Class Clowns

The Oblongs, the WB network's new animated series that premiered on April Fools' Day, opens with the sound of a flushing toilet. Chipper voices, who could be singing about the Flintstones or Scooby Doo, sing the show's setup: As cartoon waste flows from a fancy mansion down into a valley filled with decrepit houses and power lines, the voices chirp about how "a chemical spill came from the people living up on the Hill," and we get a glimpse of the show's title family, living, fa-la-la, "by the landfill with hazardous foam, in their happy, glowing home."

The Oblongs are the first television family marked by the deformities of waste dumping. Milo, the little boy at the center of the show, is almost physically normal--one eye is much smaller than the other--but he has what the family doctor calls "typical Valley childhood ailments: ADD, OCD, TDD, and of course foaming diarrhea." He used to go to a special school for "the pathologically high-spirited." His mother, Pickles, a downwardly mobile former Hill girl, is bald underneath a tall wig and drinks like a fish. His sister, four-year-old Beth, is a tattletale with a cucumberlike tumor growing out of her head; his twin brothers Chip and Biff are typical adolescents, except for the fact that they are conjoined, with three legs and three buttocks between them. His father, Bob, has no legs and no arms, but nonetheless maintains an upbeat attitude, a decent assembly-line job at the local poison-chemical plant, an active sex life, and can cut wood, give charades clues, and light a barbecue with his head. Milo, dressed in a T-shirt bearing the motto "No," hangs out with a club of misfits: Helga, who is shaped like a giant pear and whose parents disappeared for a year, during which time she lived off of crows and unsold cakes from a bakery dumpster; Susie, a slouching Goth girl with a strange, depressed-Frenchwoman accent; one-breasted Peggy, who spits and lisps, on account of the absence of a lower jaw; and Mikey, a redhead with an extrabulbous behind. "It's funny," Mikey says of his butt. "And sad."

Aside from the occasional talk show or Dateline segment, the appearance of such grotesques on television is quite unusual. But this is not your usual freak show. The Oblongs aims at comic social commentary, and its target is what the WB, that hotbed of radicalism, calls "the caste system in America"--and also, not coincidentally, what WB Executive Vice President Jordan Levin calls "a disenfranchised younger audience." Indeed, as Levin told journalists at a recent press conference, here "the have-nots are the heroes." The real monsters are the haves, who reside, literally and figuratively, at the top of the Hill--especially the climbing Klimers. George Klimer is Bob's greedy, patronizing boss at Globocide Industries, and his wife is a zombie snob. Their son is a stupid bully, and their daughter is leader of the Debbies--the rich, popular, spoiled girls, all named Debbie, who look like Barbie dolls and like one another. The folks in the Valley are well aware of what they have not and venture up the Hill periodically for an envious glimpse. "Wow, she's got everything," says Mikey, when Milo and his mates break into Debbie's room. "I've got just a towel, a floor, and an old batting helmet to eat out of." Peggy, of the missing jaw, lolls around on Debbie's bed. "Thish ish what I dream my marital bed will be like," she says. "Except that it will contain a shwarthy Lothario with a mashtersh in shpeech therapy."

Each episode is a little fable of class conflict, in which the oppressed battle a bit of injustice and the oppressors get their comeuppance. In one, Milo has to give away his beloved dog Scotty, who was making him "more hyper than ever," and George Klimer descends from the Hill to take the dog in. But when the Debbies discover Scotty "making" on the lawn, George removes him to Animal Testing at Globocide, where the dog is used to test a cologne whose side effect is narcolepsy and is caged next to a chimp in lipstick and high heels and a beaver testing an exploding sombrero. "I don't hate you, Dad," Milo declares when he finds out Scotty's fate, "I hate the company you work for." By the end of the episode, the Oblongs have donned black clothing, broken into the factory, outwitted two sets of guards, battled Boss Klimer, and set free Scotty and the rest of the animals. Klimer is doused with his own narcolepsy-inducing cologne and blown up with his own exploding sombrero--only to return for next week's show, of course. This is, after all, a cartoon.

