And it's allowed them to push their media further artistically than nearly every other major cable station.
But wait, let me back up for those of you who aren't in the 'States, or who didn't grow up with cable. [Adult Swim] is an offshoot of the channel Cartoon Network. It's essentially the dark side of Cartoon Network, the thing that Cartoon Network turns into when the hour gets late and the children go to bed. (Of course, part of the allure of the channel for a lot of people my generation was staying up late and sneaking around the house to watch it when no one else was awake.) The channel shows cartoons aimed at a more adult audience--everything from comedy (like Family Guy and their own shows such as Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law or Space Ghost: Coast to Coast) to action (for a long time, each Saturday showed a range of new Anime alongside classics like Cowboy Bebop and FLCL).
But what really makes Adult Swim so iconic is its white-on-black text rants, its odd station bumps that bracketed the commercial breaks and sometimes bordered on turning into pure surrealist collage, and its well-edited, frequently voiceoverless commercials:
Ah, I could go on about those commercials for ages. Despite--or perhaps because of--how iconic they are, and how influential they've been on 'Net culture (AMV culture in particular), I've never seen anything quite like them. I mean, they had the guts to cut out exposition entirely and let the images themselves, paired with music, speak for the show. And, what's more, they played with techniques culled from video mashup culture and hip/trip-hop, resulting in commercials that are fascinating little artistic experiments in and of themselves.
And you know, it's possible largely because of the final thing that makes Adult Swim so memorable:
Seriously, all that stuff I said in the beginning? Not an exaggeration. From mocking fan mail, to randomly rearranging shows as a practical joke, to actually airing a full season of 12 Oz Mouse, [Adult Swim] set out to demonstrate how few fucks it gave, and it overwhelmingly succeeded.
But this article isn't just about how supremely dickish [Adult Swim] could be. No, it's about the freedom that this attitude granted them to experiment artistically.
Remember this quote?
"Junk is a second-class citizen of the arts... There are certain inherent privileges in second-class citizenship. Irresponsibility is one."
I used it waaaaaay way back in one of my first articles, an article about how comics should embrace their more bombastic, less "literary" or "high cultural" stylizations.
To some extent, I'm not sure I need to elaborate on the point made in the quote. I mean, that's pretty much my argument here, in a nutshell. [Adult Swim] can do all sorts of crazy things with their art that others can't, simply because they don't have to be responsible. Or, to put it another way, they can take risks that could potentially alienate an audience, because their audience kind of already expects them to be dicks, anyway.
You can see that in the videos I included above. [Adult Swim] was taking a risk with those odd bumps, and with their mostly silent, stylized commercials. Now, it would be easy to look at that and say that the ads work because they're cool. To conclude that is to ignore the simple fact that [Adult Swim] dictated the terms of cool, they dictated exactly what cool was. That primordial power of naming and declaration is made possible by a system where anyone who complains is publicly declared to be a moron.
[Adult Swim] dictated the terms of cool to their audience with the tried and true method of popular assholes everywhere: by always being ready to put the competition down.
I remember, in particular, one bump where [Adult Swim] noted the fact that National Lampoon had lauded their approach to comedy. What was the station's response?
That would have been more impressive back when National Lampoon was actually good.
What makes that comment so interesting is the subtext: National Lampoon is the old guard, ossified, no longer relevant, whereas [Adult Swim] is an innovator, young, arrogant, and self assured of its artistic decisions. That confidence is possible because of the leaps the station makes, the chances it takes. And those leaps into the abyss are only possible because of the confidence. It's a masterful, masturbatory feedback loop.
Nowhere is this clearer to me than with [Adult Swim]'s games. Check out this little masterpiece, for example: Lee-Lee's Quest 2. Just play through a little bit, I'll wait.
Bartender! Bring me another White Russian.
What? No, no, not the Tsar, I've already got one of those, I meant the drink, you utter nimrod.
No, you may NOT remove my Tsar from the premises, I don't care if there's no pets allowed, I had to bargain hard with the President to get this Tsar from him, and besides, I get to pretend I'm the Red Army and--
Oh, back, are you?
Now, tell me, as a rough estimate: how many fucks did that game give?
