Just as important to the foundation of our modern societies as the invention of the wheel (if not more so), the practice of storytelling remains one of those bedrocks that even the most externally conscious among us can take for granted. Far from simply a means of entertainment, it represents the most commonplace means of communication, and like all tools it is one just as easily mis- or overused as it is properly employed. Enter Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a surrealist creation for the ages that successfully demolishes the boundaries and rules laid out by some 30,000 years of human evolution, implicitly reminding us that coherence, logic and even sanity aren’t all that in a world whose many complexities remain beyond the reach of those virtues. Now in its fifth season on Cartoon Network’s tremendously successful Adult Swim lineup, the show must not only continue the madness without treading familiarity, but it must live up to the hype that quite naturally follows in the footsteps of one of 2007’s finest films, and one that managed to shut down a major city for a day at that.
Suffice to say, a predictable episode of Aqua Teen wouldn’t be an Aqua Teen episode at all (that is, until they decide to get even more ironic with us than usual), and it is in that very sense of ceaselessly scatological madness that this series has thus proven an unqualified success, the innate humor of these fubar scenarios coming less from their goofy randomness than a profound sense of perpetual disbelief. Last season may have seen nothing less than a rapist, telepathic dog genetically engineered from the rubber hand of a talking milkshake, but the season five premiere “Robots Everywhere” arguably tops it for sheer, orchestrated insanity. With its diverse milieu of intersecting realities (relatively detailed and textured background scenery usually working in contrast to sharply animated foreground characters) and diverse characters (both main and supporting), the series is not unlike a grown-up, fucked-up version of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts—as if Lucy didn’t screw Charlie up forever with her cruel teasing with the football. The starring trio of Master Shake (Dana Snyder), Meatwad (co-director Dave Willis) and Frylock (Carey Means)—an anthropomorphized, human-sized milkshake, meatball, and packet of french fries, respectively—represent a Bermuda’s triangle of a comedic ego, id and superego, and it is in their offbeat and inexplicable non-adventures that the show severs the cord of narrative form.
Haters routinely attempt to justify their dislike for the series by pointing out its crude animation style, ignorant not only to the flexible nature of aesthetics but also the union of style and substance (maybe if 10,000 talking meatballs were digitally animated rolling down a hill, Mulan style, it would be fun for the whole family!). Which is not to say that Aqua Teen is for everyone, but even from a strictly technical perspective, there remains something impressive about a show that, in 10-minute segments no less, draws as much from Lynchian notions of “ugly” art as it does from Luis Buñuel’s cinema of subconscious visual triggers. Aqua Teen’s look deliberately recreates the artifice of a storybook; the “camera” rarely pans or tilts, instead—and, sans opening and closing credits, almost exclusively—utilizing static and carefully placed close-ups, medium and wide shots, the succession of which is often part of the joke. This is but one of the more passive ways in which the show throws convention to the wind, its understated look rendering the chosen material doubly subverted as a result.
In an effort to keep things fresh, this latest season has thus far thrown a few noticeable cogs in the wheel, even by Aqua Teen standards. Immediately noticeable is the new widescreen frame, a continuation of the cinematic changes underwent from the journey to the big screen last spring. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the fact that it wasn’t until the third episode that the titular characters were even to be seen, instead remaining in the background as a result of a dispute with their landlord over a gas leak in their kitchen. Their absence shifted the perspective of the show to Carl Brutanananadilewski (also Willis), the lonely, irate and perpetually underdressed next-door neighbor who has long served as the audience surrogate to the constant mayhem orchestrated by Master Shake and Meatwad—the calm eye at the storm’s center. The newfound character Marcula (co-director Matt Maiellaro)—a hunchback vampire and aforementioned landlord to the Aqua Teen force’s residence—has already proved short-lived, but this is a show that has always shamed even the Kenny-slaughtering South Park when it comes to lack of respect for logical continuity. Shake and Carl die routinely, sometimes even multiple times in the same episode, and so goes the incalculable madness of this netherworld, which constantly brings to mind nothing less than the breaking down of physics that occurs beyond the event horizon of a black hole in deep space.
As far as a singular encapsulation of the series goes, no moment from season five has yet trumped the image of dozens of box-shaped robots jumping up and down eating “invisible robot meat,” while Carl walks away, unable to respond to this scenario. Though often wildly inconsistent (the first season was seriously wobbly until the makers found their creative footing), any given episode of Aqua Teen is best appreciated for its rhythms of anti-logic, usually manifest in the form of a go-nowhere story in which the characters are forced into repeated conflicts with each other (usually verbal, sometimes physical) as a result of their completely isolated perspectives. Frylock remains the cool head fronting a repressed wild underside, Meatwad drifts idly through life, and Master Shake cruelly and often senselessly seeks to satiate his ever-shifting impulse of the moment. Carl is the most incidentally human of them all, forever at wit’s end in his frustration with the insanity of the world, though easily swayed to irrational acts if promised booze or female companionship. In a moment of desperation, the presence of angelic and sexually promiscuous women sees him going so far as to cut off his own nipples, though it’s nothing compared to what he suffers at the hands (tentacles?) of his next-door neighbor, a 50-foot long worm-like beast unwaveringly enraged as a result of an ongoing custody battle.
It has always been Master Shake’s broadly inconsiderate and highly energized stream-of-consciousness dialogue that most fully embodies the ever-shifting essence of Aqua Teen, filled to the brim with enough contradictions, gaps in logic and blatant self-denials to make any psychiatrist’s head spin. If anything in the show is to be taken as being literal, then Master Shake finally got some in season five’s fourth episode, in what can only be inferred as having been a gay zombie monkey orgy. It may be easy to be random in short bursts but Aqua Teen has been wildly and refreshingly unpredictable on all levels since the series began, the result of a deliberately cleansed narrative palate and what amounts to one of the most ceaselessly inventive visual vocabularies ever seen in an animated creation, television or cinematic. Only time will tell what their future targets of scrutiny will be, having already examined the insanity of everything from needless censorship, unscrutinized religious beliefs, materialism, the cost of abused power, and seemingly everything in between. As they say, fight fire with fire.