Animation nation: how Covid fuelled the rise of adult cartoons
If ever the time was ripe to reopen The X-Files yet again, the age of Trump, QAnon and the great 5G conspiracy theory has got to be it. So the fact that Fox executives spent their lockdown developing a new spin-off for the cult 90s show, The X-Files: Albuquerque, is not exactly an unexplained phenomenon. Nor is there much mystery surrounding the absence of Mulder and Scully this time around, Gillian Anderson having rather publicly burned her bridges after the last revival.
What did come as a shock to devoted “X-philes” longing for a return to paranormal investigations and shady government conspiracies was the announcement that instead of a dark, squelchy live-action horror series, Albuquerque will be an adult cartoon written by two veterans of the foul-mouthed, gleefully violent animated sitcom Paradise PD.
In the quarter century since The X-Files debuted, animated adult comedies have become major players in the entertainment landscape. From the wave of late-90s cartoons that made The Simpsons look tame and pedestrian (South Park, Family Guy, King of the Hill) to more recent experimental hits such as Archer and BoJack Horseman, it’s a genre that has steadily grown in popularity.
But is the madcap, potty-mouthed world of adult animation a natural fit for a property that even in its previous spin-offs – the critically acclaimed Millennium and the rather less well-received Lone Gunmen – never strayed too far from the deadpan tone of the original show? The X-Files had a darkly comic streak – and in the hands of its most playful writers delivered some exquisitely funny episodes – but was never cartoonish.
Sceptical Scullies were quick to point out that Albuquerque’s premise, following a team of junior investigators who pick up the cases deemed below Mulder and Scully’s pay-grade, directly contradicts the premise of the original series, which presented the duo as a laughing stock among their non-spooky colleagues – “the FBI’s most unwanted”, as Mulder quips in the opening episode. But for those who still want to believe, another new cartoon has shown the potential of taking a cult TV franchise back to the drawing board – Star Trek: Lower Decks.
A kind of in-house response to The Orville – the nostalgic Trek-adjacent comedy created by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane – Lower Decks follows a team of lowly ensigns serving on board the undistinguished USS Cerritos. Stuffed with in-jokes and meta-references – a recent episode gleefully spoofed the franchise’s cinematic offerings, from the stately grandeur of Robert Wise’s 1979 epic to the showy lens flares of JJ Abrams 2009 blockbuster – it balances its frenzied pace and wacky comedic sensibility with stories that just about fit in with the more grounded live-action Treks that have gone before.
For CBS, Lower Decks has proved the perfect series for the Covid era. Animation work had been going on for a year when the first lockdowns began to take hold in Hollywood, but rather than abandon ship as many live-action shows were forced to do, the team switched seamlessly to working remotely, beaming their computers and office chairs home with them and setting up makeshift recording studios in the house of each cast-member. “Animation is kind of uniquely suited for this moment,” observed showrunner Mike McMahan, a veteran of Adult Swim’s scabrous Back to the Future parody, Rick and Morty.
Such was the success of the new homeworking model that Lower Decks was bumped up the schedule, debuting in the slot originally intended for Star Trek: Discovery’s third season, by now mired in a tortuous post-production period, with editors, musicians and visual-effects artists struggling to coordinate their efforts.
Although animated shows often take years to go from pitch to finished product, they offer a potential buffer against the damage caused by future lockdowns. Already, live-action shows Black-ish and One Day at a Time have turned to animation to put out special post-Covid episodes, following in the footsteps of the Canadian sitcom Corner Gas, which ran for six seasons with flesh-and-blood actors, only to return as a cartoon.
Such an enterprising strategy was, in fact, pioneered by Star Trek back in 1973 when a quirky animated series picked up where the live-action version had left off four years earlier, attempting, sometimes successfully, to condense Trek’s mind-bending morality plays into a child-friendly 22 minutes. Freed of the constraints imposed by human actors’ bodies, the Enterprise now featured a supporting cast of far more exotic aliens, including cat-lady M’Ress (parodied in Lower Decks’ grumpy alleycat doctor, T’Ana) and an orange, six-limbed creature called Arex.
By the late 80s, cartoon spin-offs of popular properties were ten-a-penny, offering kids like me a bewildering array of gateway drugs to movies they had no business watching, at least as far as the BBFC were concerned. My own favourite, The Real Ghostbusters, was probably the least problematic when set alongside the animated adventures of RoboCop and Rambo. At least the Star Wars cartoons captured the family-friendly vibe of the movies – although I can’t help wondering whether the fact that my introduction to that particular franchise came via the animated Ewoks may explain why I ended up a Trekker.
For CBS today, growing the Star Trek audience seems to be a case of divide-and-conquer, with each series skewed toward a different demographic, from the overwrought action-adventure of Discovery to the melancholy drama of Picard. A second animated show, Star Trek: Prodigy, is in development for Nickelodeon, designed to lure a new generation of fans to the 50-year-old franchise. Lower Decks, meanwhile, remains distinctly un-family-friendly, from its comically half-bleeped profanities to explicit moments of violence and gore. Its canon-heavy scripts may prove its geek cred among hardcore Trekkers, but if its wild, irreverent humour can appeal to a broader audience remains to be seen.
Like Star Trek, the original X-Files was a cult show that somehow made it to the mainstream. In embracing a very different tone and style, the new animation will have to balance attracting new fans with not alienating too many old ones. One thing is certain, though. The next time the world shuts down – whether from another deadly pandemic, global conspiracy, or even alien invasion – those of us sheltering at home will need our entertainment more than ever. And by then the fate of our favourite shows may be in the hands of brave FBI agents – or intrepid starship captains – recording their lines from a soundproof pillow-fort in the spare bedroom.