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Ugly Americans - "Kong Of Queens"

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The first season of Ugly Americans on Comedy Central has been a nice contrast to its lead-in, the umptillionth season of South Park. Whereas a typical South Park  episode will establish a premise and then pound away at it until every ounce of comedy has been squeezed from its premise-y being (and I say this as a fan who still loves the show), Ugly Americans tosses an impossible number of ideas in the air at the beginning of every episode and then tries mightily to juggle them. It’s as if the writers weren’t sure whether they’d get more than the initial 7-episode order (they did—Comedy Central has ordered more Ugly Americans for the fall), so they tried to cram in as much show as possible.

When everything clicks, like it has in the best episodes of Season 1—including “An American Werewolf In America” and “Blob Gets A Job”—the frantic approach is exhilaratingly funny. The jokes come rapid-fire, land well, and the cast maintains an even deadpan that plays off the insane setting perfectly. That last part is critical: The trap of a wacky premise like this—a New York City cohabitated by humans and monsters—is to really milk the wackiness. Ugly Americans always plays it straight. I mean, yeah, it’s chock full of zombie and demon and slime-monster jokes, but the show never looks like it’s trying too hard. It’s learned from Futurama that your bizarre world works better when everybody in it acts like things are perfectly normal.

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As you might imagine, though, the downside of a writing staff that throws everything at the wall to see what sticks is that sometimes everything doesn’t stick. Then you get merely decent episodes like tonight’s season finale, “Kong Of Queens,” which had its moments but also had portions that pretty much fell flat.

By the way, here’s the concept of the show if you haven’t seen it and just happened to idly click on the recap: Mark Lilly is an average early-30s white dude who works in the Department Of Integration, a catch-all social-services office for troubled monsters. He seems to specialize in job placement and group therapy, although the D.O.I.’s function tends to change in each episode to fit that week’s hijinx. Mark works with past-his-prime wizard Leonard, sleeps with his demon co-worker Callie, and has a slacker zombie roommate Randall.

Each of these cast members embarks on their own adventure this week, plus there’s a fourth subplot featuring 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer as an obsessive-compulsive King Kong. I started the episode really hoping it all would come together but suspecting that it would not. Suffice to say my suspicions were confirmed.

The Kong thing was the biggest disappointment. I’m guessing that an executive producer came running into the Ugly Americans office, waving his Blackberry, and yelled, “Guys! We got JACK MCBRAYER for the season finale! Can you even believe it? JACK MCBRAYER!” And then the staff had to come up with a way to use Kenneth The Page on the show, and they decided on a giant gorilla, you know, because his voice is so squeaky and polite. And that’s about as far as they were able to take it.

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Leonard the wizard was wasted, too. He and Randall are the most consistenly funny characters on the program, mostly because they both have an easy chemistry with straight-man Mark. But there have been a couple times this season where the show has sent Leonard off to do his own thing, which makes no sense. It deprives Leonard of a foil. When he's by himself, as he essentially was for his long-distance holographic check-ins this week, his character depends on pure wackiness. Like I said above, Ugly Americans works best when it avoids overselling that angle.

For the most part, though, the remaining thousands of subplots in “Kong Of Queens” delivered, even as they straddled that line between character development and character summation that writers contend with when they don’t know whether this is their last episode or not. I liked watching the middle manager, Twayne Boneraper, struggle to find an opening joke for his big speech, not just because it dug deep in the anti-comedy well, but also because it brought back the two alpha-male demons who are never sure how asshole-ish they’re supposed to be. Uncertain assholes are the funniest kind.

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The Randall-and-Mark thread, with Randall trying to replace the lower half of his body after getting hit by a bus, was also strong. That’s mostly because voice actor Kurt Metzger has Randall down pat. He nails the “roommate who annoys the shit out of you but still inexplicably makes you want to hang out with him” vibe.

I do hope that in Season 2, they’ll find new gags for Randall other than making his zombie parts fall off. In only seven episodes, he’s lost a nose, a penis, both hands (multiple times), a chin, and now half of his body. There are probably other ones I’m forgetting. They’ve somehow managed to keep the gag fresh all this time, but let’s not push it.

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I also hope that the show learns to focus its efforts a little without losing its fast pace. An animated show is able to move more briskly than live action, obviously, but sometimes Ugly Americans will spread itself too thin. Like it did this week.

Still, the best episodes have been really sharp, so there’s enough potential here that I’m looking forward more to the return of Ugly Americans than South Park’s umptillionth-plus-one season. (Whether we’ll be recapping the former remains an open question. Am I the only one loving this show?)

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Stray observations:

— I really dig the fiery presentation of the episode title after the cold open.

— “Look, they have Orangina! That’s weird for a limo, right?”

— “I write a freelance advice column for transgendered mummies in South America. Most of their questions are just about moisture.”

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— The dark colors on Ugly Americans, especially the browns and blues, flicker in a distracting way. It seems like an animation glitch, and it doesn’t happen on just my T.V. (Yeah, it bugged me so much that I checked.) Does anyone else notice this?

— “HOW ARE YOUR GENITAAAAAALLLLS?”

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