So I Watched: Allen Gregory · 8:07am
So, while I wait for pre readers to give the latest chapter of The Book of Friendship a once-over, I thought I'd do something new. No, don't worry, it's not yet another story I'll take a year to update. This time it's a look at a terrible cartoon!
Man, that picture makes me want to punch something in the face.
So I watched all seven episodes of Allen Gregory a while ago. It came out in 2011, the same year that that cartoon Bob's Burger's came out. I guess FOX was big on trying out a bunch of new shows... I think that's about when they tried that Napoleon Dynamite cartoon. It ran for seven episodes and was cancelled, because everyone hated it. Because it sucked.
What makes it terrible? Where do I start? I mean, there are so many facets to why this thing is terrible, but let's start by explaining the premise.
Jonah Hill is Allen Gregory De Longpre, a pretentious seven-year-old and the son of Richard De Longpre. They live in a penthouse apartment with Richard De Longpre's partner/sex toy Jeremy and their other adopted daughter Julie. However, because there's some kind of unspecified money trouble (unspecified, but implied to be because Richard is an idiot) and Jeremy now has to get a job, Allen Gregory can no longer be homeschooled and has to go to public school, where he has to deal with... school stuff. And he gets hots for the morbidly obese Principal Gottlieb.
Before we go into what, exactly, is wrong with this show, we must first examine the context and attempt to delve into the creator's mind. Looking at an animated sitcom, we see how it fits into your basic Simpsons or Family Guy mold. Richard is the idiot father, Jeremy the hot and reasonable but long-suffering spouse, Allen Gregory the rambunctious kid, and Julie the intelligent kid. Well, it'd probably be more accurate to say that Allen Gregory is essentially Stewie Griffin meets Eric Cartman, minus anything that made those characters funny. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Generally, the plot of an episode will revolve around something stupid that Allen Gregory and Richard have gotten into, and have whatever stuff comes up as a result. Allen Gregory tries to force through a rumor about how he has a sex tape of him and the principal. Richard realizes that his job doesn't actually exist and people just humor him 'cause his dad owns the company. Allen Gregory isn't buddying up as well to the popular kid as he'd like, so Richard gets the school to make the school dance gay. The end result of this is that Richard and Allen Gregory get away with everything.
Now, you know how in shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, there's often a moment near the end where the characters express something to the effect that they've learned something or whatever, or we get a moment where we see that the crazy dysfunctional family actually does have some affection for each other? Allen Gregory doesn't have that. What we get is essentially a more meanspirited version of our standard animated sitcom. You see, a look on Wikipedia directs us to some interviews with Jonah Hill, which delivers some insight into what he's going for.
"We made a show about awful, awful people. [Laughs] We got away with it. Jarrad [Paul], Andy [Mogel], me and David [Goodman], the four of us think it's funny that there are these shows that have these awful people, but then at the end, they do something really nice and they're not really that bad. We wanted a show where that doesn't happen... they never really get their punishment for being awful. And they almost get rewarded for it, and punished for being a good person!"
In the same interview, he also refers to Arrested Development as a show he admires, something that broke the mold and wasn't a generic dime-a-dozen comedy. And that's the point reading this interview that I realized that what Allen Gregory was trying to do was essentially ape Arrested Development.
But now let's talk about what's in the show.
The first episode is like many cartoons: it's there to set up the premise. We start with a party at the De Longpre penthouse apartment, where Richard is giving a speech. It took me less than a minute to hate this character. We're also introduced to Jeremy (who Richard belittles in front of everyone), Julie (who Richard clearly doesn't really care about and only appears to have adopted her so he can show off being charitable), and Allen Gregory himself. Like Richard, it takes me less than a minute to realize how unlikable he is. He seems to have some bizarre scorn for Julie. He talks to the people (mainly concerning his apparently Tony-nominated play), before Richard and Jeremy take him out onto the terrace to break to him the bad news about how the homeschooling won't work out. Also, they tell him his Tony nomination is fake, because something in their living room isn't eligible. This is the only actual joke here, 'cause it's defying our expectation or something. You see, Allen Gregory isn't actually some kind of precocious but obnoxious child prodigy. He's just a pretentious twat.
