Have you ever had one of those short flings where you meet a girl or boy and they are funny, and mysterious, and sexy, and weird, and kinky, and exciting and just perfect? And you just fall into bed, totally infatuated and barely leave it until a few days later when you notice that there was nothing behind the mysterious façade, that the bag of kinky tricks doesn’t go very deep, and the weird and exciting parts are suddenly, all at once, utterly boring?
Well, Superjail! is just like that, minus the hickeys. Read on for the full review…
Superjail! is an Adult Swim show detailing the goings-on of the world’s most high security jail, a place where the only people more unstable than the criminals are the Warden and his posse of thugs. In every episode the Warden and his co-patriots struggle to deal with deep seeded emotional traumas, (at which they often fail), keep Superjail in order, (at which they usually fail), and minimize the number of casualties, (at which they always fail).
Superjail! Came highly recommended to me. My roommate loves it. my drinking buddies love it. Random people at parties have come up to me and begun discussing the show just assuming that I’m a big fan. For months I heard raves about the animation, the style, the perverse humor. So, when I got the first season on DVD I was excited to sit down and watch.
But here’s the thing, Superjail! kinda’ sucks.
After the first episode I was awestruck. It was funny, and mysterious, and sexy, and weird, and kinky, and exciting and just perfect. But, like the hypothetical booty call of the introduction, it really isn’t built to last. If one is to watch two or three episodes of Superjail! in a row, the show’s weak points come into sharp, and irritating focus. And once one is aware of these shortcomings they become utterly impossible to ignore.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the show is that four of the six main characters are written with less depth and character than the worst of Seth McFarlane’s inane creations. In the pilot, when we first meet the Warden (David Wain) he is dressed as Willy Wonka. It’s funny and it works to help establish the whacked out, spastic world of the show. But then in episode five he’s still dressed a Willy Wonka. There are no real additional jokes, or puns, or any real mention of this fact. He’s just a character who is always dressed as an inter-textual reference.
Then there is Alice (Christy Karacas), the head of Security. Alice is a woman, but she looks like a man. The Queer community refers to this type of mixed gender performance as a “Genderfuck”. For the first episode this plays reasonably well. But by the fourth time we see a plot about gender confusion involving Alice…well, it’s just boring.
And then there are the Twins. The twins are a set of Wonder-Twins-by-way-of-gay-euro-pop tricksters who exist solely to make things harder for the Warden and his staff. I have no idea what to make of these two because it remains unclear if anyone else in the show even knows they exist. But even if their magic made a lick of sense, they would still be poor characters because their entire existence is a piece of lazy, kitchen sink writing.
In all three of these cases you are left with a situation where the showrunners are asking you to tune in and watch what amounts to the same joke every week. In fact, they are asking you to continue to be amused by the same joke in every single shot featuring the Warden or Alice. In a smarter show they might build some contradictions into these characters, especially Alice, who is ostensibly the exact same character as Dr Girlfriend from Venture Brothers, only not done as well. Perhaps if she were of mixed gender and both men and women were constantly falling all over her there could be more mileage in the character (though even this would get old, fast), but as it stands, she is little more than another version of It’s Pat! or Tyler Perry’s Madea, both of which sucked to begin with. And the Twins, ugh. They’re like nails on chalkboard. I have no idea why they are even here. And clearly the writers don’t either because their basic reason for existence changed about five times over the course of eleven episodes, even as their actions remained identical.
The other two primary characters fare better. There is the second in command Jared, (Teddy Cohn), an endlessly sycophantic peon who represses all of his life’s rage and sublimates it by focusing attention on compulsive eating and alcohlism and Jailbot, a silent android who basically exists to transform into whatever object the showrunners require. He is smart, fast, and incredibly deadly.
Jailbot works because he is nothing more than unhinged, R-rated, Tom and Jerry style violence. Meanwhile, Jared functions as the emotional core of the show, whenever there is one. From time to time there will be a prisoner with a slight character arc (like Jackknife, who opens every episode by getting caught by Jailbot), but by and large, the show remains entirely stagnant.
And all of this would be fine if every episode were as inspired in its jaundiced lunacy as the series highlight, “Mr. Grumpy-Pants”. Unfortunately, none of the other shorts come anywhere close to this episode, in which a group of kindly rapists and murderers give a dying girl – whom they mistakenly think is named “san-ser”-a surprise birthday party.
Instead, the series functions as a pilot, with ten alternate versions. For all the creativity and unhinged brilliance of the art design Superjail! is one of the most formulaic things I have ever seen. Every single episode (with perhaps the exception of the two-part finale) rehashes the same story beats, in the same order, to the same effect. There are about 10 good ideas in this show, and all of them are used in every single episode.
What’s more, when watched one after the other, Superjail! not only loses its sense of inventiveness, it also becomes kind of sad. The series is little more than nonstop sadism. I love really violent movies, probably more than the next guy, but for some reason, about halfway through this disc I began to feel dirty. After watching the 1000th faceless inmate get trampled to death I was no longer excited…I was sort of depressed.
It really feels as if Superjail! is a student film made by the most devious and prolific undergrads at some fifty thousand-dollar a year art school. They made a really kickass short, and then decided that this was all they needed for a serial. It’s almost as if they never even bothered to write a series bible and instead just pointed to the pilot and said “That! For, hopefully, one hundred episodes.”
Ultimately, Superjail! reminded me of Clone High USA. The general plot structure, character dynamics (and even some character designs) are all very similar. But where I somehow found myself caring deeply about whether Abe would end up with Joan or not by the end of that show’s all too short run, here, I couldn’t care less about anything that happens to anyone, and so once the nifty animation loses it’s initial charm, well, I found myself yearning for a different late night snack.
The DVD cover for Superjail! is appropriately gonzo. Lots of colors and designs, and intricate details. Cool stuff.
The Disc contains all ten (10) episodes of season one, as well as a pilot. Each of the episodes looks great and you can see all sorts of zany details in freeze frames. Unfortunately, though the box boasts an “uncensored” cut of the show, it doesn’t appear that any new content is present.
Additionally, the disc features complete animatics for several episodes. Most will probably want to skip this feature, but as I can only really recommend this show to hardened animation buffs, it’s a very welcome and insightful extra feature.
It’s a pretty good disc overall, especially for under twenty bucks, but it loses points for the horrible, garish, and confusing disc menu.
If you love, love, love animation, sadism, or some combination of the two, Superjail! is for you. But, if you care about plot, story, or characters, you will be left wanting.
Superjail! no doubt plays better in 12 minute increments once a week, but as the DVD experience encourages one to view multiple episodes in a row, a method that diminishes any and all impact, I cannot recommend this as a purchase. However, I would recommend you look up the series seventh episode, “Mr. Grumpy-Pants”. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all, so you might as well just skip to the best version.
The Show: C-
The DVD: B- for casual fans A- for people interested in the nuts and bolts of animation.