Like ‘Rick and Morty,’ Dan Harmon’s Newest Animated Show, ‘Krapopolis,’ Could Be A Cult Classic
Among major broadcast networks, only Fox has made a consistent investment in adult animation — one that’s paid huge dividends. The Simpsons is both the longest-running animated TV series in the U.S. and the longest-running sitcom. (I suppose I should add “as of this writing,” but the odds that another show will unseat it in either category within our lifetimes seem pretty long.) Family Guy battled back from cancellation and has lasted into a fourth decade of broadcast. Bob’s Burgers has spun off a feature film and still shows no sign of losing creative steam heading into its 14th season. (Full disclosure: Longtime Bob’s Burgers producer Wendy Molyneux is a friend.)
How to ensure that a new animated series will reach the standard these other successful shows have established? Buy it from a guy who co-created one of cable TV’s biggest animated hits. Then, the next question: Can Dan Harmon’s Krapopolis satisfy the expectations set by his Rick and Morty success?
In some ways, Krapopolis is a gigantic departure from Rick and Morty. It’s set in the titular city-state in Greece, thousands of years in the past. Tyrannis (voice of Richard Ayoade), Krapopolis’ king, is trying his best to encourage the progress of civilization — less war, more diplomacy. This sometimes runs counter to the instincts of his muscle-bound sister Stupendous (Pam Murphy), who can readily solve problems with physical violence. Their third sibling, Hippocampus (Duncan Trussell), is some kind of fish/human hybrid, who lives on land thanks to a globe on his head and a wheeled contraption that lets him toddle around with his leglike back flippers. Hippocampus is routinely called upon to direct his intellect toward uses that will serve Tyrannis. In the premiere, for example, Hippocampus invents bombs while taking a break from creating written language.
Overseeing all this — or, more accurately, interfering in it — is the siblings’ goddess mother Deliria (Hannah Waddingham), a self-involved, social-climbing diva who cares less about Tyrannis’ citizens’ well-being than the timeline for the construction of her temple. Their father, Shlub (Matt Berry) — a chimeric creature who seems to be part lion, horse, scorpion and bat — is a lot more chill. Like his fellow Berry alter ego, Laszlo of What We Do in the Shadows, Shlub is always on the lookout for opportunities to enjoy outré sex acts, leaving him little time for the pursuit of power and adulation.
Any comedy series that explicitly revolves around politics will have to make a lot of choices about the angle it’s going to take, no matter when and where it’s set or how absurd its premise. Krapopolis was ordered to series in June 2020, weeks into the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder, and given the long lead time required for animation, it’s likely the writers’ room was virtually convened on January 6, 2021. So it’s a relief that, unlike the current season of Futurama, the first three episodes that were provided to critics don’t really attempt any time-shifted takes on contemporary social or political topics. (The second episode gestures toward Hippocampus possibly being an incel, but without including any gags about a show character coining the term; I admire the restraint!)
Instead, we see the exploration of the space between the essentially grounded premise and the rich possibilities animation offers to heighten it: a man is desperate to forge his own path, separate from his overbearing mother…and forging said path will require him to contend with her literally godlike powers, including, for instance, winning a battle by turning some of his citizens into snakes. It’s also worth noting how sharp the voice casting is: in an era in which stuntcasting celebrities is often favored over tapping more versatile voice-over professionals, the main cast is a mix of VO all-stars (Trussell, Murphy) and British comedy legends (Waddingham, Berry, Ayoade) who — no pun intended — aren’t just going to phone it in. Bigger names do appear in the first few episodes — including Dave Franco, Yvette Nicole Brown, Daveed Diggs, and Tim Robinson — but voicing characters who are apparent one-offs, such that the stunty effect is more easily justified.
Unfortunately for Krapopolis, however, its two-episode premiere on September 24th will come just days after Graham Linehan’s new book went up for pre-sale, embroiling Ayoade in entirely avoidable controversy. Linehan is one of the world’s most famous transphobes, and the book, Tough Crowd, is essentially a memoir about everything his intractable bigotry has cost him, from his career to his family. Said career includes the U.K. sitcom The I.T. Crowd, which starred both Berry and Ayoade. Berry was unequivocal, in a 2021 New York magazine profile, in distancing himself from both Linehan and a 2008 episode of the show in which Berry’s character dates and rejects a trans woman: “I don’t condone anything that that comedy portrayed, you know? I don’t share any views that the writer has.”
Ayoade, unfortunately, has gone another way, providing a blurb that’s excerpted on Tough Crowd’s cover, but reads, in full, “Graham Linehan has long been one of my favourite writers — and this book shows that his brilliance in prose is equal to his brilliance as a screenwriter. It unfolds with the urgency of a Sam Fuller film: that of a man who has been through something that few have experienced but has managed to return, undaunted, to tell the tale.”
Reaction to Ayoade’s blurb was swift on both “sides” of the supposed “debate” regarding trans people’s right to exist. “I don’t think I’ve ever gone so quickly from positively disposed to ‘fuck this guy’ faster than Richard Ayoade today,” wrote Jon Wolter on Bluesky last Thursday, in a post that typified the majority view there. So anyone who’s familiar with statements Ayoade makes out of character may automatically be turned off from watching a show to which he lends his voice. (Sidebar: Should Harmon re-evaluate his screening process for collaborators?)
Ayoade’s bad opinions aside, there are still other issues with the show’s construction. While it’s true that Tyrannis, our ostensible protagonist, is kind of an irritating nag by design, placing him at the center of the action to be (usually anachronistically) correct about human progress provides the show with its laziest jokes, intended for us to chuckle at knowingly from our more enlightened present day. Meanwhile, Tyrannis’ most frequent quasi-antagonist, Deliria, could give us a much more fun perspective on the story if the show were about her. Despite being omnipotent, or close to it, there’s still plenty Deliria desires, driving her into cock-eyed schemes. What are the frustrations, for her, of being outside of Mt. Olympus’ inner circle? What’s required for her to break through? What’s it like having a squishy, boring, mortal son who’s constantly refusing her help despite her many powers? Plenty of comedy has already been made out of the plight of whiny boys and men; for this to have squandered the chance at centering a dynamic literal goddess is a huge disappointment.
That said, there are early signs that, while the show may not be able to push Tyrannis too far into the background, it can find myriad ways to humiliate him. In addition to a powerhouse voice performance by Robinson, the third episode gives us a glimpse at how Deliria may use Tyrannis as a means to her own self-promotion; there’s also a very charming plotline for Stupendous as an assistant to Hippocampus’ research into wolf culture that hit me right in my soft, dog-loving heart.
Let’s all hope Ayoade reverses himself on Linehan such that watching his show will no longer constitute a tacit endorsement of transphobia, because Krapopolis, unlike Hippocampus, may have legs.