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STUDIO: Warner Home Video
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 226 Minutes
- Contest Submissions
20 episodes of a twisted, surreal, politically incorrect late night adult cartoon show
Vernon Chatman, John Lee, Alyson Levy, Jim Tozzi. Guest stars include Bill Hader, Vincent D’Onofrio, Snoop Dogg, and Kristen Schaal.
The show chronicles the journeys of Xavier, a freakish fur-covered humanoid with a beak nose, sentient snake hand, and backwards-bending knees like the aliens from The Arrival. He wanders the earth like Kane from Kung-Fu, ostensibly a wise, selfless shaman/guardian angel seeking to improve the lives of those around him and attain enlightenment. In reality he’s bumbling, oblivious, and self-absorbed, and his spiritual knowledge is meaningless bunk, so his misguided attempts to help the odd characters he encounters just make things worse and usually lead to violence and death for everyone but him. The show’s ongoing plots consist of Xavier’s attempts to find his father’s killer (Season 1) and reconnect with his mother (Season 2), but the end points of these quests are so obvious and/or irrelevant that the very presence of story arcs is obviously a joke. The show is rendered in cheap computer graphics reminiscent of video games like Second Life, a style that doesn’t allow for much nuance or expressiveness of design, nor sympathy for the characters, but has an inherent uncanny valley goofiness that’s just right for the tone of the show.
Xavier creators Vernon Chatman and John Lee were previously responsible for MTV cult hit Wonder Showzen, which was also an extremely weird show. But had a fairly straightforward satirical concept at its core: subversive children’s show parody. That’s pretty easy for prospective viewers to latch onto, and it kept the humor vaguely grounded and recognizable even during the show’s frequent plunges down the rabbit hole. At first glance, Xavier: Renegade Angel seems far more esoteric and inscrutable. It has all (if not more) of Wonder Showzen’s surreal absurdity without the same kind of obvious hook at its center, and with a deliberately alienating visual style. It’s frequently summarized as a parody of new age spirituality, and that’s far less universally relatable target than children’s shows.
Subtlety, thy name is Xavier
But even if there’s a steeper learning curve in getting over Xavier’s initial inaccessibility, and a higher baseline weirdness than its predecessor, closer inspection reveals that it isn’t just Dadaist anti-comedy. There are set ups and punchlines, lots of clever wordplay, funny sight gags, and other recognizable comedic signposts. In fact, some of the concepts and scenarios that pop up are downright brilliant and hilarious. One episode features a Christian Science surgeon who performs operations by standing at his patient’s bedside and talking god through the procedures. Another has Xavier attempting to protect an innocent looking orphan boy from his priest and foster parents, when unbeknownst to him it’s actually the kid who’s a violent sexual predator. And then there’s the gorilla that becomes a religious leader because the animal’s bored handler translates its sign language gestures into hollow yet comforting spiritual platitudes.
While Chatman and Lee have a tendency to mess with their viewers’ heads and indulge in layers of Andy Kaufman style meta-comedy, they never take it quite as far here as they did in some of Wonder Showzen’s more infamous moments. There’s a two part episode in Xavier’s second season that ditches the show’s already tenuous grasp of plot in favor of an all out hallucinatory sensory assault, but even then it is somehow more overtly funny and less frustrating than similar episodes of the pair’s previous show. At the very least it’s an inventive audiovisual feast, blending cool traditional animation and live action segments into the show’s typical computer generated look. Outside of that detour the show more or less stays within the realm of decipherable comedy.
This is what David Lynch sees when he closes his eyes…
Calling Xavier: Renegade Angel a satire of new age quackery is fair, but it doesn’t do justice to the show’s wide range of topics and themes, which include family, friendship, criminal rehabilitation, hippies, free range farming, and even what appears to be a reference to the grey goo theory (the show has a brisk pace and ADD-like attention span, so it can fit in a lot of weirdness). If there’s meant to be any broad underlying point at the heart of all that, it’s that any ideology or institution that attempts to give our lives definitive meaning is full of shit. Or maybe that just wanting answers, meaning, or solutions to problems at all is stupid?
The thing is, even though there are hints of genuine subtext underneath the show’s silliness and absurdity, they could easily just be another layer of jokes expressing irreverence at the very idea of caring about stuff or taking anything seriously. It’s easy to imagine Chatman and Lee, whose sincerity (or lack thereof) is notoriously difficult to parse, laughing at viewers who look for philosophical/sociopolitical meaning in their silly little absurdist cartoon show. Tellingly, in the opening scene of the season 2 premiere Xavier himself defensively says, “Don’t look for meaning, because there is none, ok?”
…and THIS is what Takashi Miike sees
It’s like an infinite nesting doll of meta-ness, which is probably a turn off to some people, but I think it’s wise to adopt the creators’ weirdly detached attitude and just have fun with it all – and there is definitely fun to be had here. If it happens to leave you with some nuggets of meaning or truth along the way it’s just an added bonus. You also have to admire the dedication and creativity it must take to construct the endless, intricate layers of weirdness found in this show and Wonder Showzen. It almost starts to resemble avant-garde art at times, except for the fact that the guys responsible for it would probably scoff at that suggestion.
Needless to say, Xavier: Renegade Angel is an acquired taste. It won’t appeal to those looking for comedy grounded in conventional plot, character development, or heart, but it’s worth a look if you are a fan of Adult Swim’s usual offbeat humor, or simply enjoy inspired silliness. Once you get over the distancing effect of the animation and grow accustomed to the general weirdness there’s a lot to like.
Little known Mark Ruffalo fun fact: his last name is actually short for “Rapes Buffalo”
The cover art is pretty ugly, but it fits the show. In addition to being fairly cool looking the menus are simple and easy to navigate, which is a pleasant surprise for a show created by two guys prone to screwing with people and creating hallucinogenic sensory overloads.
There’s a decent amount of special features but they skew heavily towards Kaufman-esque meta-comedy and trippy freak-outs. There are four “fanmentaries” – you guessed it, commentary tracks recorded by Xavier fans. Three of the four are relatively normal and even offer some interesting insights and observations, albeit in an extremely dry, nerdy way. But you can’t help but wonder: are they really meant to be taken seriously, or are Chatman and Lee spoofing serious commentary tracks that try to offer interesting insights and observations? Are they once again mocking the idea of taking the philosophical aspects of the show seriously? The fourth fanmentary certainly makes me lean towards the two latter options; it consists of Chatman and Lee, their voices altered to sound like you’re listening while on a bad acid trip, spouting an endless stream of nonsensical (yet strangely poetic, in a William S. Burroughs sort of way) pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook against a backdrop of nightmarish cut and paste sound design. It’s a tad grating, but at the same time so over the top and silly that I had to laugh at it.
The other two features are similarly psychedelic: a collection of 13 weird fan-made videos submitted for a contest during the second season, and an aerobics instruction tape/music video that incorporates remixed clips and sound bites from the show.
The overall package is decent but nothing exceptional, as the special features probably only appeal to die hard fans of the show and its style.
Oh cool, is this the new Madonna video?
8.0 out of 10
NOTE: There’s really no change in quality or style between the two seasons, so a single rating is sufficient for the whole thing