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"The Amazing World of Gumball": Not as Amazing as Advertised

The Amazing World of Gumball, the latest series from Cartoon Network, at least has an interesting background: it employs and repurposes characters that were originally created for commercial work before being ultimately sidelined. Sadly, the series would make a better first impression if it didn’t feel like it was employing recycled gags, characterizations, and sitcom ideas as well.

Gumball bows with a truly impressive catalog of characters already in place. It is very hard to judge a show based on its first few episodes, but this one at least has the potential to wander off into greener pastures. Partly that’s because it has so many characters to wander off with, and so much space to wander into. But (a grimmer thing to note) it’s also because Gumball has good reason not to linger long in the company of the Wattersons, the cartoon family at the center of its premiere.

These are made up of a cartoon-rabbit father and his wife and three children, most of whom cannot be vividly described much better than as cartoon-things. They live in a suburban house, and in the premiere episode “The Responsible” / “The DVD” they all suffer through some very tame sitcom situations. In the first short the two older children (Gumball and Darwin) have to look after the baby while the parents are at a parent-teacher conference, with predictably disastrous results. In the latter, the two older children have to cover up the destruction of a DVD that’s overdue at the rental store. (The latter situation, besides rapidly dating the show in this era of Netflix and internet streaming, suggests just how deeply inside-the-box the series can be with its ideas.) There are no surprises and no lunacies, and in a lot of places there isn’t even anything that couldn’t be done in a live-action setting. The characters simply move from one relatively stock pose to another, and most the comedy has to be found on the soundtrack. Even the characterizations—high-strung mother has to discipline terminally precocious, smart-mouth kids and drag around an overgrown-baby of a husband—overlap almost exactly with clichés that are now at least thirty years old.

In fact, the Wattersons are, immediately, so relentlessly stale that any change to them even after just one episode would reflect a Herculean degree of creative strength. On the other hand, there’s no telling what the show might do with its other characters, especially given an intriguing appearance by a semi-feral teacher in “The Responsible.” That and the bland anarchism of the premiere shorts at least suggest that this show could rocket off in exciting and hilarious directions at any moment. That by itself is probably reason enough to keep a skeptical eye cocked in its general direction.

Otherwise, the best thing in the show is the use of kid actors in the kid roles. Logan Grove and Kwesi Boakye as Gumball and Darwin, respectively, have a raw authenticity that blithely sidesteps the more obvious pitfalls to playing a “child”, and their acting chops are sufficient to keep them from stumbling around awkwardly. They say little that is genuinely funny, but at least they say it with energy. On the other hand, I doubt that the visuals—one of the show’s supposed selling points—will remain an asset for long. However striking its mixed-up style may seem at first, one quickly gets used to its “creative clutter” as just another design theory, and it soon becomes invisible.

The Amazing World of Gumball is at least mildly eccentric, and in a way that makes it hard to predict whether it will find an audience and who might be in that audience. A lot of the time it feels like an Adult Swim show that has been kiddified, losing its smartness but without picking up a compensating energy or cartooniness. Still, it has a sincerity and an obvious desire to please—even in the depths of cliché it never feels cynical—so it may strike a chord in a lot of viewers. At the very least, you ought to check it out.

The Amazing World of Gumball premieres on Cartoon Network on Monday, May 9, at 7:30pm (ET/PT).

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