Nick Offerman, brain-eating dinosaurs, and the wild world of Fox's late-night animation

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Image Credit: Fox; (inset) NBC

Not many TV shows were specifically designed for the way many of us watch television today—namely, by watching for ten minutes on our iBrains, making GIFs of the best scenes, then flipping to the next show while we fight about the last one on Twitter. But Fox’s new Animation Domination High Def lineup, a late-night block of cartoons that premieres Saturday night, couldn’t be more suited to this kind of short-attention-span theater: the acronym spells out ADHD for a reason. The first two shows in the series, Axe Cop and High School USA!, are flat-screen-ready in all their two-dimensional glory, and they’re only ten minutes long (not counting commercials), so they’re grouped into a brightly-colored, highly-imaginative half-hour showcase that should appeal to children, stoners, and anyone else who can appreciate the appeal of Parks and Recreation‘s Nick Offerman playing an axe-wielding cop who fights bad guys by getting dinosaurs to eat their brains. (More on that later.) Through the ADHD web site, which was designed by the awesomely primitivist, neon-loving art collective Paper Rad, you can create your own GIFs with the ghost of Steve Jobs or watch any number of deeply strange and funny animated shorts. (My personal favorite is called “Gosh Josh! Weird Beard!”) Or if you’re an old person like me, you can just blow the archeological-dig dust off your remote control and watch ADHD on an actual television set during its intended time slot, just like our ancestors did.

Not too long ago, Fox led the charge in making cutting-edge cartoons. But now that Adult Swim regularly churns out innovative series like the existential stop-motion saga Morel Orel and the blaxploitation saga Black Dynamite: The Animated Series, Fox classics like The Simpsons and Family Guy look quaint by comparison. So it makes sense that Fox tapped Adult Swim’s Nick Weidenfeld, who produced Morel, Dynamite, and cult hits like Childrens Hospital, to run its ADHD block, with Adult Swim alumnus Dinos Stamatopoulos (that’s Star-Burns to you Community fans) creating one of its first shows. High School USA! is an Archie spoof that’s updated for Millennials, complete with sexting jokes, teenage girls who are BFFs with their moms, and that special brand of rah-rah enthusiasm that can only belong to a generation raised on whole-wheat Cheerios cereals and self-esteem.

The casting is inspired: Mad Men‘s Vincent Kartheiser plays popular slickster Marsh. (He also plays Wart Hog Man on Axe Cop.) Mandy Moore goes full blonde as the ditzy Cassandra. New Girl‘s Jake Johnson pops up as the overenthusiastic high school principal. And they’re joined by the rest of The Gang: Blackstein (essentially, the black, Jewish Jughead), Amber (the Asian Veronica to Cassandra’s Betty), and Brad (who’s exactly like Reggie, except he gets caught masturbating more often). Spoofing their relentless and clueless cheer should make for good comedy, and occasionally, it does. Angry that Cassandra refused to wear an outfit that matches her own because it’s not “original,” Amber scoffs, “My way of being original is dressing exactly like someone else. No one else does that.” But mostly, these characters can’t hide the fact that they’re speaking in the voice of older, bitter writers who just want to poke fun at the youngs and the dumbs. One episode focuses on high school boys who send out selfies of their manly bits; it ends with one student getting cancer of the, er, groin, and dying. Another finds Marsh defending Brad for punching nerdier kids, in a lecture that upends the usual anti-bullying propaganda. “If I grew up with [Brad’s] loud, fat mom, I’d probably take it out on someone weaker than me, too,” he explains. Yikes. Apparently, the only people getting bullied here is the same Gen Y demographic that’s supposed to be saving this kind of late-night television.

It’s a good thing that the bummer that is High School USA! can be cured by the zombie-planet-visiting, unicorn-babysitting, dinosaur-riding magic that is Axe Cop. Originally created three years ago as a web comic by 5-year-old Malachi Nicolle, who made up the stories, and his 29-year-old brother Ethan Nicolle, who wrote them down and illustrated Malachi’s ideas, the show is a rare opportunity to marvel at the supernova-inducing weirdness of a young boy’s brain. Characters are either ridiculously literal (Flute Cop is a cop who plays the flute; Unibaby is a baby with a unicorn horn) or totally-bananas insane (Sockarang, voiced by Patton Oswalt, has sock boomerangs for arms, and the Liborg, voiced by the rapper Tyler the Creator, is a cyber-animal that looks like this.) Plots zig-zag around for no reason, changing whenever someone flashes something shiny at Malachi and he gets distracted. In the pilot, Axe Cop (voiced by Offerman) and his partner Flute Cop (Ken Marino) need to rent a dinosaur horn, so naturally, they drive a roller-coaster-like ramp that shoots them into space, where they meet an army-commando chihuahua (Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito) who used to be human. (He can only turn back into a man when he’s not ready to fight, “which is almost never,” brags the tiny dog.) Together, they fight the King of the Bad Guys (you can tell he’s the king because he wears a crown) by summoning a T. Rex to crawl in through the monster’s ear and munch on his grey matter. Yeah, just trust us on that one.

Because the stories are already so crazy, the expository moments are even more hilarious. Axe Cop often feels the need to tell you what’s going on while it’s happening, just as your little brother might, especially if what’s happening is particularly obvious and/or awesome. “This ramp leads to space. And that’s really high,” he tells a friend as they’re careening off the really high part of a space-ramp into space. Another episode shows a British scientist (Megan Mullally, who plays all of the female characters) watching TV when she spots her father on screen. “Daddy!” she screams. “That’s my daddy on the telly, which is what we call a television in London, England.” Even the smaller scenes make for a rich portrait of grade school kids’ priorities. A superhero called Grey Diamond (Rob Heubel) continually tries to talk about his best friend, only to get interrupted by adults who aren’t listening. (Good thing he has his trusty “best-friend-calling watch” with him.) At one point, a giant insect argues with Axe Cop about which is better: soda or juice. Axe Cop: “Who doesn’t love free soda?” Insect: “I only drink juice.” “But soda is better than juice.” “Maybe to you.” “Maybe to everybody.” Offerman’s mock-serious tone just makes the conversation funnier, especially since conversation clearly came straight from the preschool cafeteria table to your ears.

Not everything here requires a grown-up perspective. Hitler keeps a zombie army in space, and one of those zombies “ate the world’s smartest brain” and “took the world’s smartest poop,” resulting in the creation of Dr. Doo Doo, the most dangerous villain in history (well, besides Hitler) who has the power to make his enemies “poop themselves to death.” But even if your tastes are too refined for all that, it’s great fun to hear adult logic getting filtered through a little kid’s mind. When Axe Cop notices that the King of All Bad Guys is snoring, he explains, “He’s asleep, because it’s past his bedtime.” During a revisionist flashback to the Revolutionary War, which features a Paul Revere-like ride on a dinosaur (long story), Axe Cop’s grandfather Book Cop informs the townspeople that “books are for everyone, even girls, even people on the dumb list, like girls.” But speaking for my fellow dumb-listers, who needs books? Cartoons like this are way better. At a time when so many animated series get their biggest laughs with irony, Axe Cop is a feat of pure, spastic joy that’s totally earnest way down in its tiny reptilian heart. And, somehow, that feels brave — or, at least, braver than the same poop jokes you get on South Park.

Follow Melissa Maerz on Twitter at @MsMelissaMaerz

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