It is time once again to return to the twisted, hilarious and wildly original world of Brad Neely‘s “China Illinois,” home of the Professor Brothers and Baby Cakes. This time, let’s take a look at the four-part miniseries named after the fictional town, which brings the characters from those other two series together for one continuous storyline, a first for Neely which in turn spawned a full-length, actually animated series on Adult Swim.
“China Illinois” begins with gentle giant Mark “Baby” Cakes in his usual mode, telling stories to his diary in his customarily idiosyncratic way. “Dear diary,” he says, “today me and Dad tried to clean our insides out, with plant hairs, tree ejaculates, and leafy-weafs.” “Tree ejaculates” are, of course, Baby Cakes’ unique way of saying “fruit,” just one of many phrases this character has coined that should obviously become part of the standard English lexicon immediately, for the sake of a more interesting future. When the unsatisfying meal is done, Baby Cakes comes upon “a lonely little pursey, with a pink diary hanging out,” completely failing to notice the bloody car accident adjacent to the lost purse.
The plot thickens when it is revealed that the owner of the purse was a professor at the local community college Baby Cakes attends, and that she was in an unhappy relationship with the self-absorbed Professor Frank, who romantically proclaimed to her, “You’ll never want to be anything more than the thing I am in.” Like his forbidden romance with his Dad’s girlfriend in “Baby Cakes Diary #4,” Baby Cakes becomes furious with Frank’s poor treatment of his newfound beloved, only to ultimately reconcile his feelings in a typically strange way by the end of the series.
Both Baby Cakes and Professor Frank are prone to expressing themselves through song, which, along with Baby Cakes’ poetic wordplay, brings an odd poignancy to an otherwise silly and very funny series. It’s surprising that an animatic cartoon that refers to Helen Keller as “history’s most famous little caca-faced animal kid” can strike deeper chords about the meaning of life, but that is a special ability Neely shares with fellow crude animation genius Don Hertzfeldt, and it is what makes “China Illinois” such an enduring creation.
“A minute ago, this moment was the future. A minute from now, everything could change.” So says the website for “Futurestates,” an intriguing web series from the Independent Television Service (ITVS), and this is a pretty good mission statement for the series. A collection of unconnected short films by various writers and directors, “Futurestates” explores the not-too-distant future by looking at what is already happening in the world today, from immigration issues to environmental and economic ones. Some of the shorts begin by informing the audience exactly what year it is in which their stories take place, while others do not. Many of them feel as if they could be happening in the present, and this is clearly an intention of the filmmakers behind them.
Amyn Kaderali‘s “The Other Side” thrusts the viewer into the year 2040, after “everything changed,” as Jeff (Brady Smith) puts it when explaining what a cheeseburger is to his young son, Tyler (Jake Short). Along with his sister, Jenny (Abigail Mavity), Tyler is traveling the desert with his father in search of access to the other side, across a border protected by the government. This short film explores the issue of illegal immigration in an unusual and effective way, casting it in a new perspective that might make a viewer think twice about his or her own views on the issue. Annie J. Howell‘s “Tia and Marco,” on the other hand, explores the same issue in a more heavy-handed and obvious way, which offers little justification for its 2025 setting.
Garret Williams‘ “The Rise” and Aldo Velasco‘s “Tent City” both explore the current housing crisis in very different ways, with “The Rise” ultimately touching on environmental issues more than economic ones, while Tze Chun‘s “Silver Sling” manages to comment on a number of current issues, including immigration, economic desperation and fertility technology. Now in its third season, “Futurestates” has many such issues to explore, and a panoramic array of viewpoints from which to explore them. Below is perhaps the most unique and original short film from the series’ first season, Ramin Bahrani‘s “Plastic Bag,” featuring legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog as the title character.
Much like public access talk shows, nature programs on the likes of PBS and TLC are fertile ground for parody, as evidenced by the popularity of “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger.” The Onion‘s web series, “Horrifying Planet,” takes it even further by employing a distinguished-sounding, British narrator (though I suspect the British accent may be fake) similar to the ones actually used in real nature programs. The twist is that “Horrifying Planet” is filled not with the reverence for nature usually found in the real programs it spoofs, but rather a bitter, scornful disdain for nearly every aspect of the natural world.
According to the narrator of “Horrifying Planet,” zebras are “Nature’s Ultimate Prey,” evolved over the course of millennia to be the perfect victims of brutal murder. “With no purpose other than to feed monsters,” the narrator richly intones, “the zebra spends its entire life standing around, awaiting a violent death.” Meanwhile, the American robin is posited as nature’s “Perfect Murder Machine,” which seems silly until the point is made that “worms are capable of regeneration, so robins could satiate themselves on fractions of individual worms, and leave the rest. But it does not. Unequivocal evidence of the robin’s bloodlust.” Not given quite the credit that either robins or zebras get, chimpanzees are described as “Still Dumber Than the Dumbest Human,” in perhaps the series’ funniest episode. Asserting the superiority of humanity over the lowly chimp, the narrator says, “Indeed, not only are humans capable of wiping out chimps with inventions like bulldozers and dynamite, they have even developed a system of ethics that justifies it.”
