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"Harvey Birdman": A "Genie"us Return To Form

by on September 29, 2006

It’s not an all too rare thing to see a series go slowly down the drain. In fact, it seems to be part and parcel of television; waiting for that tragic moment when one’s favorite show starts to trip, slip and then proceed to full on tumble right into the gaping chasm of cancellation canyon.

There is that question, posed by the very first television addict in the mid sixteenth century (the man was certainly ahead of both his time and obsession):

“Is it better that a show dies early, leaving the viewer with a want for more? Or could it be preferable to see a show go into slow decline, leaving the audience feeling satisfied they really couldn’t handle another drossy season?”

It’s a question that levies no real answer. Even the conundrum over the chicken and eggy thing pales in comparison.

But with Harvey Birdman – Attorney at Law, we have one of those rare situations that shake the very roots of this epical question:

What if, a show seemed as if it was about to ride the helter skelter downwards, but in fact, wasn’t? With the benefit of glorious hindsight – would one really be so eager to axe a show in the stages of a “trip” to prevent a “tumble” into humiliating decline, only to find it actually got a lot better a year later?

It’s all a bit like a Doctor having to decide whether a terminal patient should be released of his mortal coil before the final pain sets in – only more important.

I recall reviewing the premiere episodes of Harvey Birdman’s previous season last year and while they were by no means poor, they weren’t very inspiring. It seemed to me that Harvey Birdman was in the first stages of “trip” preparing for a full on “tumble” sometime later. I would have been tempted to have ended Birdman on that season. How wrong that would have been.

So it’s been a pleasure to rejoin Harvey for his first episode of the next season and to feel comfortable breaking out the Bollinger in celebration of his return.

For those not in the know, Harvey Birdman is another piece of Adult Swim’s humorous pilfering from animation of yesteryear. Set in a law firm Sebben & Sebben, ex-superhero and rather poor attorney, Harvey Birdman “takes the case” of a menagerie of old faces from the crooks and crannies of cartoon history.

In this specific story – and really, in any Harvey Birdman story – the plot details seem hardly worth a debriefing. As for the details themselves, they really make little to no difference to how funny and enjoyable any episode is. In “Shazzan,” Peanut has unleashed a genie and this has put a certain judge in a great deal of trouble. Harvey – as usual – will take the case. Etc.

So why is this episode far better than the opener of the previous season, “Booty Noir?” Well humor is a subjective lass, so it is rather hard to pin down an answer. However, I think last season the story format seemed to be a little less consistent. When the story itself lacks a backbone, Birdman’s usual run of arbitrary sight gags, verbal wit and fast edits loses the solid foundation it needs to “do its stuff.” That doesn’t mean the stories have to be great, but the systems need to be in place so the material itself has a stage to play on. “Booty Noir” – while not a disgrace to Birdman – just felt a little directionless. Smart quips played out around a meandering and slight puerile plotline. There was also a little too much reliance on older series gags and character idioms. All in all, it just felt a little old.

“Shazzan” seems back to the form of the earlier two seasons. The plot is hardly inspiring, but it is solid and thereby gives the show the structure it needs to do what it does best. The episode is loaded with irrelevant cameos and background noise keeping the eyes and brain active as the script carries forth it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss it witty dialogue. The whole tale remains cheeky and amusing throughout. Maybe its preference, but they pulled the right set of characters for the premiere. Mentok, Peanut and Avenger take centre stage adding their own brand of comical color to all the different plot strands.

This was another aspect I liked about “Shazzan;” it didn’t rely on past catch phrases or routines – a habit many comedies tend to amble into in their later years. I thought I detected signs of this happening to Birdman early in season three, but the show seems to have made a full recovery. Aside from a little Mentok “oo-wooing” and Harvey’s infamous “I’ll take the case!” the episode puts aside the catchphrases and “one line” characters and concentrates on new gags. It was a pleasure not to have to be reminded about that thing I sent ya or to have Reducto doing the thing he not only does best, but worst – as it’s the only thing he does: Make things smaller. To add to the variety, Avenger can talk which makes for some great scenes throughout the show.

The animation is crisp and fast, cluttered with little bits of irrelevant characters and humor. The voice work is fantastic as always. Stephen Colbert’s Phil Ken Sebben always steals the show for me, even when he has nothing but a brief cameo, but the regular cast all do a great job – especially Thomas Allen as Peanut, who is tea spurtingly funny throughout. He gives Peanut such a gentle yet confident voice that just suits that smugness of the character.

Best bits? Peanut in the magic lamp is a short scene, but definitely my favorite. The show’s pre-credit sequence is a fantastic knot of sight and verbal humor that could be some of the best I’ve seen in the show.

So rejoice. Harvey Birdman is alive. He must now fall foul of the quintessential review cliché and be declared reborn like the phoenix from its own ashes. Unlike most comedies, Birdman seems to be aware of the risks of becoming a parody of its former glory and is attempting to avoid such pitfalls.

Either that or it got lucky.

Regardless, “Shazzan” is a damn fine start to Birdman’s new season. Watch it and be merry.

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