Pop revenge fantasies, from heroic to ironic

Mike Hale / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 24, 2013 at 05:00AM

“Axe Cop” and “High School USA!” 11 p.m. Saturday, Fox

It’s probably in the nature of short-form animation to be hit or miss. The bars for entry in terms of money, technology and résumé are relatively negotiable. And when you’re making 10-minute cartoons for less than it costs just to pay the voice cast of “The Simpsons” for an episode, it’s easier to throw stuff up on the wall and see if it adheres.

That dynamic is evident in Fox’s late-night Animation Domination High-Def programming block. “Axe Cop,” based on a popular Internet comic created by the brothers Malachai and Ethan Nicolle when they were 5 and 29, respectively; and “High School USA!,” created and written by Dino Stamatopoulos, best known for playing the disreputable Star-Burns on “Community.”

“High School USA!,” a broad and dull spoof of the Archie gang, slides down the wall quickly. Stamatopoulos’ humor in the premiere episode last week, a satire of the anti-bullying movement, feels unfocused and past its expiration date — there’s funny business involving emoticons, girls’ kissing and the meaning of “ironic,” none of it very funny.

Of course when the Betty and Veronica characters, now named Cassandra and Amber, make out at the diner, it’s a reminder that the whole point of late-night animation is to get young men to watch television. Likewise the moment involving the Reggie character, a steroidal jock named Brad, beating up a nerd who voluntarily sticks his head through a hole in a men’s room stall. Not much glory for Fox there.

The tone-deafness of Stamatopoulos’ attempt to lampoon both bubbleheaded modern thinking and afterschool-special preachiness comes through in this exchange after one of Brad’s Neanderthal pronouncements: “That sounds a little rapey, Brad.”

“No, it’s worse than rape, Amber. Brad’s a bully.”

Happily, “High School USA!” is balanced by “Axe Cop,” based on the Nicolle brothers’ characters but written by Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein. It’s a nonsensical but inventive and purely entertaining takeoff on superhero tales, with the ax-wielding protagonist and his buddies — Flute Cop, Bat Warthog Man, Army Chihuahua — battling buglike aliens and a building-sized villain to rescue Bat Warthog Man’s friends, who turn out to be the cast of a fondly remembered TV show.

“Axe Cop,” based on the imaginings of a 5-year-old boy, combines sophomoric body-function humor with a dream-logic approach to storytelling. Into 10 minutes, the pilot packs Axe Cop’s back story, surreal digressions explaining the histories of other characters, and a full-fledged rescue mission involving flying, brain-eating dinosaurs. The animation is serviceable, and the show gets a vital boost from the voice performance of Nick Offerman, whose mock solemnity works as well for a mildly fascistic superhero as it did for a middle-American bureaucrat in “Parks and Recreation.”

Fox will introduce more series as time goes on, some of which may move away from the relatively straightforward narrative styles of “Axe Cop” and “High School USA!” They probably won’t stray into the sometimes Dada-like regions explored on cable by Adult Swim’s short-form animated series, however, even though Fox has brought in an Adult Swim alumnus, Nick Weidenfeld, to run this new block. (High-Def does produce looser, more experimental work, which can be seen at Fox’s website.

Weidenfeld was involved in some good shows at Adult Swim, including “Children’s Hospital,” “Black Dynamite” and “The Boondocks,” which might bode well for the Fox project, depending on how much freedom (and money) a broadcast network is really willing to give him. Maybe he can even manage to change the unwieldy and ugly label Animation Domination High-Def, or ADHD, the only title I can think of that combines an existing corporate trademark with a punning reference to a chan).

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