So he goes to school, where we meet some other characters. Gina Winthrop, Allen Gregory's teacher, who he treats like a subordinate. Joel Zadak, the popular kid-slash-bully character. Patrick, a kid who Allen Gregory defends. Gottlieb, the aforementioned principal. And in looking at these characters, we start to see something deeply, deeply wrong with the premise of this show.
Many cartoons, especially comedies such as The Simpsons and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, are set in cartoon worlds, with characters who have exaggerated, somewhat malleable personalities. Everyone is wacky in some way or another, and they all contribute to the comedy in their own way. In Allen Gregory, this is not the case. It's not really clear what kind of world this is taking place in. Allen Gregory, Richard, Carl Trent (a black dude who works for the De Longpres and is a source of bad advice), and Stuart Rossmire (the sleazy school superintendent) are cartoon characters... but nobody else really is. Almost all of the other characters seem to be some varying degree of normal person, playing straight man to the antics of Allen Gregory and Richard. There's very little cartoony about them, and rather than add to the humor by giving the leads someone to play off of, it just makes the world confusing and not make sense. We see other people looking pretty annoyed with the crap these guys are pulling, so how do they get away with it? Like, Jeremy? The dude living with Richard? Not actually gay. He was actually married and had kids, but Richard stalked him until... he moved in with him. Or something. I don't know. It doesn't make sense. Nothing makes sense. They don't do a very good job of explaining how this setup happened.
But not only do we have this bizarre combination of characters who are cartoony and characters who are vaguely normal, but we have things that don't make sense there, either. Like, we have Patrick, who acts like a little kid, but then we have Joel, who despite being in elementary school, seems to act more like what we see in media about high schoolers. You see, at this point we get what's called "Cognitive Dissonance." We're asked to process multiple bits of contradictory information, and instead of finding it funny, we just get confused and thus annoyed. And then, what, this world that seems to be mostly full of normal people, I guess, they listen to Allen Gregory give an obvious bullshit explanation for something stupid he did, and I kid you not, the exact line of dialogue is "Makes sense to me!" I mean, "Makes sense to me!" is the line you use on an internet forum after you paraphrase someone else's post in a way that makes them look dumb. Here it's used by a character who means it literally, and in the context of... I'm so confused. What world does this take place in? I don't understand it. Nothing makes sense...
We aren't entertained by how Allen Gregory or Richard behave, we just get confused as to how we get away with it. Like, Allen Gregory gets away with this stuff at school because of the douchebag superintendent, I guess, but how does the douchebag superintendent get away with this? He's just as much of a loony. The show implies that he date-raped the teacher. And then the last thing in the show is the implication that he blackmails her for sex. People don't tend to find these characters funny, I don't think. I think the average person who watched a few episodes of this just wanted someone to put the little brat in his place. That's why "Mom Sizemore" stands out as the most tolerable episode in the series, despite having a stupid title. But then, most of the episode titles are pretty stupid.
And there are more reasons this character doesn't make sense. I mean, Allen Gregory would have to be more intelligent than the average seven-year-old just by virtue of his mannerisms and speaking habits, but his complete obliviousness to the world around him makes him look like a complete idiot. He doesn't make sense, and I don't understand how he's supposed to be funny. What's the joke? Like, Stewie Griffin is easy to understand. He's a baby who's an evil genius and hates his mom. It's funny because it's a bizarre picture. It's also ironic because, y'know, babies depend on their mothers, so a baby who wants to kill his mom is a reversal of expectation. Well, then Stewie Griffin moved from "evil genius" to "gay," so he's not funny anymore (at least I assume not. I've seen like a grand total of five episodes of Family Guy). What's the joke? Usually in one of these animated sitcoms it's easy to see what the joke is with the main character. Archer goes with the joke that "hey, James Bond drinks and sleeps around with women a lot. What if we took that and presented it as a symptom of psychological problems? And gave him Aspergers?" Homer Simpsons is a fairly straight-up caricature of the American working class. Boorish, loud, drinks a lot. Easy to understand. Allen Gregory isn't... there's no joke. He's just trying to ape Stewie Griffin.
