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Our Inner Freak

Good Wilt Huntings boy hero Mac with his gang of imaginary friends

In an early scene from the Thanksgiving Day special movie presentation of Cartoon Network’s popular animated series Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, we finally get to meet the grown-up human conjurers of the fantastic, freaky, colorfully grotesque and grotesquely cute creatures who inhabit the charitable Madame Foster’s Victorian shelter. The setting is the eagerly awaited, every-five-years Creator Reunion Picnic, when adults can reconnect with that weird-looking but intensely loyal, um, thing they dreamt up as a needy, chum-challenged kid. Naturally, a lot of them — as with many pets and their owners — look like their inventors. Others, like Foster’s regular Eduardo, a horned ogre whose terrifying hulkiness masks a weepy, thin-skinned nature, grew out of a scared Latina girl’s desire for a protector whose surprising vulnerabilities could conversely teach her to become strong. Now a tough cop with a hilariously itchy ticket-writing finger, Eduardo’s creator is more than happy to play giddy little girl again at the picnic when swept up in Eduardo’s furry purple arms. And as far as I’m concerned, every episode of animator Craig McCracken’s zany, imaginative, wonderful series — though ostensibly made for the 6-to-11 demographic — is a nostalgic plug-in for any grown-up’s pip-squeak past, a time (if your childhood memories are good) of endless adventure, camaraderie and dedicated silliness.

There’s no ecstatic reunion necessary for the show’s two main characters, loner boy Mac and his pellet-shaped, homophonically named alter ego, Bloo, since it was established at the start of the series (it debuted in 2004) that the rambunctious, hedonistic Bloo — forced into Foster’s by parents who believed Mac had outgrown him — can never be adopted by anyone else as long as Mac continues to visit. Still, the incessantly hyper Bloo knows he’s missing out on the day’s particular joy, hilariously whining to his constant companion, “You completely deny me the thrill of a reunion everyone else at Foster’s gets to have every five years.” It’s that kind of intuitively tortured kid logic that’s just one of the reasons this show is so enjoyably, smartly nutty. (One of the best episodes from this season was “Squeeze the Day,” a comic nightmare of free will in which Bloo and Mac found themselves alone while everyone went to the beach, and frenetically tried to assess how to have the most stupendously awesome day of unsupervised frolic imaginable, the endless possibilities nearly driving them mad.)

The reunion movie’s story, however, is less rompish than other Foster’s episodes and — though still funny — more befitting an emotional holiday of distances bridged and hard-won gratitude. It ultimately centers on Wilt, the tall, red, sneakered stick figure with the selfless heart and apologetic nature who was clearly manifested by a basketball-loving child. The problem is that another five years have passed and no one has shown up to visit Wilt, the friendliest and most good-natured of Foster’s denizens. (When anyone brings up his creatorless status to Wilt, the animators finesse a nervous wiggle to his mouth and melancholy flutter to his crooked eye that is, dare I say it, bizarrely moving.)

This time, without telling anyone, Wilt (voiced by Phil LaMarr) sets off on a cross-country trip to track down his creator, leaving his buds back at the home confused, worried and committed to finding their lanky, wayward friend. (The punny title of the movie is Good Wilt Hunting.) Inevitably we learn about Wilt’s own deep-seated regrets, witness the resolution to a long-simmering rivalry with another imaginary friend whose head is a basketball and — yes, fans — find out the origin of his bad eye and missing arm. All in all, even with the show’s usual liberal doses of frenetic humor — my favorite running gag being Bloo’s typically outlandish theory that Wilt is actually on the lam because he’s secretly an underworld criminal — there’s a lovely message about the push and pull of friendship, and the ways to negotiate a world in which we’re often separated by loved ones. The post–10 p.m. Adult Swim bloc may be Cartoon Network’s conveniently segregated playground for more grown-up sensibilities, but shows like Foster’s prove that there can be an artful vibrancy and equally funny snap to the wading-pool hours too.

TBS, syndication home to Sex and the City and eager to position itself as a cable laugh channel, is now trying original half-hour comedies on for size, which, in this treacherous time for the sitcom, might be seen as something foolhardy. The elaborate press materials for the new single-camera comedy My Boys include numerous interviews — with the actors, creator Betsy Thomas, producer Jamie Tarses — in which much is made of how the show, about a cute, single Chicago sportswriter named P.J. (Jordana Spiro) who loves being one of the guys to possibly her own dating detriment, is a “good fit” for the network with the tag line “Very funny.” According to the creative folk, My Boys is a “reverse perspective” on Sex: It’s “real” and “relatable” and not “silly.” It’s got demographic similarities to shows like Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond. What nobody says is whether it’s funny. Doesn’t that have something to do with the success of a comedy? In any case, despite this strange PR tactic, My Boys has easygoing charm and does feel like the amiably shaggy, hit-and-miss basic-cable cousin of a glossy network one-liner factory, its lack of laugh-out-loud moments not so much indicating system failure (the way The Class, for example, lives or dies on its engineered zingers), but suggesting a game plan that aims for calmly assembling a group of occasionally witty characters and hoping you find them likable. And the biggest hurdle has already been met in the casting of Spiro as P.J., a stringy, alto-voiced blonde with an aw-shucks smile and tomboyish gait whom you instantly root for — and instantly feel sorry for, after seeing her being rejected by the handsome new guy (Kyle Howard) for being too sexually aggressive. (Actually, I instantly wanted her to clock him.) Because unlike the often simple-minded bonds between guys — some stats, a pitcher and thee — P.J. has to play many roles within her boy gang: joking beer buddy, mother figure, sister figure (one of the guys is her brother, played by the funny Jim Gaffigan), dating confidante, casual flirt and other-gender enigma. It’s a felicitous enough basis for a comedy, a little uneven so far — the dating-as-baseball-metaphor narration needs to, pardon my extending the metaphor, be benched — but with room to settle into a groove. Then maybe it’ll both fit and be funny.

GOOD WILT HUNTING | Cartoon Network | Thursday, Nov. 23, 7 p.m., with repeats throughout the week

MY BOYS | TBS | premieres Tuesday, Nov. 28, 10 p.m.


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