Though its palette runs to grime brown, dirty-brick red, fire-escape gray and haze yellow, and its settings to skanky digs and dingy subways, Downtown, a new animated series from MTV, is to my eyes one of the loveliest shows on television -- not that loveliness is a quality much pursued by the makers of television shows, and perhaps not intentionally even by the makers of this one. You find it in nature programs sometimes, in certain episodes of The Wonder Years, and currently in the medium's epidemic high regard for the skin of teenage girls. But television (not excluding the news) is a place mostly of melodrama and farce, of pumping you up enough to stick through the commercials; it does not want you to stop and regard the roses, because it has something else, something exciting or amusingly stupid, to show you over here; it's more interested in generating false crises than in picturing the world a marvelous, strange and not unfriendly place. The specific marvelous and not unfriendly place Downtown focuses upon is Manhattan below 14th Street, where dawdle seven fairly realistic cartoon members of the I'm All Like Whatever Generation and a slightly older guy named Goat, who brews something called Goat's Bladder Cork Ale in his bathtub and has elastic ideas about property and theft. Lingering between inexperience and independence, they are barely out of school and yet already nostalgic for their departing youth and literally unable to put away childish things: Alex and Jen (Downtown's Dawson and Joey -- which is to say, its geeky lead and acerbic soul) spend a clandestine afternoon in his crappy new apartment, playing Tiny Toadstools and Dinosaur Dentist and other convincingly invented tot games of the 1980s.
As high concept, you can read the show a number of ways: as an animated version of Slacker, or of its late illegitimate MTV offspring, Austin Stories; or a younger, grittier and ethnically heterogeneous Friends; or a cartoon Real World -- inspiration and details having reportedly been taken from kid-on-the-street interviews -- where the toilet won't work. Granted that television shows about young people in New York are rapidly becoming legion (see: Felicity; Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane; Jennifer Love Hewitt's upcoming Party of Five spinoff, Time of Your Life; Kevin Williamson's upcoming Wasteland; and a few upcoming series more), and that Downtown does not hesitate to go where other coming-of-age comedies have gone before, it's nevertheless assured and individual enough to make even received ideas its own.
It helps, of course, that it's a cartoon -- that sets it off immediately -- and can go where it wants without city permits or regard to, you know, reality, or time, or space. What the animation in Downtown lacks in expensive fluidity (TV cartoons being in every case a matter of distracting the viewer from the economy of their creation), it makes up for in energetic line and intelligent framing -- it has somewhat the look of an underground comic, appropriately -- and the extravagance of its visual free associations: The show shifts adroitly, and continually, from outer life to inner, from present to past and from snapshot to metaphor, visualizing reminiscences and fantasies, literalizing puns, illuminating inner thoughts and sometimes contradictory subtexts. (When Alex and Jen begin to argue over their games, for instance, the colors heat up and their toys begin to morph into monsters around them.) This keeps things lively, even when the characters are just hanging out. And its hand-rendering of New York -- rough and painterly, smudged yet specific, impressionistic but accurate -- trumps even the best-dressed backlot: Like everything else here, it glows with love.
While MTV continues to wander outside its original charter and create shows that have nothing especially (or at all) to do with music, its sister station, VH1, adapting old TV forms to rock-related use, slouches toward full-service programming with a pair of original biopics, Ricky Nelson and Sweetwater, essentially dramatized extensions of its semitrashy and almost completely irresistible Behind the Music and Where Are They Now? rockumentary series. (Neither film reached here by "press time," but Sweetwater, the story of a late-'60s also-ran rock band, I am especially looking forward to, not least because it stars Pink Power Ranger Amy Jo Johnson, more lately of Felicity, and Kelli Williams of The Practice, and for the chance to hear "I'm in a Rainbow" again.) Random Play, a music-themed sketch comedy, is, meanwhile, the network's "first fully scripted series," and it's not a bad start at all. If the constitution of its troupe of talented players -- you may remember Michael Ian Black as Viva Variety! cohost Johnny Blue Jeans, and Nancy Walls from the 1995-96 season of Saturday Night Live -- runs in some ways unfortunately to form (more men than women, a lone black guy: what we call Garrett Morris Syndrome), at least there seems to be a blessed absence of recurring characters. (And that means: no catch phrases!) And, indeed, the show is, like, 70 percent dang funny -- about twice the success rate of SNL -- and better informed about its subject than pop parody usually is. Priceless moments include a perfectly rendered commercial for a Behind the Music kids' board game ("Get caught with smack in my bum at the airport? What does that mean?" "I don't know. But you just lost a turn!"), a recruiting pitch for the Kiss Army Reserve, and an ad for Roadies: The Musical ("Gonna tune up this ax/Gonna crank up these stacks/To the max"). On the whole, I like the idea of such site-specific series, and imagine with keen anticipation the first Home & Garden Television cop show, a Playboy Channel alien-conspiracy drama and a C-SPAN sitcom -- that shit could use a laugh track.
Extra credit given, though none needed, for the boss Hullabaloo-style dancing in the bumpers.
Being funny isn't everything, of course; there's truth and beauty and justice and the American way as well. Had Lenny Bruce merely stuck to the jokes and not got hung up on the other stuff, he might still have wound up a dead junkie comic, but his death would not have seemed to mean as much; instead, he became the patron saint of professional iconoclasts and public truth-seekers, the man who peremptorily took the legal heat for every comic after him who kicked a sacred cow or said "fuck" onstage, which is pretty much to say, every comic after him. Now, more than 30 years after his personal final curtain, his importance, of one sort or another, is nearly beyond argument, and he is at once the subject of Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell the Truth, a 12-years-in-the-getting-enough-scratch-to-finish-it documentary begun with PBS seed money and finished last year for HBO (when it was briefly released theatrically and nominated for an Oscar), and Two Five-Letter Words: Lenny Bruce, a 90-minute compilation of his surviving TV work, screening at the Museum of Television & Radio through October 3.
Narrated by Robert De Niro (sounding a little too much like Rupert Pupkin) and directed by Bob Weide, who has made something of a career out of making TV films about or with comedians, Swear To Tell the Truth is too partial to its subject to be called definitive, and might have better placed the comic-philosopher-defendant in the context of his times. But it is an overflowing cornucopia of private photographs and home movies, newsreels and performance footage -- from the early and embarrassing to the late and obsessed -- and interviews with friends and lawyers, wife, mother and child. It's as handsome a scrapbook as you could desire, if you don't mind watching a man eaten away from within and without, or trading a legend for a human being.
DOWNTOWN | MTV Tuesdays, 10:30 p.m.
RANDOM PLAY | VH1 | Saturdays, 10 p.m.; repeats Fridays at 11 p.m.
LENNY BRUCE: Swear To Tell the Truth | HBO
Premieres Monday, August 9, 10:15 p.m.
TWO FIVE-LETTER WORDS: Lenny Bruce | The Museum of Television & Radio | Screening Fridays through Sundays at 12:15 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. | Through October 3
Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1999 and 2011