towards less conventional, more out-there programming. Just in time for the Twin Peaks reboot, the world is ready for weird, if imperfect, little shows that can surprise you and catch your eye. From Peak TV comes Weird TV, because what we need now isn’t more, it’s different.

So far, Animals is not an amazing show. If you want a phenomenal weird show, a trailblazer in the new era of Weird TV, watch Review on Comedy Central. Unless Animals steps it up a lot, it is bound to be forgotten.  What will have a lasting impact is that HBO, the network that has been defining and redefining how we understand television for the past twenty years, aired a show about neurotic cartoon animals. Mark my words, television is about to get a whole lot more bizarre.