Aside from its more obvious shortcomings (dull; unfunny), Fox’s new Sunday night cartoon “Napoleon Dynamite” makes a critical error in pop-cultural calculus: It’s been nearly eight years since the charmingly weird movie version took theatergoers by surprise with its portrait of the banal life of an oddball teenager in the rural West. “Napoleon Dynamite” became a sure but steady hit, culminating in a whole lot of “Vote for Pedro” ringer-T’s back when John Kerry was trying to unseat President George W. Bush. Kids walked around bragging, Napoleon-style, about their nunchuck skills.
But eight years is both too long to capitalize on an initial trend and yet too soon to partake in a 2004 retro movement. Nostalgia for the early-to-mid ’00s doesn’t exist yet, so what’s Napoleon Dynamite doing here in 2012? He’s not ready for a return; the timing is exactly wrong.
Overseen by the film’s director and with the main characters being voiced by their original actors (including Jon Heder in the title role), “Napoleon Dynamite” arrives entirely intact: Napoleon still attends high school in a year that could be 1983 or 1995 or 2000-something. Part of the quirkiness of this story is that you never quite know when it takes place, which is meant to approximate the backwater quality of life in a small Idaho town called Preston, which exudes a vaguely Mormonland vibe of permanent out-of-the-loopness.
If you’ll recall, Napoleon lives on the edge of town with his socially-stunted older brother, Kip, their surly grandmother and a rambunctious llama. At school, Napoleon’s only friends are Pedro, a Mexican immigrant, and Deb, an enterprising nerdette. Napoleon’s days are an ever-unfolding series of awkward moments, few of which he’s entirely self-aware. I always wondered if “Napoleon Dynamite” was a metaphorical exploration of the nation’s burgeoning autism spectrum.
In the first episode of the new series, Napoleon combats an outbreak of forehead pimples with a prescription for a recently outlawed topical cream called “rackutane,” the side-effects of which turn him into a hormonal rage machine. This changes the dynamic in P.E., where Napoleon is made to wear antlers for a game of “smear the deer” and accept physical abuse and taunts from classmates. (“Can Pedro be my sentinel?” Napoleon asks before the coach blows the start whistle.) Fortified with rackutane, Napoleon emerges victorious and catches the eye of a local fight club, which schedules him to do battle in a secret grain silo known as the Thundercone.
While animation liberates Napoleon and his world from the usual physical restrictions, it somehow lessens the overall appeal of the character and setting. I still like the idea of Napoleon Dynamite, but he’s best left where we found him.
Which, if you’re keeping score, means another dud for Fox’s once vaunted animation lineup on Sundays. Where “The Simpsons” and Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy,” etc., still reign, the network has had a lousy time finding that neat, new thing that will startle fans of edgy cartoons.
The entire genre exudes fatigue, brought on partly by the fact that these shows all seem sprung from a hypermale hive mind that keeps producing the same look, attitude and jokes for such shows. Lately, only Comedy Central’s “Ugly Americans” and HBO’s “The Ricky Gervais Show” have made me laugh. I long for something tawdry and entirely new — and perhaps Fox does, too, having announced a few days ago that it will be developing more adult-leaning cartoons for its networks. May I suggest that none of them be about teenage boys, outre families or secret agents? (Tall order, I know.)
On that note, FX is premiering “Unsupervised” Thursday night, which I’m sorry to say is about two shiftless, sex-obsessed teenage boys up to no good — what, again? The two boys, Gary and Joel, are voiced by Justin Long and creator/executive producer David Hornsby. Gary’s parents leave him alone for days and weeks at a time; Joel lives with grandparents who are too old to notice him. The point is that the boys have to rely on each other, not only for friendship, but for other things — such as when Gary uses the money his stepmom left for food to buy Joel some much-needed new underwear.
But “Unsupervised” doesn’t explore emotional story threads. It’s mainly a “Beavis and Butt-head” echo, which seems extra repetitive given that MTV recently resurrected those two and added a cartoon called “Good Vibes,” which, when boiled down to its gym-sock odoriferousness, is merely about misfit teenage boys, their roiling hormones and fart jokes.
That still leaves “Archer,” FX’s Thursday night cartoon about an inept spy agency — it’s like “Get Smart” with a much fouler mouth — which returns for a third season Thursday night.
I wasn’t taken with “Archer” when it first started. I think its jokes are predictable and its ’60s-era styling is tired, but the show’s fans keep tempting me back with their tweeted huzzahs. The season premiere (featuring the guest voice of Burt Reynolds, as himself) still failed to rouse me, even though a typical episode of “Archer” is admittedly laced with a hilariously coarse insult or two — none of which are printable here.
My continued disappointment in the latest crop of cartoons leads to some unsettling questions to ask myself: Am I too old to enjoy them? Is being stoned a viewing prerequisite? Is there some nuanced humor contained in them that I’m simply missing? Whether I’m dense or just disheartened, I still believe there’s an essential creative inertia right now in the animated TV market, in which everything looks and sounds too much like what’s come before. I still crave cartoons, and I’m delighted when they successfully test the boundaries of taste. Someone needs to come along and start completely over, with a fresh piece of paper and an original line of ink.
(30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 8:30 p.m., with a second episode airing at 9:30 p.m., after “Family Guy.”
(30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 10:30 p.m. on FX.
(30 minutes) returns Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX.