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In Defense of Problem Solverz

by on April 19, 2011

I’ve made no effort to hide it; I unabashedly love Ben Jones’ new series The Problem Solverz. A simple cursory glance around the internet can reveal a slightly-less-than-warm reaction to the show, though. Another cursory glance at The Problem Solverz itself can explain why; TPS is one of the most actively antagonistic cartoons I have ever seen. Everything about it, from the seizure-inducing color scheme to the grotesque character designs to the wonky animation to the grating voices to the overly-cheesy dialogue seems to taunt the viewer, as if the show itself is asking “Do you have the guts to sit through me?”. In that sense, TPS achieves its goal with flying (and bright flashing) colors. But underneath it all, I genuinely love this show and Ben Jones’/Paper Rad’s work in general. I like it for the same reasons I like other polarizing shows like the unsettling Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! or the indescribable Xavier: Renegade Angel. Is it because I enjoy being a contrarian?

Partly. I’ll be frank and admit it: the amount of pure hatred directed at this show turns me on. Due to the copious amount of meta-humor TPS is shrouded in, it becomes literally to impossible to enjoy this show just on its own merits. Instead, a second, parallel plane of entertainment is created, one that is not made of jokes and visuals, but rather one comprised of intentions of the creator and the reactions of the viewer. The joke is on us all, and the outrage is the punchline. To use a more uncouth word, Ben Jones trolled America. You could say that I’m a bit sadistic in watching and enjoying both professional and armchair critics being thrown such a curveball, and I guess you’d be right. But I’m just applying my own presumptions onto the work, and I’d like to get to the more apparent side of meta-humor Problem Solverz serves.

No person on Earth could possibly pitch this to a network with a straight face and get this show on the air. The foundation of Problem Solverz is irony, and there’s no way to take this show seriously, nor should it be. It’s intentional “so bad it’s good” humor, but unlike other works that makes everything seem too forced, TPS mixes together the right amount of cheese with a dash of genuine effort that creates a package that blurs the lines between reality and irony; Paper Rad has taken this aesthetic to so many extremes that it’s hard to tell whether or not the masterminds behind it were stereotypical Brooklyn hipsters smugly sipping lattes trying to make the “worst cartoon ever” or earnest artists with an odd sense of humor and a shot at the big time. Either way, Problem Solverz‘s funniest bits are often how ridiculously bad the show can get in terms of quality, like incredibly noticeable Flash shortcuts, ludicrously cheesy dialogue (that tends to invoke the unintentional cheese of bad 80’s cartoons, like most things about this show), and horrifyingly ugly character designs. The show itself is a joke, and that is what is most divisive about it.

The only thing separating Problem Solverz from a dated amateur webtoon is intent, and obviously that doesn’t fly with some people for understandable reasons. When a work of art’s meaning and enjoyment is taken from the circumstances surrounding it, that can seem unfair when compared to works where the enjoyment is directly inside the picture and is supposed to be perceived as is without much interpretation or explanation. After all, the main reason why “Black Square” can be considered art was because painter Kazimir Malevich said so. And what about Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain”, a piece that practically gloats about anything can be twisted into “art”? But I don’t think that type of cynicism is what goes behind TPS.

Creator Ben Jones clearly has a lot of enthusiasm for his work (just looking at the credits shows that he plays a direct role in almost everything about the show), and he’s been working with the characters for years, both with Adult Swim, Load Records, and alone with the Paper Rad collective. And in that earnestness is a bit of an ugly-pug cuteness: behind all those wrinkles and ironic gesturing is an actual attempt to create real comedy. The second pitfall to liking this show rides on what type of comedy is used, and it tends to be the main breaking point of the show. Just like how Tim and Eric often hides rather dark and unsettling undertones beneath the cheesy public access surface and Xavier holds some really clever wordplay behind the trippy and confusing imagery, Problem Solverz has an undercurrent of creepy awkwardness to it (albeit toned down in the children’s version), and a lot of humor stems from how not-right these characters and settings seem, and how these characters are really enthusiastic and serious about what they do, as if everyone is in on the joke except for them.

In those terms, the show’s inherent visual ugliness actually turns into a plus. TPS truly feels like one of the first shows in a long time to truly feel like the Internet in terms of humor, visuals, and concept, and it fully takes advantage of that. There’s really no other way this show could have been animated other than in Flash, mainly because of Flash’s undeserved rep as an animation tool that tends to create rather ugly animation more often than not. It makes the intentional glitching look more natural, and I unironically think it’s one of the best uses of Flash I’ve seen in a long time. Instead of falling into the common trap of trying to force Flash to look like traditional animation (which almost never works, except for a few outliers like Foster’s Home and Superjail), Ben and the small (and completely in-house, I might add) team of animators decided to create a show that could only work in Flash, with the added benefits of cheap production costs and a quick turnaround time for finished episodes.

But most of all, I like what Problem Solverz represents. This show is the first time in a long time a truly avant-garde experimental cartoon has hit the mainstream outside of Adult Swim. Regardless of their opinion on this show, I think everyone should really respect the idea of truly thought-provoking, bold, and different material suddenly finding its way to audiences that would never see it otherwise. And more importantly, it means that more creative animation could be on its way, and that’s what I really want in a cartoon: to be entertained, to see something interesting that hasn’t been done before. The Problem Solverz is not the worst show ever by any means. On the contrary, the worst type of series is a “paycheck show”, a show with no character or passion behind it, a show that serves no purpose other than to fill network slots, a show that is just “average”. Just like life itself, The Problem Solverz is endearingly ugly and I wouldn’t have it any other way, badly-tweened gradients and all.

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