“Dicktown” is a perfect title, even if without context you may never guess that the animated series it belongs to follows a pair of detectives investigating the mysteries of their chosen client base: North Carolina teenagers.
The title refers to a nickname for Richardsville, a Tar Heel State town that might be fictional in this telling, but is rooted in the combined experiences and fascinations of its two writers and creators: John Hodgman and David Rees.
In “Dicktown” (the featured Season 3 presentation of the brilliantly eccentric FXX anthology shorts collection “Cake”), John Hunchman (Hodgman) is the former precocious boy detective still puzzling out amateur-level jobs, while David Purefoy (Rees) is the former bully who’s now his partner in crime-solving.
“One of the mysteries that we never solved, and never bothered to even solve in writing, was why these guys became friends. They have this long history of antagonism. And we just decided, somehow over years of being the only ones who stuck around in town after high school, they just gave up and became friends,” Hodgman told IndieWire.
While that origin story may be untold at this opening season’s end, Rees and Hodgman are drawing on a 20-year friendship. They first worked together in short-form animation on the WIRED series “Codefellas,” which Rees co-created with Brian Spinks and for which Hodgman and Emily Heller provided the main voices. Years after teaming on that project, Rees and Hodgman took a 2016 roadtrip to Florida that became the genesis of a multi-year process that would eventually lead to “Dicktown.”
“‘Encyclopedia Brown’ meets ‘Scooby-Doo’ meets generalized adult-onset malaise” is an efficient elevator pitch for the series, but part of what takes it from a simple pastiche to one of the most purely entertaining new shows of 2020 is the way it takes that premise and flips it over from the inside. In 11-ish-minute installments spread out over each “Cake” episode (and also viewable as standalones via the show’s Hulu page), there’s still plenty of room for the show to slip in nods to its own distinct stylings.
“I always like to point it out because I think it’s just one of the most genius ideas that David had written: I think it was [his] joke originally, to write the run of strip clubs in town. It just goes on and on and on and on,” Hodgman said. “When it was proposed that we would flash a slide of each one, he said, ‘Make sure that there’s a church steeple in the background of every strip club.’ That’s just an incredible comment on how high culture and low culture, scuzz and quote-unquote ‘respectful culture’ all coexist with each other in American suburbs. Just an awesome visual joke that I hope people see upon repeated re-viewings.”
Aside from those tiny visual nuggets, there’s a particular kind of incisiveness that comes across in the pair’s performances, too. Most animated productions record each voice performer at different sessions, blending takes later to try to get at some kind of chemistry. Series executive producer Matt Thompson (a longtime producer and director on the FXX series “Archer” and co-creator of the production company Floyd County) recognized that Hodgman and Rees’ dynamic would come across best if the two didn’t record separately. (In the opening episode, when John explains that DC character Mon-El’s name comes from him being discovered on a Monday, that’s Hodgman tossing out knowledge that wasn’t in the script, with Rees’ genuine reaction.)
“Matt was smart enough to know, ‘This show really is about your guys’ relationship. So the two of you should be in the booth together, recording your lines as a duo,'” Rees said. “Matt also encouraged us to go off-script. There are a couple scenes in the episodes where what you’re hearing is us just bullshitting with each other in character. Floyd County did a great job of editing those bits into the dialogue that we had scripted out.”
Those familiar with Hodgman and Rees’ prior individual work may realize that their animated “Dicktown” versions look a lot like the guys voicing them. In working with the Floyd County animation team, their individual character designs went threw a number of iterations. Even with the prospect of being transformed into a Hanna-Barbera-style cartoon figure, that process was still daunting.
“There’s nothing more revealing than receiving dozens and dozens of different interpretations of your body and fat face in various different cartoon styles and realizing, ‘Oh, that’s what they think I look like. Maybe that is what I look like,'” Hodgman said. “They nailed David pretty well right away. But I worked through a lot of insecurity before I OK’d my character. And David, much like David Purefoy was constantly giving notes like, ‘You should make John sadder and sad-looking. And you should make his outfits really bad.’ And I was like, ‘I know that’s right for this story. But on the other hand, this may be the only time that I am drawn in animation. I need to look a little bit OK.'”