There aren't a whole lot of jokes in general. You know, constructed jokes. I mean, let's look at that other cartoon that came out the same year: Bob's Burgers. I watched one episode and decided I didn't need to bother further. But the difference between the shows is that Bob's Burgers has actual jokes in it, where you have a setup and a payoff. The first episode of that show revolves around a health inspector coming over to the burger joint to investigate rumors that the food at the place contains human meat. Another plot thread in the episode concerns the wife thinking that her husband is going to surprise her with something for their anniversary (despite the fact that he insists he forgot). One of the kids goes to deliver some food to the funeral home next to the restaurant, and the owner shows him some of the custom-made coffins. One of the coffins is made up to look like a big gift-wrapped present. Because the kid is a trouble-maker, the coffins gets wheeled onto the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, where the wife, who's talking to the health inspector, sees it and thinks it's Bob's anniversary gift...
You see, that's actually a joke that has thought put into it. Compare this to an episode of Allen Gregory where the main character tries to "fire" a student at the school for not cleaning up a mess, because he assumes that the student is a worker because he's latino. He then tries to put on a play defending his point of view. You see, the entire joke of the episode is "Allen Gregory is racist and doesn't understand that what he's doing is wrong. Even when people point-blank tell him." There's no joke. There's nothing funny, because there's no joke. It's just a character being a twat. One episode of Allen Gregory has a joke that the episode sets up in advance and springs a payoff at the end when it isn't expected. It got a chuckle on account of being the only kind of funny moment in the entire episode.
In place of jokes, the show aims to be as mean-spirited as it can get away with, but I have to wonder what exactly the point of that is. I mean, you're running on Network Television, so you're going to be pretty limited in what you can get away with. You're not going to be able to top South Park or Archer in terms of being edgy or whatever you're going for. And then if we try to compare you with them, you're not just really tame, but you're also really not funny. I said earlier that the show was trying to ape Arrested Development, and there is something to that theory. Both of the shows are about rich jerks who, due to their own failings, have to contend with the real world, but are unable to cope because they're hopelessly clueless about how things work. In fact, you know how I said I didn't understand what the joke behind the character of Allen Gregory was? I said the same thing about Richard, because he didn't seem to have anything beyond "he's gay." But then I realized that the joke behind his character is essentially the same as Lindsey Fünke, that of the spoiled, rich liberal who champions causes because they're trendy, rather than because they actually care.
Arrested Development was funny for several reasons. It had a colorful cast of characters with engaging personalities. It had a sympathetic everyman protagonist to give the series a sense of grounding. It had intricate plotting and clever gags. The characters were able to bounce off of each other. Allen Gregory has none of these things.
You don't get much mileage out of character interactions in Allen Gregory because the characters don't bounce off of each other as well as they do in other series. When I watched the show, I never felt like the characters were actually talking to each other. It felt like the actors had delivered their lines into a microphone in a recording studio, completely independent of one another. Maybe that's how it works in most cartoons, but I just felt like there was a disconnect between them. And then Jonah Hill's voice work is just kind of awful. Periodically Allen Gregory will start going into a spiel or something, and Jonah Hill will go into like, some pretend-serious voice or something. But the problem is that it's so obviously not genuine that it's not funny. If you want it to be funny, you have to convince me that the character believes the things he's saying. Jonah Hill didn't seem to get that. Kind of disconcerting for a comedian.
But another thing about Arrested Development that Allen Gregory lacks is that in Arrested Development, the cast of characters suffered because of their character flaws. Time and time again they were presented with opportunities to make their situation better, but they simply refused: GOB's relationship with his son Steve Holt; Tobias's unemployment; George Sr.'s legal problems, only exacerbated by his dishonesty. The entire point of a farce is to see how characters screw things up for themselves. In the world of Allen Gregory, however, there are no consequences, and as a result, there are no complications, which as we know, are what make these kinds of comedies funny.
As far as the visual side of things, the designs are unpleasant but distinct (the show was aiming for unpleasant, so I can't fault it for that), but the animation... Okay, you know how in most shows and movies and such, the camera's set in a certain way to frame things? And they use things like angles and whatnot? Like, for example, if you watch Twelve Angry Men, you'll notice that the camera gradually lowers, going from looking slightly down at the characters to looking slightly up at them. This is done to give a sense of tension as the movie reaches the end. Allen Gregory doesn't do that. It uses very flat angles. It's all just in a box. I don't want a box. Give me something other than a box. Frame something. Frame something in a way so it's funny. The only time you use any kind of framing is when you introduce your character and you make it so we're looking above his head. You did that 'cause you thought it was funny. Then you didn't do anything else.
It's too late to talk about terrible cartoons...