Freak Show, like actual freaks, fall short of expectations

By Rhett du Pont

Whatever it might be, David Cross’ new prime-time Comedy Central show “Freak Show” is certainly ambitious. Its pilot episode introduces a staggering eighteen recurring characters and two possibly recurring characters. The basic premise is complicated enough: The Freak Squad is a group of circus freaks with ill-defined generally useless superpowers founded by a group of world leaders during a night of drunken revelry in the 1970s, when they needed a special task force to get them more ice. The Freak Squad continue to exist simultaneously as a sideshow attraction and a “superhero” team that goes on missions for the president that the Justice Squad (an extremely thinly-veiled analogue of the Justice League, featuring such heroes as Batlikeman) deems beneath their dignity.

Not content with the complexity of this premise or the work of introducing the sprawling cast, the first episode he sends them on a mission, introduces a major subplot, and, in one of the shows funniest moments, spends close to a full minute of air time on an old woman naming different baked goods. The range of targets is no less broad; the show aims its jokes at rednecks, middle America, cultural imperialism, multinational corporations, gays, Saturday morning cartoons, and male models, to name a few.

Unfortunately, this breadth of targets means that the jokes rarely connect. All the characters are so broadly written that making them look ridiculous is hardly an accomplishment. Furthermore, the show’s writers have yet to make fun of any of the characters in ways that aren’t well… obvious; Log Cabin Republican, the gay character, is swishy and obsessed with his clothes; the premature baby talks in a gentle high-pitched voice and likes naps. A few elements, such as the constant bickering of the team’s Siamese twin leaders Benny and Tuck (voiced by David Cross and H. Jon Benjamin respectively) ring true enough to be funny and the throwaway visual jokes are fairly consistent, but overall, the pilot just isn’t that funny.

This is unfortunate, because a cartoon about circus freaks from these creators could be really good. Cross comes with a fantastic resume including HBO’s Mr. Show and Fox’s Arrested Development. The show’s other creator H. Jon Benjamin has guest starred on a variety of very funny and innovative cartoons including Dr. Katz, the Venture Brothers and Aquateen Hunger Force as well as being a regular on Cartoon Network’s Home Movies. Also featured are such notable comedians as Will Arnett (known for playing Gob on Arrested Development), Laura Silverman (known for being Sarah Silverman’s sister) and Janeane Garofalo (known for… not really being at all funny in the last thirteen years, if ever). Her role in the show as The Bearded Clam is fairly funny, possibly for the wrong reasons, in that it seems to mostly consist of her bitching that the team isn’t politically relevant enough, which will sound very familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance of Garafalo.

It is very possible that this episode is just laying the groundwork. In future episodes, once the setup is well out of the way, we may get more character development, more focused satire and jokes that go beyond what’s obviously suggested by the premise. The creators certainly understand the audience they’re going for: the tone and animation style is reminiscent of TV Funhouse, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Wonder Showzen and the Venture Brothers, all very cutting edge, hip and screwed-up shows which Freak Show would do well to be counted among. One of the challenges “Freak Show” has to surpass is to figure out which of its influences it most wants to draw from.

It’s strange enough that it might be able to keep up the “what the hell is going on” appeal of most Adult Swim shows, but it’s also close enough to the format of a Saturday morning cartoon that it could work as a straight parody. It could also use the flexible reality established by the show as a springboard for political parody a la The Simpsons. To an extent, the pilot does all of these things, but the different directions tend to undermine each other; if you’re trying to make a show of nonstop strangeness, you can’t really be making a point at the same time.

Overall, the pilot of Freak Show feels like a collection of jokes of varying quality that don’t really cohere into anything in particular. It is by no means a bad television pilot, it’s solidly above average for Comedy Central’s programming, it’s just not as good as it could be.