THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM.: SEASON ONE
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"Officer Jay," "Humanitarian of the Year," "Positively Negative," "Not Without My Daughter," "Muffin' Man," "Batteries"
ROBOT CHICKEN: VOLUME TWO (UNCENSORED)
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"Suck It," "Easter Basket," "1987," "Celebrity Rocket," "Federated Resources," "Dragon Nuts," "Cracked China," "Rodiggiti," "Password: Swordfish," "Massage Chair," "Metal Militia," "Veggies for Sloth," "Sausage Fest," "Drippy Pony," "The Munnery," "Adoption's an Option," "A Day at the Circus," "Lust for Puppets," "Anne Marie's Pride," "Book of Corrine"
by Ian Pugh Sarah Silverman is an all-or-nothing proposition in the most literal sense. Her comedic ability rests squarely on her willingness to subscribe to extremes and your willingness to accept them--helping foster the impression that she is at once completely earnest in her reprehensible behaviour and completely oblivious to the same. Her infamous concert film, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, fails so catastrophically because of the uncrossable chasm between the moviegoer and a live audience, and because of the constant reassurance therein that her act is just that and not some frank discussion with a genuinely horrible person. And yet there are bright spots, few though they are, to be found in several of the movie's lavishly-produced musical numbers, such as "I Love You More," which drops Silverman into a mod-rock video as she exhausts a laundry list of slurs and stereotypes, sharing awkward, uproarious silences with those she offends. It establishes that for her shtick to be truly successful in a broader (i.e., televised/cinematic) sense, Silverman must be taken outside the parameters of what a traditional, straightforward rendition will allow.
"The Sarah Silverman Program." does this theory right by throwing the comic's familiar patronizing, immature persona into a pseudo-sitcom environment, where an unemployed version of herself residing in Valley Village mooches off her sister Laura (Laura Silverman, an amateur actress who nevertheless possesses a natural mastery of deadpan) and feigns interest in a friendship with a gay couple (Steve Agee and Brian Posehn). Routinely bypassing anything regarding common sense, she bides her time by transforming herself into a self-aggrandizing AIDS activist (1.3, "Positively Negative"), sponsoring a little girl for a beauty pageant that she herself failed to win (1.4, "Not Without My Daughter"), and generally misinterpreting her desire to maintain social ignorance as a quest to overcome adversity. Certainly the show sets itself up for failure with the familiar trappings of hipster irony (as in a romantic entanglement with "Black God" (1.1, "Batteries")), but it deftly sidesteps them by avoiding obvious humour and keeping the focus on how Sarah reacts in politically-loaded situations--with the offended protests of the sane typically filtered through her shrugging dismissal of them. (It's worth noting that the non-stop surrealism of the pilot is soon diminished in scope, better accommodating the character's narrow field of vision.) Still, as the series' formula rarely deviates from her attempts to achieve some localized form of fame, we see how desperate she is for superficial attention from those she otherwise couldn't care less about: hardly concerned with being a good person, she wants to do the absolute bare minimum to be perceived as a good person and thus reap the attendant rewards.
Pretty typical stuff. But if Silverman is a real-life, honest-to-God narcissist, as has often been suggested, then "The Sarah Silverman Program." gives her a platform to admit it. By stationing this self-contained identity in a televised world that simultaneously does and does not exist outside of her point of view, she contemplates the image she projects and its reflection on who she really is, in addition to the ramifications of the terrible things she says with the expectation for praise--much like how notorious egotist Quentin Tarantino questions his own relationship to the cinema by casting himself as the default wingman for his own murderous avatar in Death Proof. "How many lesbians does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Sarah asks a gay cop (Tig Notaro), genuinely expectating an answer. It's the perfect riff on condescension masked as curiosity--not to mention a rumination on lame shock humour--all encapsulated in a fifteen-second bit. As it happens, "The Sarah Silverman Program." is rife with that kind of hilarious social commentary, showcasing Silverman at her absolute finest. On top of that, it's probably the best show currently populating Comedy Central's extensive primetime schedule, probably because it also functions as a fairly brilliant critique of the unabashed racists and attention whores who occupy the rest of it.
Find more modest goals and an even more aggressive stance towards the non sequitur in Cartoon Network's animated action-figure series "Robot Chicken", the consistent enjoyment of which all but depends on maintaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular culture spanning from the late '70s to the early '90s. Even then, the constant assault of references can be a chore, something immediately apparent from mere episode descriptions. Where the show's first season ended with a mock-up of the kiddie sketch comedy "You Can't Do That on Television", the new-to-DVD second season opens with Superman's Kryptonian trial, judged by the stars of Adult Swim's biggest hits. Elsewhere, we encounter "The Brady Bunch" crossed with Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2.1, "Suck It"), The Care Bears crossed with Hotel Rwanda (2.9, "Password: Swordfish"), and "The Golden Girls" crossed with "Sex and the City" (1.6, "Cracked China").
