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Looking Back: Robotomy

by on February 2, 2011

Cartoon Network and robots don’t mix. Aside from a few Gundam series (and hopefully Genndy Tartakovsky’s newest outing Sym-Bionic Titan), most of the network’s attempts to launch robot-themed shows have been met with dismal failure, from Gundam Seed to IGPX to Megas XLR to Robot Jones. But the title for the saddest robot story would have to go to a very recent series, Michael Buckley and Joe Deasy’s Robotomy, a show that never really had much of a chance to begin with.
Unfortunately, the reasons why the show never got very far are the very same ones that Robotomy an enjoyable show indicative of Cartoon Network’s current zeitgeist.

A far cry from the days where adults and kids were strictly segregated into two networks with no contact between each other, the network has since stopped neglecting the demographic stuck between the two groups and has embraced mixing elements from both sides of the I-85, the Atlanta thoroughfare that has both mentally and physically isolated the Cartoon Network and Adult Swim camps. Aside from turning prime-time into a middle ground for both audiences (a far cry from the days of content whiplash where Camp Lazlo would segue into Family Guy), both sides have been able to commingle with each other, sharing different styles and talent. In a prime example of the latter, Robotomy was an Adult Swim show produced for kids. Directed by Christy Karacas, creator of one of the most explicit yet artistic shows on television, Superjail, and animated by New York’s World Leaders Entertainment (of Venture Bros. fame), the series from the very start seemed to operate independently from the heads over at Techwood.

While the show was produced in Manhattan, Atlanta still called the shots, and did so almost cruelly. After a year or so of constant pitching and denial, the actual production itself was hindered by a revolving door of changing executives who had their own likes and dislikes about the project. It took around three years for the show to premiere on television, and it didn’t exactly garner a hero’s welcome.
The few airings it had were buried by a lack of promotion, and by the time the network did start to acknowledge the show, it was too little too late for the series. Why was Robotomy given the shaft job?

It’s certainly not because it couldn’t appeal to the target audience. Robotomy takes the generic high school setting, turns it on its head, and cleverly plays on the format by having the high school and its student body depicted as violent psychopaths, with typical stereotypical high school problems being both trivialized and aggrandized by the background carnage and horror of Insanus, a planet inhabited by killer robots. After all, why worry about half of downtown being vaporized into oblivion when the prom is on Friday and you can’t find a date?

Thrasher (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and Blastus
(John Gemberling, another Adult Swim alum) are the two stock high school outcasts in a world where social ostracization can get your head ostracized from your body (which happens multiple times, and gets reset in typical Adult Swim fashion). And being stock high school outcasts, there is admittedly not much to the main two characters outside of those tropes; Blastus is the wacky and socially awkward scheming friend, and Thrasher is his comic foil. Most of the secondary characters get even less depth and originality. The reliable gang of high school stereotypes is all here: the jock, the popular girl with no real interest in the main character’s romantic advances, the overly strict teacher; Robotomy has it all. The only characters that seem fresh and new is the disturbingly cheery and motherly principal Thunderbite (with an equally disturbing spider-skull character design to boot), and Weenus, the school wimp and punching bag who has an interestingly unstable personality and naive ego to help spice up the tired cliche behind the character.

To be fair, five half-hours do not give you much to work with, and had Robotomy been renewed for a second season, I’m sure we would have gotten that depth these ten episodes lack. Just like how the Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and Regular Show waited until the second season to flesh out secondary characters, Robotomy‘s first and only season follows the two-season approach to creating a high-concept show that can leave a lot to be desired if the first episodes don’t hook the audience right away. Season one tends to be world-building, showing all the basics of the world and enticing the viewer with interesting possibilities of what could happen in that world. After gaining the viewer’s trust, season two takes a different approach by world-expanding, taking the bare-bones skeleton created in season one and fleshing out by showing how all of the characters interact and use that world, along with playing off of each other. This more subdued approach lets the creator tell the stories he or she wants to tell with the concept already already introduced to the viewer without need of explanation, with the drawback of making those stories seem less interesting, causing some perceived “sophomore slump”. One can only imagine the stories left untold.

The real reason behind the show’s swift cancellation is not content (and let’s face it, the innuendo in Robotomy is nothing compared to the brazen disregard of standards and practices displayed weekly by Regular Show). In the end, what really killed the show was its strongest point, Christy Karacas’ Superjail-esque art style for the show. Augenblick animating the hyper-detailed, super-kinetic Superjail digitally is one thing, World Leaders recreating the style and animating each frame traditionally is another. While I support the rebirth of New York’s animation industry, financial stability trumps artistic principle every time, and the series could have been saved had World Leaders buckled and sent some work to Korea. The show went over budget, and required international investment to break even, and unfortunately, that investment just wasn’t there, for whatever reason (too violent?). In retrospect, the shaft job makes perfect sense: why waste advertising dollars and timeslots on a show that was essentially dead on arrival?

It’s really a shame that Cartoon Network’s first ambitious attempt to really work in unison with Adult Swim fell so far so fast. There has got to some painful irony in a show where death is thrown around so casually being axed unceremonially, though.

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