Other than a gummy pair of shower flip-flops, few objects obtain such iconic dorm status as the cartoon DVD box set. You’ve seen its shiny box on renovated fireplace sills, watched its shiny disks on glowing laptop screens, and used it on Friday nights to pacify your Yale party-scene ennui. If it weren’t for that wretched “Family Guy” chicken fight, most of us might still have our nice high school GPAs.
But not all DVD cartoon collections are created equal. Many should be condemned to the stinking gallows (which is, most likely, on sticky parquet flooring beneath a pile of Fiji bottles and econ problem sets). Such is the case with the deplorable “Happy Tree Friends,” a kind of post-lobotomy “Ren and Stimpy” with animation any bathroom stall graffiti artist would envy.
While most may find increasing rates of school violence and reality show audacity to be signs of our country’s demise, I point my finger to this show’s ratings. It is overwhelmingly popular on the Internet, where over five million people tune in to its puerile antics every week — five million amoebic parasites slowly sucking the marrow from an already anemic society.
I suppose I’m being oppressively critical of the show, which features a bevy of Flash-animated woodland creatures that explode, incinerate and soak their cartoon landscapes with blood. On second thought, I’m being thoroughly fair: the show is mediocre at best. Perhaps it’s deserving of its webspace though, where deprived teenage boys (and their 30-something doppelgangers) can satiate themselves with cheap humor in digestible five-minute doses.
As it is now, “Happy Tree Friends” smugly occupies web broadcasts, air times on MTV International, and even retail space at Blockbuster. The show’s most recent compilation — aptly titled “Overkill” — features volumes of previous material as well as 19 minutes of new bonus footage. Everything about the package is lackluster, from its uninspired humor (disks are arranged alphabetically by character blood-type) to its decidedly derivative graphic design.
Yet the actual episodes win the blue ribbon for banality. Under other circumstances, wanton violence would be pique my depraved Gen-Y sense of humor, but the evenness of the stories simply bored me. One five-minute episode, which features onstage cartoon actors falling victim to a number of bizarre and gruesome deaths, solicited nothing more than dead stares from its unfortunate onlookers (“That was profoundly not funny,” hissed my friend from a vaulted bed).
While “Happy Tree Friends” may lack the touch of irony required by cartoon ultraviolence, you can always count of Itchy and Scratchy to provide sanguine absurdity. “The Simpsons: The Complete Sixth Season,” released this past month, is a reigning monarch amongst animated DVD compilations.
The precious four-disk cargo is encased within a gleaming plastic shell in the shape of Homer’s chrome-dome head. While the casing has drawn fire from ardent fans, I find it refreshingly novel (even if it does look like it should bear a conspicuous “Made in China” sticker). Yet the compilation’s beauty is more than skin-deep: It boasts hours of priceless “Simpsons” episodes — some consider Season 6 to be the show’s finest — and unusually valuable episode commentary.
These 25 landmark episodes eloquently illustrates the show’s lasting genius, which is part literate intelligence and part biting irony (perhaps the best in a decade of overexploited sarcasm). Episodes like “Another Simpson Clip Show” depict the bursting self consciousness, which always remains more purely funny than hip and self-assured (the same cannot always be said for “Family Guy.”) The show’s overt irreverence is never better than in episodes like “Bart vs. Australia” (where a wigged judge straps on a large boot with which to punish the American prankster) and “Homer Badman” (where Homer is charged with sexual harassment after pulling a piece of candy from a woman’s derriere).
But the most lustrous gems are those amazing one-liners, which have somehow become latent in the subconscious of our generation. (“Who holds back the electric car/ Who made Steve Guttenberg a star?” or “Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead!”) Despite the lack of linearity in most of the plots, every twist is charmingly familiar. Archetypal of this is “Bart of Darkness,” an undeniable “Simpsons” classic. What begins as a sweltering summer day gradually careens into the nightmare of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” escalating into a nauseatingly funny finale. Remember Ned Flanders’s scream? Of course you do.
In retrospect, perhaps the funniest thing from this golden era of the Simpsons are its gorgeously hilarious “Itchy and Scratchy” vignettes. Their universal appeal solicits laughter from the malicious Bart, empty-headed Homer, and even the all-knowing Lisa. Concise but layered, senselessly violent but intelligently sequenced, it cast a heavy shadow on the laughably inadequate offerings of “Happy Tree Friends.”
Gruesome violence always looks better in cell-shade animation — though, of course, everything looks better when its sandwiched among such vintage “Simpsons.” Lisa would certainly agree.