Animation Wednesday: Ugly Americans

This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a weekly column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.

“Cartoons: They’re not just for kids anymore!!” has to be one of the most overused sound bites in the past decade.  It conveniently ignores both the animation boom (and subsequent oversaturation) of the 90s and cartoons like Betty Boop or Looney Tunes, which were written just as much for adults as they were for children.  Most of the best-written children’s animated series appeal to adults as well, either through subtly clever jokes or subject material that resonates.  Still, it is true that the growth of cable has produced a wide variety of newer cartoons aimed at older audiences, chief among them Ugly Americans, which starts its second season tomorrow night on Comedy Central.

Ugly Americans has a pretty standard premise: a nerdy twentysomething New Yorker deals with crazy problems at work, a slacker roommate at home, and an on-again, off-again fling with a coworker.  The twist that sets it apart is that the world of Ugly Americans is home to wizards, demons, zombies, robots, vampires, and anything else the writers can think of a story for.  Some creatures serve as metaphors for the diversity of Manhattan and all the issues that go with it, and some of them are just for gags (a fishman and a guy made out of hooks don’t get along very well, for example).  It’s an interesting premise that doesn’t weigh itself down with a lot of rules.  Things are the way they are, and if they don’t need to explain something, they don’t waste time with it.

Ugly Americans also has an interesting visual style, which has gotten some mixed reviews.  Everything is drawn somewhat flatly, with little depth and a muted color palette.  It looks kind of like a newspaper cartoon come to life, or a very high-quality web series.  It’s a little simple, but it definitely works to their advantage, since they need to juggle so many character models.  The core cast have clean, dynamic designs, and most scenes are populated by weird, surreal creatures in the background.  The show can get gross sometimes, but again, the stylization helps the more violent and gross-out moments stay light and funny.

The voice cast does a good job overall.  Matt Oberg provides the lead, Mark, with a nice, straight man delivery, but the real stand out is Kurt Metzger as his zombie roommate, Randall.  Metzger, like H. Jon Benjamin or Dana Snyder, has one of those voices which is just fun to listen to, and the show provides him with endless one-liners and gags to work with.  Natasha Leggero also deserves special recognition as Callie, Mark’s unstable boss and sometimes-girlfriend.  Leggero takes a comparatively cliché role and works in an impressive amount of subtlety and depth.
Ugly Americans sounds more complicated than it is.  At its core, it’s a funny, dirty show about life in the city and dealing with other people.  The insane variety of characters makes it stand out next to other animated series, but the clever writing and solid performances are what really sells it.  Ugly Americans airs Thursdays at 10:30 PM on Comedy Central.

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