Indeed, the non-stop name-checking and presence of series co-creator Seth Green invites unavoidable comparisons to the cutaway gags of "Family Guy", but "Robot Chicken"'s rapid-fire nature more often than not forces its writers to craft comparatively daring and anarchic scenarios within its meagre time constraints. It's difficult to stifle a laugh at the absurdity of Ted Turner dressed up like--and screaming the name of--Captain Planet (2.3, "1987"), doling out violent justice against the environmentally unfriendly. And although it's filtered through a bizarre parody of Highlander (2.4, "Celebrity Rocket"), a particularly scathing impression of Lindsay Lohan--made all the more so by the fact that the impersonator in question is Lohan's Herbie: Fully Loaded co-star Breckin Meyer--as a slurring, gravel-voiced idiot makes for essential viewing. (Having languished for several years in universally-panned films and TV series as the milquetoast nice guy, Meyer may have finally found his niche here.) The "Robot Chicken" team is at its best, though, when it bothers to start from scratch, as in the case of "Rick Shaw" (1.7, "Rodiggiti"), the final word on interracial buddy cop movies (Rick Schroeder plays an action hero carted around in the titular vehicle by a buck-toothed Asian stereotype in a straw hat), or "Quicksand" (2.13, "Sausage Fest"), an irresistibly hilarious bit in which a giraffe rapidly cycles through the five stages of grief as he slowly sinks into a pit. Mostly the opportunity to fool around with Star Wars action figures and reassemble the surviving cast of "Inspector Gadget" for a comprehensive parody of The Terminator proves too tempting to resist not only for "Robot Chicken"'s creators, but for its viewers as well. If it strikes as a bit too indiscriminate for its own good, the loving insanity involved makes the desire to revisit a youth misspent in a toy chest wholly understandable.
Paramount's Comedy Central division ushers "The Sarah Silverman Program.: Season One" to DVD in a full-frame presentation plagued by grain in darker scenes and hot whites in brighter ones; the Dolby 2.0 stereo audio, meanwhile, is excessively loud in terms of dialogue and music alike. (Were the songs composed with a 5.1 mix in mind?) The episode menu shuffles the series' production order in favour of its broadcast order--which rarely matters considering the show's lack of concern for continuity; the commentaries, however, were apparently recorded in production order, resulting in momentary confusion. As for the commentary roster, we have Sarah Silverman, writer/director Rob Schrab, and exec producer/head writer Dan Sterling on "Humanitarian of the Year" and "Not Without My Daughter"; Laura Silverman and Jay Johnston on "Officer Jay" and "Positively Negative"; and Steve Agee and Brian Posehn on "Humanitarian of the Year," "Not Without My Daughter," and "Muffin' Man." Each yakker is pretty much cut from the same cloth: long stretches of silence punctuated by laughter and numerous unfunny asides. Though they're genial enough to keep things from becoming unbearable, in listening to these people bullshit around you sort of wish they had recorded separate tracks for their private consumption and given the folks at home something a bit more substantial.
"Bonus Materials" kicks off with "Musical Performances" (22 mins.) consisting of Sarah Silverman (occasionally joined by Laura Silverman and Steve Agee) singing mostly-improvised, mostly-insufferable songs about "The Sarah Silverman Program." and why you should watch it. An "Extras" menu is the closest you'll get to "making-of" material, starting with two minute-long pitches for a never-realized, special-effects laden title sequence, both designed by director/writer/animator Rob Schrab. One is pretty accurately described as an "animated storyboard," a Lewis Carrollian hallucination set to a sugary song Silverman left on an answering machine; the second features Schrab himself lip-synching to the same, dressed in a makeshift flower costume on a set designed like a cheap kids' show. It's a delightful slice of silliness, and in truth I prefer it to the malleable Silverman-narrated slideshow that currently serves as the opener, but it wouldn't have meshed quite as well with the tone of the show. "The Chase" is another animated storyboard that chronicles an early version of the chase sequence in "Batteries," deemed too expensive to film. Select the flower costume icon on this submenu to uncover a two-minute interlude with Silverman and Schrab (dressed in a Tron uniform) playing a word association game about their assholes--an unfortunate dip into the type of material the series proper seemingly condemns. Moving on: a "Karaoke/Sing-a-Long" menu isolates the various musical numbers from the series and invites you to follow the bouncing ball, giving you the option to watch them with or without Silverman's vocals--but these tunes certainly lose their flavour when isolated from their original context. The "Comedy Central Quickies" menu is a now-standard practice on Comedy Central discs that provides a scene or two from "South Park", "The Colbert Report", and "Reno 911!". Finally, "DVD Previews" closes out the platter with a block of promos for "South Park: The Complete Tenth Season", the oh-so-controversial "Drawn Together: Season 2", and "The State: The Complete Series" that also cues up on startup.
