A couple of weeks ago, Tablet senior writer Liel Leibovitz wrote an essay complaining about FOX’s Animation Domination Hi-Def block, which premieres tonight. This is, for the most part, the text of a response to that essay which was supposed to go up on Tablet‘s The Scroll blog sometime this week. I’m not really sure why it didn’t, but I wanted a space to put this because I put some work into it and because that essay (like a lot of Tablet‘s other television coverage) is really, really bad. It probably won’t be hard to tell which changes were made between last Friday and now (it’s a lot less professional now). Enjoy your already out-of-date essay!
Animation Domination Hi-Def, FOX’s new Saturday night animation block is set to premiere tonight. For the most part, it looks pretty good. But Tablet senior writer Liel Leibovitz felt compelled to write an essay bemoaning ADHD as “idiotic” and “profoundly non-Jewish,” indicative of a deep “artistic” and “moral” decay. Looking at the actual history of television and the content of the targeted series, both of these characterizations are some pretty serious bullshit, and basically the television-writing equivalent of out-of-touch magazine features complaining about millenials.
Start with the “idiotic,” non-artistic charge: The primary substance for this claim appears to be the characterization of ADHD’s spiritual ancestor Adult Swim as “a celebration of the random, the bizarre, and the unpleasantly surreal,” combined with vaguely uncomfortable descriptions of Squidbillies, a single show airing on Adult Swim, and Family Guy, a favorite piñata for people bemoaning the state of television since 2001, and one that doesn’t even air on Adult Swim. Beyond the difficulty in characterizing two blocks of programming based on two shows, it should be obvious someone personally disliking a certain sort of humor doesn’t make it idiotic. Even if you dislike Squidbillies (and I do), surreal humor can be done well (on Childrens Hospital, for example) and poorly, just like the sort of broad, often trite, hacky humor prevalent on the classic sitcoms Leibovitz idealizes.
Now the immoral, “non-Jewish,” label. The basis for this claim seems to be that ADHD, Adult Swim, and their ilk ignore building communities and the spirituality of “everyday moments” (the way shows like The Golden Girls supposedly did), while celebrating “personal incoherences” in a way that somehow contributes to artistic and moral decay. This claim is worth unpacking: It demonstrates at best a hand-waving, convenient forgetting of much of television history. Not every classic sitcom is The Golden Girls—something like Married… With Children could be just as cynical and dismissive of moral communities. There’s also a much better example of this “moral” problem than Family Guy: One of the most popular “old-fashioned” sitcoms currently running, Two And A Half Men. Again, this should not be difficult, but the form does not dictate “ethical” value.
Meanwhile, Leibovitz’s targets—animation in general and Adult Swim in particular—frequently feature this sort of engagement with moral community. The Simpsons, of course, is fundamentally soft at its core, give or take a Frank Grimes, while King Of The Hill, with its humane focus on far more realistic characters than the wealthy, carefree characters expected on a sitcom set in a rural Texas town, might actually be the best show in television history at accomplishing what Leibovitz seems to want out of his programming. Some Adult Swim shows might be too random for Leibovitz’s taste, but series like The Boondocks, The Venture Bros, and especially Moral Orel succeed in asking serious, moral questions while arguing for the necessity of some sort of (healthy) community. Axe Cop, one of the shows actually airing in the ADHD block, is based on a webcomic written by a child that inspired an entire community of its own.
Axe Cop might actually have been the worst target possible for Leibovitz’s criticism: Where some shows might wink ironically at the audience, Axe Cop plays it almost completely straight because stuff like a fighting werechihuahua is awesome damn it. Sunday’s premiere does an excellent job of showcasing the literally child-like wonder that fuels its artistic sensibility. In the episode, not only does Axe Cop (Nick Offerman) use a rented dinosaur horn to summon an army of dinosaurs, he drives off a badass ramp to get to space. And in a bit of particularly poor luck for Leibovitz, the episode’s loose focus is precisely on the power of communities as Axe Cop helps Bat Warthog Man (Vincent Kartheiser) find his missing friends because losing your friends is the worst thing ever. Hopefully, Axe Cop will continue to capture that sensibility – one where chopping an evil zombie’s head off with an axe is just plain awesome, rather than ironic or at all detached from pure joy. The show’s wholehearted embrace of sincere love for things like zombie decapitation or flying fire-breathing dinosaurs might actually be a deterrent to the sort of moral decay Leibovitz seems to be worried about.
But more importantly, “personal incoherences,” or “individuality,” as it might be more charitably described, is not only an important artistic value; it’s a very Jewish one as well. Having strong individual identities (characters, so to speak) is part of what has allowed Jews to thrive as a group, without being fully distinct or fully assimilated. Communities don’t function because everyone is the same—they function because everyone is different. In this case, the broader community is everything airing on television, from Mad Men to Axe Cop. ADHD and Adult Swim can coexist on television with however many family sitcoms that survive the aging of the form. With that in mind, it might make sense to convey the lesson that a kid can like animated shows about an awesome cop with an axe without somehow being alienated from the rest of his community.