Courtesy Cartoon Network
Television is many things, some of which are not even bad for you. But one thing it is rarely is lovely to behold. The dry visual protocols set in place in the medium’s infancy, when screens were small and pictures black and white and the spatial template was the vaudeville stage, still hold sway to a remarkable degree. The TV image is typically flat and overlit — all the more so with the proliferation of “reality” programs, tabloid talk shows and cheap documentaries — which makes it easy to see but hard to regard. Composition is merely functional. Color, when it arrived, was a miracle sufficient unto itself, and its expressive potential was never really explored: The idea wasn’t to be arty, but actual. Even now, with HDTV nipping at your nose, most television is pictorially neutral — reined in by factory economics, making almost all its points through speech and broad action. In lieu of pretty pictures it gives you pretty people, which is not necessarily such a bad thing, he said, thinking of Lauren Graham. Oh, and Alyson Hannigan. And Stockard Channing, for that matter. As usual, there are exceptions to prove the rule: The X-Files and its respect for shadow and light and atmosphere; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, whose grainy, oversaturated look suggests too many hours on the Las Vegas Strip; Nike ads; cartoons.
Samurai Jack, which concerns a temporally displaced wandering warrior and the world-ruling demon he is sworn to destroy, is the new cartoon from Genndy Tartakovsky, the inventor of Dexter’s Laboratory and co-developer of The Powerpuff Girls, and on the evidence of its first two hours, it is the most beautiful thing on TV; certainly it’s the most impressive new show Cartoon Network has fielded in a while. It’s no knock to Dexter’s or Powerpuff to say that the series seems “cinematic” in relation to other TV cartoons in the same way The Sopranos does to other hourlong TV dramas. For all that the animation is, as they say, “limited,” it packs in more ideas than the last six Disney features combined, and if not all or even very many of these ideas are completely original — I see midcentury travel posters, Little Golden Books, 1950s Disney educational shorts like Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, the minimalist battle-choreography of anime — they seem fresh and electric as recombined or repackaged or reinvented here. (Like many animated series in the post–Ren & Stimpy televerse, Samurai Jack is steeped in the extravagant curves and jagged edges of postwar design.) One less obvious influence on the show is David Lean, whose Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago Tartakovsky watched for lessons in composition — the image is sometimes “letterboxed” — and mood, and in telling stories with pictures. Many cartoons are only decorated talk, after all — the drawings just indicate who’s making the noise. But here, every frame glimmers with ambition and delight.
Though not made as Art — Tartakovsky just calls Samurai Jack “a highly stylized action show” — the show is certainly artistic, and feels different from any other cartoon on TV. Higher-toned, somehow. Eight degrees more finely crafted. Still, the look of the show is cartoony largely in the loony sense; its jaunty abstractions share an aesthetic with Dexter’s and Powerpuff. What’s different is its application to a “serious” extended story, and the level of pictorial refinement: a more than usual emphasis on painterly effects, on chiaroscuro and texture and reflections and refractions of light. By eliminating the black outlines that traditionally bind and define cartoons and leaving the screen a place of colored shapes and painterly effects, Tartakovsky and company — most notably including background artists Dan Krall (who draws them) and Scott Wills (who colors them) — achieve something more obviously akin to illustration or studio art.
Plotwise as artwise, the show is a blend of familiar ingredients. Tartakovsky, who is just a hair past 30, is a Star Wars baby and has steeped his creation in The Hero With a Thousand Faces as distilled by George Lucas: “Let the sword guide you to your fate, but let your mind set free the path to your destiny,” Jack’s father advises him, sounding every bit the Obi-Wan Kenobi. Jack is also Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (Jack is not actually his name), with similar close attention paid to his eyes. So far the series has mostly played repeating variations on the old reliable cowboy-samurai theme of the oppressed liberated from their opressors by a taciturn wanderer, efficiently but never gratuitously violent, who like Shane then moves on. (As in grown-up movies, violence is also an excuse for prettiness.) There is relatively little dialogue, which in some ways is just as well — when characters do speak, they tend to say things like “There is no escape!” and “What trickery is this?” and “Now, demon, with the blessings of righteousness and the power of the sacred blade, I cast thee back to the vile pit from which you came.” Occasionally they do have intentionally funny things to say (“Even dogs should not be forced to live like dogs,” swears Jack), but the comedy is largely visual and small and silent: It’s not quite right to call it Chaplinesque, but it’s not quite wrong, either.
Samurai Jack begins with the return to troublemaking of a shape-shifting demon named Aku (voiced with ancient weariness by the familiar character actor Mako, whose film career runs from The Sand Pebbles to Pearl Harbor, and who is also the main title narrator on Dexter’s), a black, splendid creature with flamelike beard and eyebrows. Baby Jack, whose father had imprisoned Aku in a tree stump, is spirited away from “Japan” and enrolled in a kind of multicultural hero-training program that takes him from mentor to mentor around the world, and apparently through time — Robin Hood is coeval with ancient Egypt. This long “origin” sequence, which is without dialogue — but with a descriptive musical soundtrack, and sound effects that have the timbre and timing of music — feels designed no more for the narrative than for the graphic opportunities, to let the artists play with an international panoply of color and shape and iconic images, to paint idols and animals, pyramids and coliseums, storms and snow, Greek wrestlers and African runners, Viking longboats and Chinese junks. Finally Jack comes home to claim a magic sword and kick some supernatural ass, but before he can finish the job Aku opens a hole in time, through which the samurai falls, landing in a distant future where the demon rules all; his image even advertises soft drinks and fast food. It’s a motley world, playful and horrible, in which everything is allowed because anything can be drawn. There are talking dogs — the descendants of the Powerpuff Girls’ Talking Dog — three-eyed go-go dancers, destroyer beetle drones, myriad extraterrestrials (in a virtual remake of Star Wars’ cantina scene), and who knows what other creatures to come. Jack’s goal is to get back to where he once belonged, to go back in time to change the future, but the show won’t let him, of course, and a good thing, too: There aren’t many series on television this clearly made with love. I hope he doesn’t get home anytime soon.
The beholding of the lovely is at the heart of Sister Wendy’s American Collection, wherein Sister Wendy Beckett, the art-explicating little old South African nun, tours six stateside museums, among them our own LACMA. “All art comes from love,” says Sister Wendy (quoting David Hockney), and she returns the favor — she’s an amateur in the French sense. A tiny mound of black moving on invisible feet through this gallery and that, she looks from afar a little like Cousin It, and it is amusing, because surprising, to hear her speak of melon breasts and strong young male bodies, to mouth the word dominatrix or demonstrate a rude Italian hand gesture. It’s not quite that nothing human is strange to her — she’ll tell you when something is — but that her natural curiosity and actual Christian humility keep her fair and flexible. Hers is a more than ecumenical respect — empathy might be a better word — not only for the religious ideas of other cultures (though she does have a little trouble with pre-Colombian blood sacrifice), but for all the many varieties of art: The folk, the Baroque, the representational, the abstract — she takes it all on, and in. Her readings are close, her gloss is always personal (“You’ll not be surprised to hear I’ve a theory of my own”) and never less than interesting. Best of all, though, is her rapture in the presence of beauty — not the usual stuff of television, and all the more welcome for it.
SAMURAI JACK Cartoon Network Mondays, 8 p.m.
SISTER WENDY’S AMERICAN COLLECTION | PBS | Premieres Wednesday, September 5, 8 p.m.