Warner's [adult swim] label bestows "Robot Chicken - Season Two: Uncensored" upon us in a washed-out but acceptable full-frame presentation with lovely Dolby 2.0 stereo sound that reveals its fullness during musical interludes. (Unlike "The Sarah Silverman Program.", these seem tailor-made for stereo.) Every episode is appended by audio commentary with series creators Seth Green and Matt Senreich, variously joined by just about every member of the crew--writers, animators, and toy wranglers alike--along with the occasional guest star (Seth MacFarlane, "Weird Al" Yankovic, "G.I. Joe" voice actor Bill Ratner, etc.). These yak-tracks are hardly immune to the usual pitfalls of the medium (trainspotting and the like), but tough it out and you'll eventually feel edified. Two "Alternate Commentaries" reside on the first platter: "1987" sports a particularly insipid session of childish blather with Breckin Meyer and co-head writer Doug Goldstein, while "Federated Resources" (1.5) reunites Corey Feldman and Corey Haim (with Green acting as moderator) to discuss the duo's onscreen foray into South America to save the Bush daughters. They seem like really nice guys, but only Corey die-hards will be interested in this discussion about bizarre feuds with Dustin Diamond and maybe-only-half-joking requests for work.
Green, Senreich, Meyer, and the rest of the writing staff introduce "Deleted Scenes" with explanations for why they were lifted from the final product. As in the commentaries, they manage to rationalize these elisions pretty eloquently despite their tendency to goof off. "The Making of a Sketch" (13 mins.) takes us through the creation of the Inspector Gadget-Terminator mash-up from script to storyboard to voicework to puppet acquisition/creation to stop-motion animation to music composition. It's a bit too concerned with the arc of the process, shortchanging the individual steps--though luckily, other supplements fill in the gaps. "The Robot Chicken Christmas Special" (11 mins.) is an episode-length compilation of previously-aired Jesus- and Santa-related sketches relegated to the extras menu for that reason; placing these gags sequentially also reminds that none of them are terribly funny. "Deleted Audio" offers a series of improvised bits expanded from their original context: Hal Sparks and Michael Ian Black ramble on in their typically self-satisfied banter for a VH1 retrospective parody; Dana Snyder, as "Aqua Teen Hunger Force"'s Master Shake, brings his trademark anger to the same proceedings; Breckin Meyer hams it up as a drunken Lance Armstrong; and Michael Winslow belts out obnoxious sound effects about as funny as you would find them in the Police Academy movies. Rounding things out, "Adult Swim Promos" are predictably silly commercials that re-edit already brief jokes for that much briefer consumption. A few Easter Eggs finish off Disc One: pressing "up" on your remote when highlighting the "Extras" selection (more specifically, select the bespectacled nerd's top hat, which does not light up) will lead you to "Stupid Hat + Alcohol = Blackmail", cell phone pictures of the crew wearing said stupid hat; pressing "up" with "Set Up" highlighted (the literal robot chicken's head) will take you to a montage of "Robot Chicken"'s many instances of loud, violent gunplay.
Disc Two's extras begin with "Animation Meetings"--Green's taped, detailed instructions for the animation crew regarding several sketches. (You have to admire how much he really throws himself into his work.) "Deleted Animatics" are scenes that never made it past the storyboard stage that include introductions and explanations from the crew. As with the deleted scenes, it's pretty lamentable that some of these sketches were tossed out, although the creators' reasoning is often sound and at least they afford a better look at storyboard artist Kevin Pawlak's wonderfully expressive sketches. Menu titles here bend over backwards to avoid using specific brand names ("Affleck vs. the Duck" chronicles a legal dispute between the movie star and the AFLAC mascot), one possible explanation for the subtitles' occasionally embarrassing misspellings of certain pop culture items. "PS3 Contest" is a sketch/commercial for a contest that ran during the second season to win a brief appearance in the third along with the titular video game console; it's only kinda funny for the fact that it stars the series' recurring, reliably-amusing alien characters ("Damn it, damn it, damn it!"). "Slide Show" is a series of unused promotional gags, for what I'm not sure--they're essentially miniature sketches encapsulated in four or five comic panels. "Video Blogs" are short video diary entries from the cast and crew that first appeared on the [adult swim] website. Naturally, they alternate between pricelessly informative (expounding on what "The Making of a Sketch" skips over) and annoyingly irrelevant. Lastly, "Freedom Rock" is another (unaired?) advertisement for "Robot Chicken" that treats the show like a decade-retrospective album on vinyl--an obnoxious and belaboured idea that caps the set on an unfortunately sour note. Originally published: November 6, 2007.