Describing the current slate of programming on Adult Swim, which takes over Cartoon Network every evening from 9pm to 6am, is like trying to explain why crude sex and drug jokes get old after a while. There’s nothing wrong with “Venture Brothers,” Odd Future’s “Loiter Squad” or Brendon Small’s “Metalocalypse,” other than their numbing similarity to each other and so many shows that have come before. It’s been a mainstay in many college dorm rooms on Sunday nights, but Adult Swim is still relying on the same three notes, sounded in between endless “King of the Hill” reruns, to fill up seven days of late night programming. Is Adult Swim stuck in a backward-looking loop at what used to work for the network in its prime? Since the next big plan is to resurrect its old programming block Toonami, the answer is yes.
Adult Swim resurrected Tooname on April 1st as a joke, going so far as to show the first episode of fan favorites like “The Big O,” “Blue Submarine No. 6” and “Bleach.” This caused such a hue and cry on Twitter that it prompted Adult Swim to tweet the next day, “Want it back? Let us know. #BringBackToonami” When it finally got greenlit to return, the hashtag became “#ToonamisBackBitches.”
Created in 1997, the three-hour Toonami block evolved from a dumping ground for old Hanna-Barberra cartoons to the first mainstream break-out platform for anime-centric programming like “Dragonball Z,” “Gundam” and “The Big O” along with “ReBoot,” “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Real Adventures of Johnny Quest.”
Hosted by wisecracking robot T.O.M. (voiced by Steven Blum, best known for voicing Spike Spiegal in the dubbed version of “Cowboy Bebop”), the afternoon schedule grew, then split off into a midnight selection and another program block on Kids WB. Toonami finally came in an end in 2008 with a nuanced sign-off from T.O.M. using the Spiegal’s iconic final word (“Bang.”)
The cult of Toonami is still online — the Comics and Cartoons board at 4Chan had weekly “Toonami” livestreams as if it were still 2001. Existing purely for anime fans and educating an audience so nerdy they eventually turned to Japan for their animation fix, Toonami inadvertently inspired the migration to online streaming for people that wanted fresher material. Sites like Crunchyroll and even Funimation, which embraced YouTube and uploaded full episodes there for free, are updating daily with new content that changes instantly with the seasons.
The new Toonami will air only two new shows, both from Funimation: “Casshern Sins” and “Deadman Wonderland,” the former of which is up in full on Hulu and the latter of which has complete episodes on YouTube. Both have also been available on Netflix Instant since March. There’s no incentive offered by Adult Swim to give a damn about that, because the content is unimportant — the resurgence of the Toonami brand is blatant nostalgia bait. The online campaigns urging people to watch since “the experiment will need ratings” are just fan pandering, a twist on the “Paranormal Activity” “Demand it!” marketing message.
The current Adult Swim motto of “if it was popular before, it’ll be popular again” regularly gets warmed over with shows like “NTSF:SD:SUV,” the latest cop show procedural from Paul Scheer; a 15-minute, one-off mockumentary about the ongoing evolution of “The Venture Brothers” as Hank, H.E.L.P.eR. and half-brother Dermott form their band Shallow Gravy; and PFFR’s (“Wonder Showzen”) new “The Heart, She Holler,” described as “a satire on the emotional Hee-Hawification of America, set in a town so inbred, the folks have become almost supernaturally wrong.”
It’s a line-up that’s eerily close to what you’d find in Adult Swim’s mid- to late-2000s heyday, one that included “Xavier: Renegade Angel,” “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “12 oz. Mouse.” In an interview in advance of their “Cabin Boy” screening this week in New York with The L Magazine, director-writers Adam Resnick and Chris Elliot were reminded of their 1994 film’s influence and predictive power — “it has character actors and no straight man, it has moments of unabashed anarchy (like the flying cupcake who spits tobacco), it has running gags that change context (pipe-cleaning), and it has a Twin Peaks alum. That’s… practically the Adult Swim formula.” Resnick answered, “ It’s true. Some of Adult Swim’s weird humor, some of that oddness… Cabin Boy did have some of that.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that Elliot’s “Eagleheart,” which currently airs on Adult Swim, hits those same notes. The programming block has grown enough that it runs seven nights a week, as self-referential in its programming as it’s signature commercial bumps are. But moving forward, and in order to move forward, there has to be something else — whether that means searching beyond the same dozen or so creators/comedians the Williams Street production group seem to keep on speed dial or branching out past the original shows. When “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” morphed into “Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1” because the series creators were tired of their original series, you start to wonder, “why not just make something new?”
Just look at Dino Stamatopolous, who worked with three different series on Adult Swim: “Moral Orel,” “Mary-Shelly’s Frankenhole” (as creator/producer/writer) and “Tom Goes to the Mayor” (as a writer). It would be amazing if Adult Swim had the ability to try out new products instead of focusing on the stoner concepts that gave them a guaranteed dorm room audience. You think that’s an unfair criticism? Two words: “Tight Bros.”
As their programming stands, Adult Swim is about to hit a very large rock called “The Internet.” The network is no longer the only game in town when it comes to funny, quick segments — there’s the entire web and specialized YouTube channels that pump out new content daily like The Nerdist and Machinima, all capable of dealing with an audience’s whims and shaping their expectations in real time. The biggest irony of Adult Swim may not be in the tone of its programming, but that it set the stage for these new online channels that now threaten the network’s future.