It seems impossible to watch Unsupervised, FX’s second attempt at an animated series after the well-garnered success of Archer, and not think of Beavis and Butt-head. The new series, created by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia vets Rob Rosell, Scott Marder, and David Hornsby, is similarly concerned with the misadventures of two American morons, high schoolers Joel (Hornsby) and Gary (Justin Long). But whereas Mike Judge’s dynamic duo act on base instincts (get laid, get popular, get food, get money, get rest) in a constant state of moral ambivalence and general disregard for communal good, Joel and Gary are positivity jockies and junkies, attempting to forever surround themselves with good vibes and foster sunny dispositions throughout their grim and grimy neighborhood of oddballs, scumbags, lost souls, fanatics, and teenagers.
Indeed, the entire show seems predicated on an unspoken motto of the road to hell (i.e. lower-middle-class suburbia) being paved with good intentions, as Joel and Gary’s obsessive need to spread goodness constantly ends in utter calamity. But where Unsupervised—which counts Philadelphia stars Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, and Glenn Howerton, not to mention Archer creator Adam Reed, as producers—misses the pitch is in its stress on the positive aspects of Joel and Gary’s shiny-happy-people campaigns and a general soft-balling of the overwhelming negative results and facets of these plans. The show’s perspective seems to be the same as Joel and Gary’s, and the delicate balance between discovery and embarrassment, arguably the two most crucial elements of adolescence, consistently lands in the former and rarely hits home on the rare instance of the latter.
To be fair, the pilot episode acts as a sort of catalyst for this behavior, as things begin with Joel and Gary seeking popularity through the tired device of a house party, which Gary imagines will get him close to neighbor Christina (Alex Vega). The two subsequent episodes, one about Joel’s attempts to secure a new man for his depressed, pothead stepmother, the other about their misguided attempts at school spirit, refocus the series as a continuous set of struggles Joel and Gary take up against the ubiquitous cynicism they encounter daily. Whether or not they’re succeeding is a matter of opinion, but we certainly don’t see or, more importantly, feel the weight of such struggles, and the immense humor and humanity that can be found in the nuances of such dogfights is lost in the fold.
Essentially, the problem is that Joel and Gary, despite their emotional scars, are innocents, which makes them easy to like but hard to be compelled by. Romany Malco’s Darius and Kristen Bell’s Megan exude a more aware sense of reality and decorum, but are similarly essential innocents that garner more pity than empathy. The pathos is soggy, even when it comes to the adults (Fred Armisen’s Martin, Kaitlin Olson’s Carol), leaving Russ, voiced by Rosell, as the only true, wholly inexplicable outcast, attested by his fascination with scrap yards and the smell of his arm cast, among other things.
Russ is a correlative to Beavis and Butt-head’s Stewart, the Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed weakling who hung on Beavis and Butt-head’s every word, and if the show doesn’t totally rip off Judge’s template, it does seem eternally indebted to the 1990s. The animation style feels directly influenced by early computer games and the humor’s seems culled almost entirely from the year before the Internet and cellphones broke. Both of these elements are also true of Archer as well, but the jokes here, centered almost entirely on deep-seated feelings of loneliness, fear of abandonment, and wholesale insecurity, remain broad and impersonal, as opposed to Archer’s wildly unpredictable and complex sense of humor. You partially feel guilty about criticizing a show that boasts so much talent, is so well-meaning, and yet misses the mark entirely, but I defer to the gurus on this one: Uh–huh-huh-huh-huh, this sucks.