In another episode, a gun-toting, racist Bible-thumper named Mrs. Hubbard is sent down the Hill by the mayor to reform the parenting skills in the Valley. She offers to adopt humongous, abandoned Helga and give her a nice home and self-esteem: "Lord, cleanse this heathen of her vile and disgusting ways," she prays. Meanwhile, she turns Helga into a prim proselytizer who goes door-to-door requesting donations to send Bibles into space. Helga's eyes flash a desperate message when she and Mrs. Hubbard visit the Oblongs: "HELP" on one eye and "ME" on the other. The Oblongs break into Mrs. Hubbard's bedroom, where limbless Bob, bouncing around in a harness and a thong, whips a startled Mrs. Hubbard, while Pickles snaps scandalous photos to bring to the custody hearing. Owing to poor photography, the strategy fails; but using the Internet Milo tracks down Helga's parents, who had survived a plane crash by eating the other passengers, and Mrs. Hubbard is nonetheless foiled.

As befits a cartoon, the satire is broad--drawn, like the characters, with big, bold outlines and not much complexity: Rich people are pretty on the outside and ugly on the inside, and poor people are hideous on the outside but happy inside. But in a media culture that barely acknowledges the existence of a class system, it's striking to find a show premised on making fun of it. In fact, with The Oblongs--which joins shows like The Simpsons and King of the Hill, made by the same company, Film Roman--the genre of class-conscious cartoons has now reached critical mass. It is safe to say, and a bit chilling, that the American media's most direct and critical representations of class inequality are taking place in cartoons, the only spots on television that make no claims whatsoever to realism.

Underground cartoonist Angus Oblong, the show's originator, can hardly be said to have an upbeat sensibility. The Oblongs is based on characters from his self-published Children's Tragedies strip and the subsequent book Creepy Susie and 13 Other Tragic Tales for Troubled Children, and among his upcoming projects is a mock children's book called Mommy Is Going to Die. Yet it is quite clear that, in its move onto television, his vision has been transformed into something lighter and friendlier and more familiar, so that The Oblongs breaks new ground without feeling especially groundbreaking.

Oblong himself told The Sacramento Bee not long ago, in fact, that he was "really shocked" by the first episode. "I thought we were designing a dark, mesmerizing show," he said, "but it is so bright and colorful." The brightening was as much thematic as visual: From Oblong's original proposition of a show about Milo's clubhouse of "deformed kids who can't otherwise get friends," the show became one with a happy, lovable family at its center. As the show's executive producer, Bruce Helford, put it--sounding much like a satire of an executive producer--"The people from the Valley are all lovable," so lovable that "when I watch it, I can't help but feel, God, I want to hug all of them." Most likely, this undarkening is some combination of caution and habit, the usual routine of television producers fearing unlikable characters and attempting to duplicate the success of other shows--in this case, most obviously, The Simpsons. (An executive producer of The Oblongs, Jace Richdale, was a co-creator of The Simpsons.) Perhaps it is also a wise, if unfortunate, assessment of what audiences will and will not "relate to" and therefore watch in high enough numbers.

Whatever the motivation, in the WB's satire of "the caste system, "the shat upon are happier than the shitters. As the network's Levin declared to television critics, "Audiences will relate to The Oblongs, where love-and-family is more important than what the folks on the Hill have." And Helford added that "the heart of the show is how people in a really dysfunctional environment, who have nothing, who are put upon--with all the things they have to put up with, they are still a really good functioning family and happy, healthy, loving people," while "these people who are supposedly perfect," the Hill people, "are really, really fucked up emotionally." This is a nice fantasy for alienated teenagers, but it leads to a pulling back from the edginess that is meant to be the show's selling point. The moral superiority of the oppressed, the persistence of love in the midst of adversity--these romanticized visions of class escape satirical scrutiny. Even animated television seems unable to allow a more cutting, and probably funnier, possibility: that being dumped on by people higher on the hill can generate something other than a happy, healthy, huggable family.