Can’t Adult Animation Shows Like ‘Grimsburg’ Just RELAX?

Jon Hamm is a confident comedy star. Did his new show have to be this overwrought?
Can’t Adult Animation Shows Like ‘Grimsburg’ Just RELAX?

It’s hard to imagine now that Jon Hamm is a certified A-lister, but stardom came for him somewhat late. He was closer to 40 than 30 when Mad Men premiered, making him a prestige TV star practically overnight. But while his breakout turn as Don Draper meant Hamm would never again need to play a “Young Pilot #2,” as in Space Cowboys, or a one-off Lorelai love interest in Gilmore Girls, he’d still take frequent breaks from the crushing weight of Don Draper’s many problems to show his versatility, particularly in comedies. Sometimes, these roles would be substantial, as when he stopped by 30 Rock to play Drew Baird, a charming and handsome pediatrician who ended up dating Liz (Tina Fey). But often, his performances would be barely more than cameos in projects that just tickled him. A fantasy sequence on Barry.

Irritating the ever-sunny Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) on Parks and Recreation.

Barely letting the camera record him on The Last Man on Earth.

In short, we have copious proof of Hamm’s ability to be funny in just a couple of lines. So why must his new show Grimsburg feel so effortful?

In Grimsburg, the latest addition to Fox’s Sunday-night Animation Domination programming block, Hamm both serves as a producer and voices Marvin Flute, a brilliant detective who’s burnt out on the job and abandoned both the titular town and his family, who still live there. A particularly challenging case draws him back home, and back into the orbit of the quirky characters he left behind: a cyborg partner (Kevin Michael Richardson); a part-sasquatch anti-vaxx police captain (Wendi McClendon-Covey); a diabolically clever serial killer sentenced to live and teach at the local public school (Alan Tudyk); his ex-wife Harmony (Erinn Hayes), who was raised by bears; and their son Stan (Rachel Dratch), whose only friend is an extremely antisocial imaginary skeleton named Mr. Flesh (Tudyk again). 

I might be tempted to blame the show’s frenetic busyness on the inexperience of its co-creators, Catlan McClelland and Matthew Schlissel, neither of whom has apparently ever worked in adult animation before. (McClelland has one credit on a straight-to-tape Christmas special for children, but that was as an “extern,” and more than 20 years ago.) But actually, Grimsburg is right on trend for an adult animation show, in that practically all the premieres I’ve seen in the past year have felt just as sweaty. Mulligan, which premiered on Netflix last spring, started with the apocalypse and made one of the alien invaders (Phil LaMarr) a regular character amid the humans trying, and mostly failing, to rebuild the world they knew; it also featured TOD-209, also voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson as a character straddling the line between human and robot. Praise Petey also took the apocalypse as a starting point, transporting its eponymous heroine to a town full of cult members who believe she’s their savior; it also features Alan Tudyk in a pivotal role in the pilot. Fox’s Krapopolis is set in ancient Greece, and among living gods with supernatural powers; though humanity is represented in various masses, mortal humans are wildly outnumbered by omnipotent beings and miscellaneous weirdos.

I realize that complaining about the ways adult animated shows differ from The Simpsons in its heyday makes me Simpsons meme. But being confronted by each new animated sitcom pilot, stacked with quirk, can’t help make me nostalgic for The Simpsons and the simplicity of its premise. Grimsburg already had comic potential built in: like Angie Tribeca or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, each episode revolves around solving a crime, which allows for wacky characters — crime victims, witnesses, perps — to pass through, involved in their wacky situations. But on Grimsburg, virtually every regular character is a freak (I will hear arguments about the normality of Greg Chun’s Lt. Kang, though he’s pretty far from the center of most plots in the episodes provided for critics to screen); watching all of them cranked up to 15 in every scene is simply exhausting. 

It also gives the show no room to heighten its characters over time. Imagine a version of the Simpsons pilot in which Smithers announces he’s in love with Mr. Burns and Principal Skinner declares that he has serious issues with his mother and Marge’s sister Patty comes out as a lesbian and you will get a rough idea of how frantic Grimsburg is to hook you with all its kookiness — which seems even more over-the-top once you know it’s already been picked up for a second season

It’s not all bad news in the world of adult animation, however: Last month saw the premiere of Carol & the End of the World, on Netflix. A comet is on its way to end all life on earth, but humanity has seven months to do with what they will. But while others abandon their jobs, run up credit card bills no one expects them to pay and engage in no-strings-attached sexual debauchery, Carol (voice of Martha Kelly) wishes things could go back to the way they were, even if the way they were wasn’t particularly thrilling. (Yes, that makes it Netflix’s second adult animation apocalypse sitcom in less than a year, but it’s as wistful as Mulligan was obnoxious.) 

Carol takes full advantage of what animation makes possible narratively, while demonstrating complete confidence in its setting and characters. Grimsburg’s co-creators evidently lack this sort of confidence, or so I must assume based on their show’s desperate relentlessness. And as for Hamm: Grimsburg is a disappointment, but I hope I will, one day, be able to rely on his excellent taste again.

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