Not particularly many, all things considered.
The game targets just about anything under the sun for parody, including itself, art games, side scrolling platformers in general, and even, at some points, the very idea of subversive, deconstructive games in its same class!
But what interests me particularly about this game is the way it does take advantage of the total lack of consideration for the player to innovate some pretty spectacularly entertaining things. I mean, a lot of the more irritating traps are also downright hilarious, in part because they're so unexpected.
I think, in particular, of the moment when you crack your round blue skull open on a box that traditionally would give you some reward when hit:
But this kind of thing, the sudden, unexpected traps, made the game more fun, because they did not, generally, set me back too far and, more importantly, they introduced an element of the unexpected and tension to the game, where anything could turn out to be shockingly deadly with little or no warning. It made me sit up and take notice of my surroundings, rather than play through the game in a rote way.
What's so notable about this is the fact that a larger dedicated game company, that has cultivated an image of giving players what they want, would not have [Adult Swim]'s freedom to challenge their players with that kind of chaotic possibility of horrible, unexpected death. In essence, their games provide a less intense experience because they fear the negative consequences of being a dick to players. I think this is true even of independent developers--those who are actually competent enough to put together a game that functions without unintended glitches, specifically. If you know your Newgrounds game is going to be voted on by users, how much risk will you be willing to take? How miserable are you willing to make your players?
But deep down I suspect that people long to be challenged by their media, especially when they recognize the rote nature of what they are being served by existing institutions. Hence the lasting cultural success of the Punks, New Hollywood, hip-hop, the Fauvists, Pablo Picasso, the Dadaists... even if the individual members of these movements did not achieve success in their own lifetime, their decision to not only buck the trend, but to embrace an attitude of "Fuck you, I'm going to just do what I want" while doing so has made them enduring pop cultural icons, and major innovators that still remain, in many cases, icons of cool edginess.
But let's return briefly to the idea of artistic innovation. If I'm right, the artistic products of Assholism should give us something new to work with, right? They should push their media forward.
Well, not necessarily. Remember, an attitude does not guarantee artistic vision, it just can enable artistic experimentation. And some experiments are bound to be failures.
Thankfully, I think in the case of Lee-Lee's Quest 2 there's some interesting material to work with. Noting the chaotic nature of the death traps, for example, I have to wonder what a game would be like if that chaos was part of the theme. What if your powerups had a random chance of doing damage to you or killing you in addition to/instead of helping you? I believe this has already been played with conceptually in a few places, but the randomness side of it has never been given a thematic focus, to my knowledge, and that's potential ground to explore.
Oh, and then there's stuff like this:
|The best part is, there's no way to exploit this strategically, as far as I can see.|
Now, none of that depends on the attitude that [Adult Swim] has. However, the fact that the original innovation was a throwaway idea in a larger game is telling to me: it shows that [Adult Swim]'s media, by its chaotic nature and snide disregard of the consumer's expectations, can just spit out new ideas that other media producers have to work extensively to refine, market, and so on. So much of their media revolves around this, from the experimental, artistically brilliant commercials, to low budget absurdist experiments like 12 Oz. Mouse or Perfect Hair Forever (both shows are incredibly bizarre, and worth watching just for the sheer what the fuckery they induce), to games that play more like the ultra-difficult, ultra-unfair games of the early Console era, to the abstract idiosyncrasies of a show like The Big O, to the yearly prize that grants complete control of programming to a random fan. [Adult Swim] can take risks others can't, and often throws good ideas out to the aether haphazardly, because it has a relationship with its fans. At its most deranged, the fans will laugh it off, because they expect that kind of behavior from the station.
I think the moment that best summarizes the whole phenomenon for me comes at the end of Lee-Lee's Quest, when the protagonist blithely declares, "There's no blood on my hands if the player gives up!"
That, right there, is a statement of true artistic freedom from anyone else's preconceptions and demands.
There are really only two reactions one can have to such a statement. One is to admire the speaker's iron clad balls. The other is to call them an asshole.
And the genius of [Adult Swim]'s cultivated image is that they can get their fans to react both ways simultaneously, and love them all the more for it.
It's a cactus, are you blind?! You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.