By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The specific marvelous and not unfriendly place Downtown focuses upon is Manhattan below 14th Street, where dawdle seven fairly realistic cartoon members of the I'm All Like WhateverGeneration and a slightly older guy named Goat, who brews something called Goat's Bladder Cork Ale in his bathtub and has elastic ideas about property and theft. Lingering between inexperience and independence, they are barely out of school and yet already nostalgic for their departing youth and literally unable to put away childish things: Alex and Jen (Downtown's Dawson and Joey -- which is to say, its geeky lead and acerbic soul) spend a clandestine afternoon in his crappy new apartment, playing Tiny Toadstools and Dinosaur Dentist and other convincingly invented tot games of the 1980s.
As high concept, you can read the show a number of ways: as an animated version of Slacker, or of its late illegitimate MTV offspring, Austin Stories; or a younger, grittier and ethnically heterogeneous Friends; or a cartoon Real World -- inspiration and details having reportedly been taken from kid-on-the-street interviews -- where the toilet won't work. Granted that television shows about young people in New York are rapidly becoming legion (see: Felicity; Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane; Jennifer Love
Hewitt's upcoming Party of Five spinoff, Time of Your Life; Kevin Williamson's upcoming Wasteland; and a few upcoming series more), and that Downtown does not hesitate to go where other coming-of-age comedies have gone before, it's nevertheless assured and individual enough to make even received ideas its own.
It helps, of course, that it's a cartoon -- that sets it off immediately -- and can go where it wants without city
permits or regard to, you know, reality, or time, or space. What the animation in Downtown lacks in expensive fluidity (TV cartoons being in every case a matter of distracting the viewer from the economy of their creation), it makes up for in energetic line and intelligent framing -- it has somewhat the look of an underground comic, appropriately -- and the extravagance of its visual free associations: The show shifts adroitly, and continually, from outer life to inner, from present to past and from snapshot to metaphor, visualizing reminiscences and fantasies, literalizing puns, illuminating inner thoughts and sometimes contradictory subtexts. (When Alex and Jen begin to argue over their games, for instance, the colors heat up and their toys begin to morph into monsters around them.) This keeps things lively, even when the characters are just hanging out. And its hand-rendering of New York -- rough and painterly, smudged yet specific, impressionistic but accurate -- trumps even the best-dressed backlot: Like everything else here, it glows with love.
WHILE MTV CONTINUES TO WANDER OUTSIDE ITS original charter and create shows that have nothing especially (or at all) to do with music, its sister station, VH1, adapting old TV forms to rock-related use, slouches toward full-service programming with a pair of original biopics, Ricky Nelson and Sweetwater, essentially dramatized extensions of its semitrashy and almost completely irresistible Behind the Musicand Where Are They Now?rockumentary series. (Neither film reached here by "press time," but Sweetwater, the story of a late-'60s also-ran rock band, I am especially looking forward to, not least because it stars Pink Power Ranger Amy Jo Johnson, more lately of Felicity, and Kelli Williams of The Practice, and for the chance to hear "I'm in a Rainbow" again.) Random Play, a music-themed sketch comedy, is, meanwhile, the network's "first fully scripted series," and it's not a bad start at all. If the constitution of its troupe of talented players -- you may remember Michael Ian Black as Viva Variety! cohost Johnny Blue Jeans, and Nancy Walls from the 1995-96 season of Saturday Night Live -- runs in some ways unfortunately to form (more men than women, a lone black guy: what we call Garrett Morris Syndrome), at least there seems to be a blessed absence of recurring characters. (And that means: no catch phrases!) And, indeed, the show is, like, 70 percent dang funny -- about twice the success rate of SNL -- and better informed about its
subject than pop parody usually is. Priceless moments include a perfectly rendered commercial for a Behind the Musickids' board game ("Get caught with smack in my bum at the airport? What does thatmean?" "I don't know. But you just lost a turn!"), a recruiting pitch for the Kiss Army Reserve, and an ad for Roadies: The Musical ("Gonna tune up this ax/Gonna crank up these stacks/To the max"). On the whole, I like the idea of such site-specific series, and imagine with keen anticipation the first Home & Garden Television cop show, a Playboy Channel alien-conspiracy drama and a C-SPAN sitcom -- that shit could use a laugh track.
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