As an animation fan, it’s fascinating to see the way more limited forms of TV cartoons have become playgrounds of creativity, to the point where the absurdist animated satire is pretty much a genre unto itself. This isn’t new, of course: Rocky And Bullwinkle took the relatively crude form of a Hanna-Barbera TV production and turned it into a low-cost delivery method for a clever (and influential) brand of silliness. Years later, The Simpsons looked far crummier than the kind of full animation Disney’s feature division was churning out (and sometimes, in its earlier years, more slapdash than Disney’s TV fare); these days, regardless of its erratic-at-best writing, the animation looks far more detailed and polished than anyone would have predicted in 1990. Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim shows, of course, have since turned simple, sometimes borderline nonexistent animation into a sort of art form.
Even given that some of those shows have their own deranged visual interest, Comedy Central’s new cop spoof Moonbeam City stands out from this landscape of low-budget grownup cartoons. The animation itself is not terribly sophisticated: There are plenty of shots where only the characters’ mouths are moving, while full-body movements don’t show much nuance (they’re full-body in the sense that the bodies often move as a single cut-out form). But the images that the animation brings about halfway to life have distinctive style, seemingly based on the artwork of Patrick Nagel—which is to say the show looks something like Duran Duran’s Rio album cover has come to life and taken over the world. The show’s designs are awash in neon pinks and purples, and swaths of the characters’ faces are as white and lineless as a blank sheet of paper. The titular city—located, as all stylish ’80s-pastiche, retro-futuristic cities must be, on the water—is home to Dazzle Novak (Rob Lowe), the best cop in town, though this standing seems to rest entirely on his possession of a “#1 Cop” mug. That mug, and Dazzle’s status, is coveted by his rival Rad Cunningham (Will Forte), diminished by his furious boss Pizzaz Miller (Elizabeth Banks), and reclaimed with the help of bookish but capable Chrysalis Tate (Kate Mara).
The first episode establishes these relationships with great efficiency. Even its cold open, where Dazzle fails to stop a purse-snatcher, does double duty: It establishes Dazzle’s cocky incompetence and also leads directly into the episode’s story, wherein that purse-snatcher quickly parlays $42 and change into a drug empire, which he rules under the name El Diablo Malo. Dazzle is stripped of his “#1 Cop” mug, humiliated by his new “#2 Cop” mug, and vows to bring El Diablo Malo to justice, at least until he spies a singer during a mall stakeout and drops the case in order to become her lover and manager, even though he cannot pronounce her name.
So yes, Moonbeam City traffics in Adult Swim-style storytelling, where anything as coherent as a mid-period Simpsons episode is sent back for retooling: Can it move faster? With more violence? And more zig-zags? In the first episode, at least, this is a joke-dependent show, and the jokes are pretty good, if very much of a familiar form: the arrogant super-douche who actually kind of sucks at his job, with gusto.
Though jokes about Dazzle dismissing people, sucking at his job, and generally being horrible are dominant, they are a) largely amusing and b) surrounded by some more absurd bits that hint at the writers’ stranger sensibilities. The show’s creator is Scott Gairdner, a Funny Or Die guy and former Conan writer who happens to have created the Tiny Fuppets which, full disclosure, is probably the web series I have laughed hardest at in my life. Nothing in Moonbeam City is as funny as Gairdner’s cheap knockoff of Muppet Babies, but then, hardly anything else on TV is, either, and I grudgingly admit that the Tiny Fuppets could probably not sustain a weekly 20-minute dosage. Moonbeam does find some good, weird jokes about its world, like the ur-’80s proliferation of malls in the city; when Dazzle books his singing beau on a tour, she’s still consigned to those malls, with her final stop scheduled at the Dell Moon Ridge Oaks North South Circle Square. And when Rad, incensed by his rival’s brief taste of success (and “#1 Manager” mug), obtains his own singer-lover with a name that can only be pronounced as a terrifying animalistic shriek, I laughed at every damn shriek—which is to say I laughed at both shrieks. But still: points for repeating it without running it into the ground.
Dazzle spends more time antagonizing Rad than the drug dealer, probably in part because the Rad role plays right to the kind of preening aggression Forte loves to parody. In fact, while Moonbeam City superficially resembles the FX cartoon Archer, there’s plenty of MacGruber in both Rad and Dazzle’s idiotic bravado (especially when the show turns to a gag involving awkward sex moans). Of course, Dazzle saves the day entirely by accident; this kind of borderline-nihilistic unpredictability is, at least in the first episode, the most predictable element of Moonbeam City. What holds promise for future episodes is the mix of strange throwaway jokes (including some Simpsons-ish signage gags) and striking visual style that makes its dialogue-heavy jokes go down easier. Gairdner, the cast, and the animators have successfully bought themselves some time to give the show its own voice.