Back in late 2000, I remember walking into my living room, dinner in hand, and plopping down in front of the television to watch whatever was on Cartoon Network at the time. I was greeted with creepy images of old people getting and out of a grimy pool, accompanied by a heavy percussioned beat. Then they came on: Home Movies, Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and, of course, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. There were no ads for this new programming block, and for two hours I was collectively losing my shit. Was this a massive network mistake? Was this a one-off special? Did someone lace my dinner with LSD? I had no idea what was happening at the time, and in some ways, CN didn’t either. I can’t imagine anyone could’ve imagined that Adult Swim would’ve became the bizarrely creative (and financial) behemoth it is today.
And through all the programming changes Adult Swim has gone through, Aqua Teen Hunger Force has survived–it’s the longest running original show of the block. All those other original shows were great, too, but Sealab 2021 was hurt by Harry Goz’s passing, and Harvey Birdman never could work right once Stephen Colbert left the show (and even though I liked The Brak Show, it was clear Brak isn’t a character that could successfully lead his own show). It’s longevity is due to its main cast being a reliably hilarious group of nutsos–the exceedingly arrogant Master Shake, the idiotic Meatwad, the straight-man-to-a-fault Frylock, and goddamn Carl. The interplay among these four is so strong that the show can literally place them in any situation and make it work.
It’s been years since I’ve last watched Aqua Teen though (for a whole host of reasons) so I binged the last two seasons before the finale. Despite what many claim was a drop-off in quality since season four (a claim that has some merit, as it somewhat seemed the show fell into a trap that many Adult Swm shows fall into–relying way too much on being over-the-top with violence and/or sex gags), Aqua Teen Hunger Force still managed to be funny as hell in its own deranged, nonsensical way. And with “The Last One Forever,” some how Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro manage to pull out a surprisingly effective half hour of television, primarily by focusing on a relatively straight-forward story that has the Aqua Teen Force flying to an aquatic planet so they can steal a jewel to power up Frylock’s back, since his current jewel is on the verge of dying.
Anyone who knows Aqua Teen knows that this is a mission doomed to fail, but what makes the finale so effective is that it fails in a genuinely tragic way. Usually, Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad get so caught up in their own self-centered bullshit that they end up screwing up everything, even if the villains themselves are inherently useless. Here, they at least try to scrape together a coalition to get that jewel for Frylock, while still keeping true to the characters themselves. Master Shake, ever the coward, initially whines about going on the dangerous mission, but of course he’ll want to do it if just to get a victory over Meatwad. And his moronic-but-noble sacrifice to the killer clams was rather poignant; while it was definitely Shake’s self-centered way to go out in a blaze a glory, he gives a rare admission of apology to all the abuse he gave Meatwad over the years, and he lets out a “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever!” battlecry before succumbing to his shellfish allergy (and, you know, being completely eaten by killer clams). Earlier, Frylock tries to be heroic before giving into his worse “Ah, screw it!” impulses, but then forgives Shake and admits his love for Meatwad. Hell, even Carl expresses a shocking amount of empathy (while trying to score some quick cash with Frylock’s jewel). He provides Shake with a secret prostitute for his bucket list and allows Meatwad to grieve upon Frylock’s death (but you know, you can’t pass up that eight percent…)
Really, it’s hard to judge any episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. It’s definitely a show that you either get or you don’t. This wasn’t the funniest episode of the show, but it suggested that, you know, if you squint hard enough, you could recognize this trio of knock-off food products could be, in fact, a team. It seemed like the last two seasons were moving the group into slightly more superhero territory (more about that in the Stray Observations), allowing the finale to lean as close to that idea as possible. At the very least, Frylock’s genuine love and Shake’s “tough” love allowed Meatwad to grow into a smart, stable member of society. He finds a nice woman, marries her, has two kids, and worries about clients and water bills. He even pulls a Don Draper, taking his family to his old New Jersey home, reminiscing about “Kevin” and the assortment of “villains” that came their way. The final scene is played pretty close to the chest–no wacky twists or sudden bouts of weirdness–and Meatwad driving off with his family as Patti Smith’s song plays in the background provides this show and all 137 of its episodes a reason for existing. Number one in the hood, G, indeed.
- I apologize if my memories of those Adult Swim debuts are blurred. I know what I remember but it doesn’t quite match up with what actually happened. It was a weird time.
- As I implied in the review, the last two seasons seemed to kind of place the Aqua Teen crew into a more heroic light. Before, after they pretty much dropped the original superhero concept after the first season, Frylock, Shake, and Meatward were just regular ol’ jerks who dealt with the weirdest shit possible. But episodes like “Banana Planet,” “Skins,” “Piranha Germs,” and “The Hairy Bus” kind of made them more active against more evil characters. While, you know, still being terrible.
- A lot of callbacks here - Shake’s shellfish allergy, Meatward’s transformations, the Ring Pop Shake used to propose to Frylock’s robot in “Freda,” and updated version of the rocket that was used in “Banana Planet.” I know I missed some, so mention them in the comments. Also, your favorite quotes, because this show was full of them. (“I’m not putting my name on that! There’s a really racist joke in there.”)