Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Adult Swim is having a year. Reversing course from lo-fi freakshows like Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule and The Eric Andre Show, the channel is now riding a wave of classy yearlong experiments. Eric Andre’s apocalyptic mayhem got an extreme makeover with a high-def widescreen veneer and a sparkly new set. Childrens Hospital—the first, best, and weirdest of Adult Swim’s live-action parodies—spent a year on a new set, with a rotating cast playing M*A*S*H rather than the typical Grey’s Anatomy mash-ups. Even oddities like The Greatest Event In Television History and The Heart, She Holler returned in 2013 looking snazzier than ever. So far none of this ironic gentrification has heightened the content of Adult Swim’s rage against the boob tube, but it at least bolsters the network’s status as TV’s most vibrant punk club.
Enter Eagleheart: Paradise Rising. The third season of the cop-show riff is a 10-part movie ostensibly concerning the comically gruesome death of third lead Brett Mobley (Brett Gelman) and how hero Chris Monsanto (Chris Elliott) may or may not have contributed to it. It’s not really a movie in that the episodes (“chapters” for the purposes of the season) are distinct little stories that happen to have an overarching plot. For example, “Chapter One” involves a drug deal by the docks and an aquarium break-in, exactly the kind of scenario favored by Eagleheart’s first two seasons. Meanwhile, Internal Affairs is very curious about what exactly happened to Brett, and their investigation leads to “Chapter Two,” which is primarily about a new brain-downloading technology that may inadvertently shed some light on the situation. The audience gets an explanation for what went down with Brett and Chris early on. How this will take the characters through 10 episodes, though—as well as Gelman’s starring credit—suggests there are more wrinkles to the story than at first appear.
Directed by executive producer and co-writer Jason Woliner, Paradise Rising is stylistically movie-like (“cinematic” has entirely different connotations). There’s that nonsense subtitle, and the season’s opening credits play only over “Chapter One,” itself double the length of the usual episode. The way form reflects content is the best part of Paradise Rising. It’s instantly noticeable that Eagleheart has expanded its frame like The Eric Andre Show, going from the standard television 1.78 widescreen to the uncommon—movie-like—2.00 widescreen offered by contemporary digital video cameras. Meanwhile, there’s a subplot set at a New York apartment that plays like a sitcom-esque stage play (think The State’s “Tenement” sketch). Lights dim and give way to spotlights, and the set has an inviolable proscenium unlike the four walls and cartoon-realistic lighting of the police station. But the kicker is these apartment sequences are shot in something closer to the aspect ratio of old television, as if Eagleheart was going full Honeymooners in a subplot that ends far too soon. On top of that, “Chapter Two” involves multiple show-within-the-show sequences funny enough not to ruin here. Only Key & Peele uses dynamic aspect ratios as meaningfully. Those black bars switch from top and bottom to the sides almost as imperceptibly as Paradise Rising travels among genres.
Then again, if the most interesting thing about an event like this is the shifting aspect ratio, that’s not a promising sign. Not that Paradise Rising is awful. Eagleheart is its usual amiable self, the brainchild of producers who cut their teeth on goofy sketch gags in shows like Late Night With Conan O’Brien and Human Giant and now make goofy sketch gags in a cop-show parody in the NTSF:SD:SUV:: mold. The over-the-top cop comedy still has occasional punch, and Elliott and Maria Thayer (as partner Susie Wagner) make the most of their Looney Tunes tension. But with its serialization and comedic odyssey into surrealism—not just the genre-bending apartment sequence but great gags like the chief’s hand merging with his desk—Paradise Rising recalls The Heart, She Holler and pales in terms of laughs, bones, and teeth. There’s even a running bit in which Susie plays with homemade therapy dolls like Patton Oswalt’s Hurlan Heartshe. That hillbilly soap envisions its patriarchal society as a land populated by idiots in power due solely to their gender, submissive domestic goddesses, and literal Bible-fuckers. Eagleheart: Paradise Rising is, so far, a tree intent on building its trunk high and keeping its most interesting branches short.
Time will tell whether Paradise Rising adds up to more than the sum of its limbs, whether it exists for a much better reason than because it can. There’s a funny acknowledgement of casual sexism threaded through “Chapter Two” that feels ambitious for a show more comfortable basing a counterfeiting ring on the regenerative properties of starfish. This is a pretty funny concept, and a funny gag, and a kind of funny visual. The whack-job character beats, freaky imagery, and seamless formal mash-up suggest radical potential for Eagleheart: Paradise Rising, but potential nonetheless.