As if made to prove that film noir isn’t one genre, but all the genres, Steve Conrad’s “Ultra City Smiths” tackles its many creative departures with captivating verve, gliding from crime saga to sporadic musical to stop-motion animated whodunit, all while imbuing each with a spirit so bleak it makes the new series’ dreamy dancing between absurd comedy and moving drama absolutely stunning.
And yes, there is dancing — oh, is there ever.
While describing the AMC+ series’ plot may prove as futile as launching a standalone streaming service for a network whose biggest hits are available elsewhere, I, too, will give it a go. “Ultra City Smiths” is set in Ultra City, a Manhattan stand-in filled with sports arenas like Addison Square Garden, newspapers like “The Ultra City Times” spelled out in a familiar Old English font, and prison ferries shipping in from Rucker’s Island. The island metropolis is also a dark, downbeat place where, as the Narrator voiced by Tom Waits plainly states from the jump, “no one’s dreams come true.”
That much holds up as the half-hour premiere introduces our sprawling cast of characters, led by fresh transplant David Mills, who despite sharing the same name and profession as Brad Pitt’s character in “Se7en,” is voiced by Jimmi Simpson, who last worked with Conrad on the EPIX series “Perpetual Grace, Ltd.” The young detective is new to town, but that doesn’t keep him from snagging a hot case: Mayoral candidate and famous magnate Carpenter K. Smith (Kurtwood Smith) has disappeared. Widely considered the city’s “last bright hope,” this missing person’s case reverberates throughout Ultra City, and the powers that be pair Mills with an experienced partner in Detective Gail Johnson (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) to get to the bottom of things ASAP.
Luckily (so to speak), the bottom of things is where most of Ultra City’s residents reside. Little Grace (Alia Shawkat) was trying to run a simple hand-off — drop off the money, bring back “the street product” — but a hastily opened door knocks her down, and very nearly out. Now, her WWWE Heavyweight Champ mother, Lady Andrea the Giant (Bebe Neuwirth), has to keep her safe, even though her plans for domination in the ring hit a cruel, ill-timed snag. Then there’s Street Hustler Boy (Damon Herriman); no longer a boy or a hustler, the blue-eyed 42-year-old can’t turn a trick to save his sick friend, 34th Street Chuck. (The show’s language for sex work is magnificent, with Johns buying “back scratches” and “bubblegum” among other inspired slang terms.)
There’s also Congressman Chris Pecker (Dax Shephard) and his wife, Donella Pecker, the former of whom gets caught with his last name out online; a corrupt police captain named Kreiger (voiced by “Patriot” alum Terry O’Quinn); a famous actress named Trish McSapphire hiding behind big sunglasses and a matching green scarf/coat combo; a small-time dealer by the name of Rodrigo Smalls who’s just trying to put food on the table for his pregnant wife; and The King of the Night, a disco dancer voiced by John C. Reilly who will only talk to the cops if they “dance him down” — “you know, dance in the area where I’m dancing, and dance better than me.”
If you don’t think David Mills will rise to that challenge, then, well, you’re probably still thinking of the Brad Pitt version. In “Ultra City Smiths,” weirdness only answers to weirdness, except when it doesn’t; The King of the Night’s invitation may sound strange to Det. Johnson, but Det. Mills is ready for it. After all, he often spends his downtime dancing without music, just to keep himself from falling off the wagon. (He’s not only an alcoholic, but also a lime-a-holic, where he can’t be around the tiny fruit wedges or he’ll become obsessed to the point of ignoring his family.) The mystery of what happened to Carpenter K. Smith and who’s responsible creates the show’s narrative drive, but Conrad’s scripts are nimble enough to generate momentum in these kind of peculiar diversions, as well.
Courtesy of AMC Networks
It helps that the song-and-dance routines are mesmerizing in their stilted, stop-motion choreography and make for refreshing, out-of-nowhere surprises in each of the first three episodes. Like so many scenes in “Ultra City Smiths,” on their own, they’re incredibly strange: a bunch of baby doll heads repurposed into adult cops and sex workers, form a chorus line in Central Park while singing about where to go if you like getting kicked in the dick? OK! Sure! Why not!
Yet matching the most extreme moments of inexplicable surrealism are meticulously constructed flashes of pure beauty. In the premiere, there’s an entrancing shot of kids skateboarding through a sewer tunnel captured from the back of the pack; the leader is carrying a flashlight (or using his phone to see where they’re going), and the movement of the three teens combined with the shadows dancing around the endless tube is one of the more breathtaking uses of low-light photography in recent memory. Similar compositions pop up often enough to make you want to pause, rewind, or just ignore the winding, wild plot to better appreciate the visual world Conrad and co-director David Brooks have built. Better still, many of them are used to underscore poignant character moments that really shouldn’t work. (Randolph’s voice work as Det. Johnson is so downtrodden you can hear the cracks made from life walking all over her. That performance, combined with her character’s magnificent surroundings, makes you forget you’re staring at a once-creepy doll’s head with a pair of immobile corneas.)
Through carefully orchestrated contrasts like these, the creator has made a show that’s both impossible to take seriously and too affecting to dismiss as absurdity for absurdity’s sake. Viewers will likely be pulled in a few different directions across the visual and emotional spectra in each 20-to-24-minute entry. With only half the season available for advanced screening, I can’t say exactly where “Ultra City Smiths” is going or what it hopes to say; I don’t even know if it’s meant as commentary on genre and filmmaking as a whole, or the bizarre, incongruous nature of our modern reality. It might be both; it’s almost certainly more. One thing it’s not is anything less than ultra.
“Ultra City Smiths” premieres Thursday, July 22 on AMC+. The six-episode first season will air on AMC this fall.