Spontaneity drove some of the season’s best moments, but a lot of what keeps the show grounded comes from ways that the pair can draw on their own life. David Purefoy’s green hoodie is far from the only thing from Rees’ past and present that found its way into the show. As a North Carolina native himself, Rees slipped in a few nods to hometown hangouts. The Lunch Hut, the “Dicktown” diner of choice, is styled after Chapel Hill mainstay Sutton’s Drug Store. Character names even became ways to pay tribute.
“Heather Culbreth is named Culbreth because that was the name of my middle school. Purefoy is the name of the road where I went to preschool. So there’s a lot of Easter eggs and references for people from North Carolina,” Rees said.
John and David’s detective business is driven by sincerity, even with all the wacky hijinks they get into over the course of the season. (Among the various cases are mysteries involving attic ghosts, forest parties, and one memorable afternoon of croquet.) John Hunchman might feel disappointed by his position in life, but that comes more from him feeling unsatisfied with how his life has developed to this point than the place where his anxieties play out.
“We wanted the show to represent the way in real life all these cultures are smashed together. Old Southern culture, new Southern culture. Obviously, we wanted the cast to represent what America looks like. And we wanted to react to the fact that John and David are these middle-aged white guys, engaging with a youth culture that’s much more inclusive, coming to terms with that without judging it,” Hodgman said.
Those real-life North Carolina references are hints that this is a project driven by an appreciation of what inspired it, rather than a vehicle for cheap shots. Given the fact that the Floyd County team is based in Atlanta, the creative energy of “Dicktown” was invested in fashioning an animated world not defined by a single set of characteristics. Part of that comes across in Tucker (Ronald Peet), one of John and David’s recurring clients.
“Tucker’s house I was very particular about. Chapel Hill is a college town that for years and years was solidly middle class, but then a lot of new money came in because of the Research Triangle Park. Outside of town, you have these massive McMansions in gated communities. So we wanted Tucker and his family to be part of that new Chapel Hill,” Rees said. “I definitely wanted the show to be set in North Carolina explicitly. But instead of making it just ‘a country show about rednecks in North Carolina,’ to show all these very subtle, different social worlds that co-mingle in a in a town like Chapel Hill.”
The season’s best episode might just be the one that features John’s dad (played by the always-welcome Stephen Tobolowsky). The elder Hunchman finds himself producing the music video of teenage SoundCloud rapper Lil Blurp in the middle of an abandoned mall. (“I’m personally fascinated with abandoned malls, I will look at photos of abandoned and out-of-business malls online all the time. They are incredibly spooky,” Hodgman said.)
In drafting off the presence of a tiger in Lil Pump’s real-life “Gucci Gang” video, Hodgman and Rees wrote some ocelots into their script for the episode. Little did they know that the team at Floyd County — who have woven plenty of those furry assassins into past chapters of “Archer” — was more than ready to handle it. The “Dicktown” montage of John and David tracking down these loose animals throughout the mall is the perfect convergence of Hodgman and Rees’ framework instincts and the visual flourishes bringing them to life.
“I don’t think we knew about the ‘Archer’ episode until Matt was like, ‘Don’t worry about ocelots. We know ocelots. We got it,'” Rees said. “It was a good lesson to just notice what they add, things that we never thought of. I think it’s instinctual for them and it makes for a really exciting collaboration.”
The combined comfort of working with an experienced team of animators, voicing characters that draw on their interests, and working from their own scripts all dovetail with the fact that “Dicktown” episodes also come in an ideal length. Even if any future version of the show would expand to half-hour programming blocks, both Rees and Hodgman seemed on board with the idea to just fill that time with two mysteries instead of one.
“Once you build a world and populate it, you just want to keep going. You want to find out more about these people and figure out how they relate to each other, and obviously that also leads to new ideas for mysteries,” Rees said. “I think we wrote an entire script about two rival high school podcasts who are trying to outdo each other with how long their podcast episodes were. One crew is recording a 24-hour-long podcast episode. They just won’t stop recording. They’re hiring John and David as they’re recording their podcast.”
Regardless of what form the show may take, much of the show’s appeal boils down to the fact that David and John genuinely do want the best for each half of their crime-solving duo. We may not exactly know why they’ve stayed friends, but that strange endurance is why “Dicktown” is ultimately more sweet than cynical.
As Hodgman said jokingly, “One of the things we were always worried about was that FX and FXX would figure out this is a show that really has a lot of heart and is about people who care about each other.”
“Dicktown” is part of the anthology series “Cake.” The Season 3 finale airs Thursday night at 10 p.m. with all previous episodes available to stream on Hulu.