Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thank Goodness For Adult Swim

Adult Swim came into existence in 2001 when I was in college, right smack in the target audience for their programming.  It was considered a risky experiment for Cartoon Network at the time, since the idea of cartoons for adults was still considered novel.  Sure, FOX had their Sunday night animation block, but that was still considered family-friendly fare.  The only animated shows that really needed to be shown late at night due to content concerns were things like "South Park" and "Celebrity Death Match."  Moreover, Adult Swim, based out of Atlanta's Williams Street Studios, was very conscious of the fact that they were sharing space on the dial with Cartoon Network, which had been unambiguously aimed at kids from the very beginning.  So the early commercial bumpers sternly warned small children that it was time to get out of the pool.  There's still a buffer zone in the evening hours, where reruns of network sitcoms like "Family Guy" and "King of the Hill" help transition to the more hard-edged stuff that airs after midnight.

From the start, I was primarily interested in the Saturday night anime block, as I was still in my rabid otaku phase.  It's a much lower profile part of the Adult Swim brand, but this is still the place American television where you can most reliably find broadcasts of popular anime like "Attack on Titan," "Naruto," and the ever-popular "Cowboy Bebop."  And despite some ups and downs over the years, and a period where the anime was almost phased out of Adult Swim completely, I think that Adult Swim has done right by its anime fans.  They've taken some big risks on various programs over the years, and a generation of American anime fans owe them thanks for popularizing some of their favorites.  I haven't watched the block in years since I stopped having a schedule that regularly let me stay up until 2AM, but I was gratified to see that the current lineup is still full of weird, wild, and wonderful shows like "Michiko and Hatchin" and "Parasyte the Maxim" that would never get broadcast anywhere else.
Of course, Adult Swim really gained its notoriety for the original shows they premiered on Sunday nights.  I liked the action spoof "Venture Brothers," nostalgic action figure sketch show "Robot Chicken," and a scattering of the others, but mostly I found the offerings from the early years bizarre.  They all tended to be very short, crude, and horrifically violent.  "Space Ghost," "Harvey Birdman," and "SeaLab 2021" recycled old Hanna Barbera cartoons into dark absurdist sitcoms.  "Aqua Team Hunger Force" followed the adventures of super-powered fast food items, and famously spawned the guerilla marketing campaign that caused the 2007 Boston bomb scare.  Then there was the shoestring surrealism of "12 oz. Mouse," which looked like a child's crayon doodles brought to disturbing life.  Could these shows have existed anywhere else on cable television?  I suppose "The Boondocks" could have aired somewhere else, but not with the same amount of creative freedom.  

Moreover, the whole attitude of the network (which became independent of Cartoon Network after 2005) was uniquely casual and experimental.  They would play infuriating April Fools pranks on their audience, like pre-empting shows to broadcast Tommy Wiseau's "The Room" multiple times.  They often mocked themselves, their content, and their audience, with deadpan wryness.  They ran contests that let specific viewers decide the programming on certain dates.  The famous white-text-on-black commercial bumpers often came straight from viewer submissions.  I knowfirsthand, because one of mine made it on the air once.  There was a nice sense of both anarchy and audience participation at the same time.  I got the distinct feeling that it really didn't matter what Adult Swim aired as much as the subversive, snarky, Millennial-friendly atmosphere they cultivated.  They put out a lot of crud back in the day - strange, interesting crud, but still crud.  I'm still not sure what to make of "Perfect Hair Forever" or "Tom Goes to the Mayor," shows only the most addled of stoners could love.

Developing that creative free-for-all environment at Williams Street played a big part in Adult Swim's recent successes, though.  As a staunch animation defender, I was a little resentful that the block started airing live action programming a few years ago, but soon I understood that "Childrens Hospital," "The Eric André Show," and the rest were in the same vein of cheap, weird, unhinged programming as Adult Swim's animated shows.  And then last year, after well over a decade of obscurity, suddenly Adult Swim went mainstream.  Syndicated reruns of shows like "Family Guy" had been bringing in big ratings for a while, but "Rick and Morty" was their first home-grown hit, regularly beating everything in its timeslot on both cable and network television.  Then their sporadic "infomercial" block premiered a live action spoof on '80s sitcom theme songs called "Too Many Cooks," which immediately went viral and was all anybody wanted to talk about for several days last October.   

There have been various imitators over the years, but nobody's managed to match Adult Swim's commitment to uncompromisingly original programs in the same way.  And adult animation has quietly flourished in various corners of television thanks to Adult Swim.  I know "Archer" and "Bojack Horseman" wouldn't be around without it.  Heck, "Family Guy" wouldn't still be running if "Adult Swim" viewers hadn't latched on to it.  I don't know what the future holds for television as the landscape continues to change, but I'm glad that there's still a place where grown-up animation and surreal black comedy and kickass anime and Tommy Wiseau and Dan Harmon truly have a home. 

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