Streaming overlords sign Channing Tatum to teach us something.
Ever since animation has been targeted at children, adults have thought it would be really cool if it was aimed at them instead. Once regulated to a late-night programming block of the Cartoon Network and a sub-genre of pornography, adult animated series are everywhere and chock full of the kinds of celebrities who were once called upon only to phone in performances on things like Shark Tale every so often. Adam Reed’s Archer has become a sweet moneymaker on FX and Raphael Bob-Waksberg Bojack Horseman has done massive inroads to make Netflix seem hip and with it. Which is probably why Netflix, per Deadline, has just signed on the voice of Channing Tatum to star in an animated movie penned by Dave Callaham, proud writer of “Untitled Zombieland Sequel,” which has yet to hit theaters. His feature-length movie for Netflix will be called America: The Motion Picture.
Matt Thompson, who is directing, is signed to Floyd County Productions, the same company handles Archer along with two animated programs on FX that were canceled after a single season. Like the Cold War theatrics of the first few seasons of Archer, America: The Motion Picture will, at least partially, take place in the past but will, instead, concern itself with what Deadline has agreed to call an “R-Rated revisionist history.” Channing Tatum’s voice, for instance, will perform as George Washington, the celebrated honest lumberjack who will be narrating Callaham’s journey into the caverns of American history. This is smart: revisionist history is the new grunge and plaids, everyone and their mother is into it.
Where previously the domain of either presidential advisor Alex Jones or one-time shots on TV shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or The Simpsons, blown-out historical fiction is having a moment. Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s insanely popular blockbuster musical, was not just dollars in the bank or Tonys on the wall but generated a response in the greater discourse that dwarfed similar popular reto-bangs like Les Mis or, I dunno, any of those musicals about newspapers that I assume takes place in the past because newspapers. Academics loved it. Our erstwhile President loved it. Our serial monogamist Vice President went to it.
Similar success, if on a smaller scale, was awarded to Derek Waters’ Drunk History, a popular Comedy Central series with many celebrity guest stars with a comic take on the American history book. While some academics have made the case for Hamilton’s intelligence and insightful commentary on history and its consumers (and others, the opposite), Drunk History was able to evade that level of scrutiny. A thinly veiled knockoff of Waters’ program debuted last year on network television, Julius Sharpe’s Making History. “I am an easy mark for this kind of stuff,” Robert Lloyd of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “I found myself happy watching Making History without feeling the need to make a case for its brilliance, depth or strength of satire.”
Both adult animation and comical historic narratives share similar appeals: a folksy history lesson reminds viewers of the elementary classroom; cartoons remind viewers of the hours spent afterward, the episodes of SpongeBob or Arthur watched in the living room Of course, both SpongeBob and Arthur have been recontextualized as “dirtier” in their popular memory and its telling, in kind, that many popular adult animated shows, like BoJack Horseman or Archer, emphasize their interest in sexual comedy. Archer’s many longstanding bits like “Phrasing” or “Just the tip” are sexual innuendos that, in some sense, reflect back on themselves as salacious language hiding everyday usage, jokes with punchlines that are themselves fundamentally ironic. Less sophisticated offerings like Steve Dildarian’s The New V.I.P.s, which is airing as part of Amazon’s Pilot Season and which I’ve reviewed, draw out dicks and point at them.
Which is not to say that an adult animated program has to pretend its breaking some kind of boundary of the late-Victorian era or Hays Code in order to qualify for the quantifier “adult.” Don Hertzfeldt’s work, which many people in glasses like myself regularly enjoy, is mostly about death. And Bob’s Burgers, a show that I find to be the only thing in the world that’s possibly too twee but our Francesca Fau really likes, is earnest stuff. Adult comedy has already had a moment, about a decade and a half ago, when South Park was being commonly consumed as serious business and Seth MacFarlane was given lots of money.
While that burnt out fast than you can say The Cleveland Show, its revival comes in the guise of even more curious nostalgia. In a time when making meaningful commentary of political reality has become agonizing, not even Alec Baldwin wants to do it anymore, the retreat into a past stripped of its context makes a strong sell. People of all ages and races can find humor in, say, the wedding politics of Alexander Hamilton or the drunken ramblings of Benjamin Franklin on cable television. And, in casting living cartoon Channing Tatum as a cartoon, Netflix will savvily hit its audience over the head with everything its audience wants, like an episode of House of Cards that features Robin Wright negotiating with insidiously sincere terrorists. Yay.