Now that was a funny episode of Unsupervised. The skunk stripe on Principal Stark’s car, the Latina Rollers winnowing down to just Megan and Danielle, delightful Brian-isms like “Well, spackle me in shit and call me a rose.” I can’t stop. Darius’ “chat” with Rolo, Rusty’s running affair with a nest, Brian popping out his dentures. “Black Squirrels” is chockablock with funny character details. I complained last week about the jokes being repetitive, a “That’s so Joel” style of comedy that doesn’t really illuminate anything. That’s still basically true: The jokes are that Rusty is hopelessly disgusting, Darius is white-bread, Megan is luckless. But Unsupervised is only barely serialized, which is to say it’s not really about traditional character development. The characters are who they are for each basically-standalone episode. So I ought to modify that silly complaint: It wasn’t that the jokes last week were second-tier for not exploring new sides of the characters. It’s that, whether through low quality or low density, they don’t quite pull you through the whole episode. In “Black Squirrels,” on the other hand, the cushion is the best part.
Basically, “Black Squirrels” is a prison-movie pastiche slash security-state parody that starts with the return of Joel’s toothless felon brother Brian. It’s structured so neatly I have this strange urge to go buy gold star stickers. Act one takes Brian from down-and-out townie to gainfully employed head of Maynord High security. Act two sees his reign of terror and the expulsion of Gary and Joel. Act three hosts their revolt. Megan and Danielle decide to join a gang, they’re underwhelmed by gang life, and they wind up the lone Latina Rollers. Darius gets his brooch back, loses his “For Ladies” lotion, grits his teeth through the new order. Principal Stark follows the same basic path as Brian, only she gets off scot-free. “Black Squirrels” is as neatly structured as episodes get.
The point is impossible to miss because Gary and Joel underline every little message multiple times. Don’t get me wrong: Gary and Joel underline every message in every episode; that’s part of the after-school special charm. When Gary explains the optimistic ideal behind their riot, it’s so perfectly textbook that I had to smile: “When the warden’s rules become crippling, the prisoners rebel and a more democratic regime takes its place.” It’s just that “Black Squirrels” is particularly insistent on explaining itself, especially at the ending. With the school now ruled by some street-level version of the Patriot Act, parental complaints finally get through to the superintendent. He bursts through the door to save the day, upon which our heroes exposit that there is a higher-up above Principal Stark after all. He summarily fires Brian and decrees that nobody ever mention Brian's ill-fated regime again, and our heroes make multiple comments about the injustice and corruption of the school (read: legal) system. A little underlining is essential to Unsupervised. This much is getting insulting.
But who cares? That “Black Squirrels” has an animating idea at all is sufficient for a good body of comedy, and this is a funny piece of work with material to spare. All four regulars, Principal Stark, and Guest Character Of The Week get basic arcs. Rusty has a series of funny sidelines shenanigans, especially once his glasses are confiscated and he can’t see, mistaking a trash can for Darius and tying himself to a fence just to have some stability. Danielle provides some more Latina gang jokes, dying her hair black and making plans to hit up a tanning salon. Jojo has this great opening bit where he wheels into school with a fractured pelvis, embarrassed at Joel and Gary’s enthusiastic appreciation of his endurance. You get the rare sense that the whole Maynord ecosystem is reacting to the increased levels of violence, not just the freaks and geeks who get the most screen-time.
And the prison-movie riff, with its grungy details (poison ivy as rape prevention) and cynical perspective (Brian assuming he’ll be back soon enough), is right up the show’s alley, as it were. It’s a low-rent genre, and it wouldn’t be complete without Joel’s take on “This corruption goes all the way to the top.” Brian diving into a river of shit for no reason is a particularly Unsupervised version of The Shawshank Redemption. It’s a play on a scene about determination and hope, only it’s a scene of failure and a dead end. If that isn’t the heart of Unsupervised, I don’t know what is.
- The increased security at Maynord comes from increasing violence. “Some teacher got stabbed in the ass by a compass last week”
- Joel has a very effective anti-intruder device. He flails about screaming, “Prowler alert! A prowler! A prowler!”
- I’ll try to limit my Principal Stark quoting, but she has such a way with words. “As eager as I am to bring a toothless felon onto my staff . . .”
- The scene where Brian fellates the gun, cocks it, and dares Darius’ thief to fire is legitimately intense. I mean, I know that Brian probably isn’t going to get his head blown off in close-up, animated or not, but it’s such an unpredictable sequence that logic is cold comfort.
- Upon finding Gary and Joel in her office trying to start a riot, Principal Stark shouts to Brian, “Kill them! I don’t know how. It just felt right, so I said it. Is it such a crazy idea?”