The narrator’s smooth delivery falters when he is forced to discuss the vile spider, in an episode that is little more than an amalgam of audible cringing, and the tone of the series itself makes an abrupt shift in episode 6, which blends the usual nature show parody with that of an infomercial. With all the incessant negativity of “Horrifying Planet,” one would assume an episode entitled “Deer Are Fine” might be lightening up a bit, but in fact, “fine” in this context merely means “mediocre,” with the narrator advising the more unique relatives of the common deer to “Scale it back, buddy. You’re just going to end up dead like the rest of us, on our horrifying planet.”
There may have never been a more self-explanatory title for a web series than Jerry Seinfeld‘s latest project, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” The format is simplicity itself: for each episode, Seinfeld picks a different car, picks up a different comedian friend, and they go and get coffee and, often, a meal. Throughout the drive and the meal, they talk about various things, all improvised and frequently very funny. The main charm of the series, though, is watching the comedians make each other laugh. At best, it is almost like actually hanging out with a couple of very talented people for a little while. At worst, it is rather lazy and inconsequential, and Seinfeld sometimes seems to be exaggerating his reactions to the jokes told by his guests.
The series begins with Seinfeld’s most obvious guest, Larry David, with whom he co-created one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, “Seinfeld.” There seems to be some effort on Seinfeld’s part to pick a car that reflects his guest’s personality, as in this first episode, in which he chooses a 1952 VW bug as a symbol of David’s humble, unassuming nature. David, along with his other dietary idiosyncrasies, slightly messes up the premise right off the bat by ordering tea, but he offers one of the series more interesting insights. Discussing the difference between cigars and cigarettes, he suggests that a cigar imbues the smoker with an air of wisdom because of the time it takes to smoke, which lends itself to a “contemplative” posture.
Another very intelligent guest is “Mystery Science Theater 3000” creator Joel Hodgson in episode 5, who offers some interesting insights about nostalgia and economics. On the former, he says that the reason people love to look back at the past is that “You know what you’re going to say … you know what to say about the past, and you don’t know what to say about the future.” When Seinfeld brings up the mysterious economics of a restaurant, Hodgson offers a musical analogy: “The guy who sells the guitars makes the money, and not the guy in the band … How many guitars have you bought over the years … I’ve bought … six, and I don’t play the guitar.”
One of the series’ most enjoyable episodes is the third, in which Seinfeld’s guest is the great stand-up comic Brian Regan. The reason it works so well is that their conversation throughout feels like a joke-writing session, as if the two comedians are co-writing a sitcom or a stand-up set, often finishing each other’s sentences and collectively brainstorming jokes on each topic that comes up. Another especially good one features Alec Baldwin, whose overall attitude toward Seinfeld is playfully hostile, though he shows great humility when he credits the cast and writers of “30 Rock” for teaching him how to be funny. His story of a Rip Torn bar fight is not be missed, and this is where “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” excels: it presents very funny, interesting people just being naturally funny and interesting.
Taking modern technological paranoia to its logical next step, the Bryan Singer-produced digital series “H+” takes an interesting, non-linear approach to its apocalyptic future storytelling. Created by John Cabrera, best known for his work as an actor on the popular television series “Gilmore Girls,” the series takes place in a near future in which 33 per cent of the world’s population has opted to have a device implanted into their bodies that connects their minds to the internet 24 hours a day. When a mysterious virus crashes the system, large portions of the world dies instantly, and the series primarily follows a few desperate survivors in an airport parking garage, while simultaneously cutting back and forth in time to various points before and after “it happened.”
“H+” is designed to be watched in any order, as each episode takes place in a different time and space, allowing viewers to stick with the mainstoryline in the parking garage first if they choose. This storyline begins with Julie Martin (Nikki Crawford) and her husband driving to the airport “5 minutes before it happened.” As they are making their way out of the parking lot, all hell breaks loose as the system crashes and people begin dropping like flies, cars and planes crash, and the automated sprinkler system goes off all over the garage. Only Kenneth Lubahn (David Clayton Rogers) seems to know what’s going on, telling the others they should be safe so long as they remain on the lower level of the garage where the signal is out. Med student Francesca Rossi (Lela Loren) works with him to save Julie’s husband, who has also fallen victim to the virus despite being in the same underground area as the rest of the survivors.
Meanwhile, the series flashesback to Helsinki, Finland, “7 years before it happened,” where Digital Crime Unit officer Topi Kuusela (Samuel Vauramo) begins to fall for Manta (Hannah Herzsprung), a mysterious target he has been assigned to follow. It is unclear so far what exactly her connection is to H+ Nano Teoranta, the company that manufactures the implants, but with an estimated 48-episode run, it is clearly just getting started. The first 14 episodes are available now on YouTube, with new ones premiering on Wednesdays. It’s hard to tell so far if “H+” will live up to the promise of its premise, but its high production values, mysterious time-jumping narrative style and intriguing, multinationalsubplots make it seem well worth watching to find out.