The first thing to make clear about Brad Neely's Adult Swim series China, IL is that it really is an animated cartoon, which is to say, the drawings move. It's not Fantasia, but the lines aren't just sitting there on the screen, static and waiting for the next frame. Neely first made a splash as the creator of Wizard People, Dear Reader, the hilarious alternate soundtrack to the first Harry Potter movie, and his short Internet cartoons have tended to look like online comic strips with, well, soundtracks. Having established his "style" online, Neely probably could have gotten away with claiming to be a practitioner of "limited" (i.e., half-assed animation. So the fact that China, IL (which, combines the characters and setting of three online cartoon series he's done) is a real cartoon with actual moving parts is a real blow to everyone who's clinging to the dream that Tom Goes To The Mayor represented the path to the future, and good news for everyone else.
That said, Neely's talent is still most evident in the strange twists and turns of his imagination and odd spurts of verbal surrealism; the look of the thing is just the delivery system, though there are some striking images and even the occasional striking piece of "acting," such as the expression of seething disgust on the face of the time-traveling, revenge-driven Ronald Reagan, when he realizes that his vile plans are about to come to naught. Neely himself voices most of the regular characters, including his two heroes, the Professor Brothers, assured, cool-dude Steve, who sometimes sounds like Hunter Thompson imitating Jack Nicholson and sometimes sounds as if it were the other way around, and the balding, bearded Frank, who, if only he could develop a little more self-confidence, might someday qualify as a basket case. The brothers are the star attractions at the China, Illinois university campus, described in the theme song as a place where "no one should ever go…/ You know it's bad, bad, bad." (The voice cast also includes Greta Gerwig as a helpful T.A. and Hulk Hogan as, naturally, the college dean.)
The first episode of the new series shows a healthy interest in exploring conspiracy theories, alternate history timelines, academic bullshitting, end-of-the-world scenarios, the self-perpetuating cycles of revenge and paranoia: all the things that make life worth living, or at least some of the things that make rich fodder for late-night stoner cartoons. How, for instance, did Ronald Reagan get roped into this? It seems that, back when Steve was 12—"It was 1982, and we were all nuts"—he and Frank were set to appear on TV's Kid Talent Parade, where Steve blew the crowd away with his uncanny and trenchant impersonation of then-President Reagan. ("Well, I like to kiss butts, and I love to smell farts. And I'm gonna blow us all up. Shut up, Nancy!")
For the next three decades, it was commonly assumed that the only long-term effect of this was the crater it left in Frank's psyche, after the show's announcer declared that Steve's act was so untoppable that there was no need for his loser brother even to perform. But Reagan was watching that day and swore that he would pay back his tormentor. "In the '80s," explains a Man in Black, "Reagan has the FBI build a time machine. He said it was to prevent homosexuality from being invented in the '60s." This was a ruse, though, and the Feds want to use Steve as bait in an entrapment scheme: If he'll agree to go back on TV and threaten to do his act again, Reagan is sure to let down his guard long enough to reappear, use his powers to freeze time, and try to take a crap in Steve's mouth. If we have to have '80s nostalgia, I wish it could all be like this.
China, IL looks fairly cheap, but unlike those Adult Swim shows that might have been adapted from men's room walls or notebooks confiscated from budding young artists residing in juvenile detention facilities, its outrages are rendered in a soft, pastel-colored style that blunts the obnoxiousness of some of the jokes without blurring out the edge. This is probably the most charming comedy you'll ever see that includes a scene hinting that the wily Ronald Reagan was faking his Alzheimer's. (It's definitely your only chance in this lifetime to hear what the line "A senile, dead ex-president screwing with time!?" sounds like when delivered by Hulk Hogan.) Part of the charm comes from the fact that, when re-invented as a time-traveling mastermind who's up to no good, Reagan himself comes across as a more freshly imagined character than most of the stars of DC's "New 52" line, and a hard guy to dislike, which just goes to show that any character grows more interesting and easier to root for in direct proportion to how much Richard III he has inside him. Responding to Steve's insults, Reagan snaps, "Anyone can be a critic!" "Anyone can be a president," Steve replies, "so long as you suck!" It's just a shame that you have to stay up this late on a Sunday night to hear the important issues facing this country debated on so high a level of eloquence.
- "I quit math class again, 'cause there was a genius in there, and I was afraid of him. Better versions of humans are scary."
- "Dear Feds, I have the time machine. These pictures should confirm my ability to freeze time and change anything. Anyway, not sure what to do now. Might go kill important people or meet cool dead people… Signed, Dutch."
- "You could have used your presidential powers for good, but no! So now, I'm putting every toothbrush you've ever used on my nuts."
- "The President must sacrifice most of the masses for some of the masses! Don't be so naive, son."