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"Harvey Birdman" Still Funny, But Shows Formula

Harvey Birdman is back! For a Brit starved of his Birdman since returning from the US last year, a chance to get to see three new episodes is one that requires no hesitation.

To my delight we have a show that remains as good as ever. And that’s precisely its problem.

I “discovered” Harvey Birdman last year where I was studying in America. On late nights of hard work or, on occasions, hard liquor (or of course a tandem of both), the Adult Swim schedule was a feast of adult animated humour that was a far cry from The Simpsons or even Family Guy. I loved it. The shows were a delightful wedge of irrelevant stories, smart gags and fast-paced editing; blink and you are guaranteed to miss the punch line.

Harvey Birdman is a wonderful unashamed mockery of all the cheap retro cartoons of the 1960s and 70s. The gag is, essentially, to place old, well-worn cartoon characters into adult scenarios and plough them through a court of law. Seeing Harvey Birdman, a reinvention of the weary “Birdman” cartoon character of the 60s, having to face a mafia lord Fred Flintstone or a stoned Norville “Shaggy” Rogers is a wonder in its own right. And the fifteen-minute running time is perfect.

So why does it feel like it’s running out of steam? Its voice acting is fantastic; most of the show’s funniest material comes from its delivery. The video editing remains in top form, visuals lurching by at a mile a minute. The show remains confident with no signs of uncertainty.

“Booty Noir” is possibly the least successful of the three stories that make up the beginning of the show’s third season. It contains two separate plots, neither really complementing the other. Plot has never been essential to Harvey Birdman, but any show is a package and as such should have some feeling of unity. For the premiere of a new season, this one feels like a basket of left over ideas rather than a brand new start.

We have one tale regarding Reducto’s desire for the large “booty” of Norlisa. I’ve never been a fan of Reducto, who works best in a supporting role, and having a central plot line revolve around his tongue-in-cheek love for something large rather than small feels stretched. That’s not to say it isn’t well executed, but it still falls short of the mark.

In the meantime, Harvey’s rather run-of-the-mill case involves redneck old-timer Wally Gator. Reducto’s story is certainly curious, but fails to deliver full-on laughs. Wally’s doesn’t even provoke the slightest smile. The editing and pacing are strong, but the episode, as a whole, doesn’t offer anything new.

“Harvey’s Civvy” is the most interesting of the three. Murro the Marauder, one of Harvey’s old enemies, files a lawsuit against the lawyer for the physical damage endured during one of their battles in 1967. The idea itself has a lot of potential and the episode does a good job at delivering it. In contrast to “Booty Noir,” Potamus’ larger role in “Harvey’s Civvy” is possibly the show’s best example of spotlighting a “tag” character. Potamus and his “did you get that thing I sent you?” are put to good use here and a character I rarely found that funny had me smiling as he attempted to balance out his legal and sexual priorities.

However, the highlight of this episode is Shado the Brain Thief, the prosecuting lawyer. Shado’s animation is simple but very effective. Particularly memorable is a great scene in which Shado’s wits are pitted against the show’s favorite mind taker, Judge Mentok. A good idea, a great new character and, as always, Mentok make this a very worthy addition.

“X Gets the Crest” features longtime foe X the Exterminator who, once again, is after Harvey’s Crest of power. The difference is that, after thirty years of trying, X gets his hands on the crest! Harvey (as usual) falls to pieces trying to handle a case for Ricochet Rabbit, while X finds that the Crest benefits him in ways he couldn’t imagine.

“X Gets the Crest” has some solid concepts and scenarios to offer; the switch of character roles between X and Harvey calls into question to what extent either of them – or indeed any of us – is good or evil. Whether I’m overthinking it or not, it makes for some enjoyable situations. X’s attempt to locate F.E.A.R, his giggling presentation of the Crest to fellow villains and his eventual breakdown on a TV chat show are all great fun. However, again, while the fast wit remains on form, it all feels done before.

So while each episode here is tightly handled, the show doesn’t feel like it’s really finding, or even looking, for anything new. It’s as if Harvey Birdman has found its niche and sits comfortably with neither the inclination nor need to evolve. For a show that broke so many comedy molds, this seems a pity.

What is evident in these new episodes is when the show is good, it’s because it’s working on themes or situations it has itself previously proved successful. Even the great debut of Shado owes much to his predecessor Mentok.

Perhaps part of Harvey Birdman‘s charm is its repetitive chaos. Harvey Birdman is essentially a long string of one-liners. But it’s quite natural for the viewer to expect something more and Birdman seems incapable of delivering on that. And if it can’t, it’s in danger of becoming as formulaic and frigid as some of the formats it enjoys mocking.

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