Saturday morning cartoons are a dying breed. Of the major networks, only the freaking CW even tries to put together a Saturday morning cartoon block. The big children’s networks on cable have every day of the week to air cartoons, so Saturday mornings just aren’t special anymore. Cartoon Network does put some effort into the presentation of its Saturday morning DC Nation block, but it’s only an hour long and currently half of it is reruns of last Tuesday night’s Teen Titans Go (utterly mediocre in comparison to the older Teen Titans cartoon, by the way).
Nickelodeon’s scheduling is so erratic that you can never guess where or when they’ll air a show (though if season two of Legend of Korra ends up in a Saturday morning timeslot like the first season did, consider my alarm set). For those old enough to remember and miss getting up on Saturday mornings for your animation fix, however, there’s now a new sleep-disturbing tradition developing for you to partake in: Saturday night cartoons, courtesy of FOX’s Animation Domination High-Def (ADHD) and Cartoon Network/Adult Swim’s revived Toonami.
ADHD just had its on-air premiere last Saturday at 11 after a year of online presence. The launch schedule consists of two new shows, Axe Cop and High School USA!, as well as short bumps taken from its library of viral videos and reruns of The Cleveland Show (because apparently some people can’t get enough Seth MacFarlane). Of the two premieres, Axe Cop is easily the highlight. Based on a webcomic written by a young child (ironically the show’s second episode received a “For Mature Audiences” rating; I guess the censors don’t think an 8-year-old’s visions of head-chopping justice and evil magic turds are appropriate for other 8-year-olds), Axe Cop is storytelling fueled by pure child logic, a mix of awesome, stupid, hilarious, and mildly psychotic.
Adapting the long comic storylines into 11-minute episodes sacrifices a bit of their bizarro-epic grandeur in exchange for a rapid-fire, borderline-exhausting pace, and the animation isn’t always up to par with Ethan Nichole’s amazing illustrations of his half-brother Malachai’s insane ideas. That said, the art is much better than most adult-targeted cartoons of this sort and the perfect voice casting elevates the entertainment value (Nick Offerman IS Axe Cop).
High School USA! is much less enjoyable. It’s got pedigree (creator Dino Stamatopoulos made Moral Orel for Adult Swim and played Starburns on Community), but it lacks a point. High school satires have been done way better elsewhere, and I don’t think anyone was dying for an Archies parody in this day and age. The premiere episode muddles whatever point it was trying to make in a mess of mean-spiritedness and irony layered upon irony to the point where any sincere idea is lost.
While ADHD is obviously hoping to compete with Adult Swim’s comedy programming, Adult Swim is enjoying Saturday night success with its Toonami action block. Once an after-school and Saturday primetime block aimed at tweens and teens on regular Cartoon Network before its cancellation in 2008, Adult Swim brought back the brand last year as an April Fools prank, which got such a response from viewers that they ended up reviving the block full-time as a way to prop up lagging anime ratings. Airing Saturdays midnight to 6 AM, the new Toonami has found success, and its presentation is top-notch (every week there’s a new video game review, inspirational speech, music video, interview, or some other goodie) but its current lineup leaves something to be desired.
The main issue seems to be something of an identity crisis between trying to service the sorts of shows abandoned by Cartoon Network back when they were first canceled while also now being an “adult” block. Three of the programs on the block, Naruto, One Piece, and IGPX, all aired on the old Toonami, and there’s very little reason they couldn’t air earlier in the day as family programming except for a frustrating anti-anime bias by the current Cartoon Network management. Naruto and One Piece are at least airing uncensored, but so little was edited in Naruto‘s initial run and in the few FUNimation-dubbed One Piece episodes that previously aired in primetime (as opposed to the horribly-butchered 4Kids dub) that the differences are fairly negligible. In spite of this, the old episodes of Naruto and the new episodes of One Piece currently airing are well done action-adventure programming. Naruto goes down the drain later on, but One Piece is surprisingly consistent for such a long-running series, and a recap arc starts August 17th for those interested in jumping in.
Bleach, a holdover from the old Adult Swim action block, went down the drain ages ago, though its convoluted mess of weirdness and unintentional comedy should hold appeal for those less-sober Adult Swim viewers. Soul Eater is awfully similar to Bleach plotwise, but much more enjoyable to watch due its beautiful animation and sense of humor about itself.
With the long-running Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, and Soul Eater holding up the first two hours of the block for the foreseeable future, any new shows Adult Swim acquires would seem to be out of luck as far as timeslots go. The new show premiering at 2 AM last Saturday, Sword Art Online, also seems to be out of luck in that it doesn’t appear to be very good. The concept—players trapped in a videogame who die in real life if they lose—is a decent one, albeit done before in works like The Matrix and the old Toonami anime .HACK//Sign, but the characters and the direction so far appear lacking. The villain’s reasoning for trapping the players, so he can “have a world to control,” is downright stupid since the players still have free will even if they’re stuck in the game; unless there’s either some form of mind control worked in or he has something else up his sleeve (using the trapped players as hostages for ransom to gain power in the real world, maybe?), it doesn’t make sense. Too much of the episode is just undeveloped characters standing around spouting exposition.
The show somehow has a huge fandom, so maybe the action picks up and the story gets better later on. It also has a huge hate-dom, so maybe it gets even worse. I’ll give it another chance to see where it goes but I imagine it’ll be On Demand and that I won’t be staying up for this show. With Eureka 7 finishing up soon, there might be space for another new show on the block, and hopefully one better than Sword Art Online appears to be. But I pity whatever new show they expect to premiere at 2:30 AM. Somebody needs to start this block earlier!
If you don’t feel like staying up, all of ADHD’s programming is uploaded online the following day, and most of Toonami’s shows are available on Adult Swim On Demand. I hope both blocks achieve the best of success, not so much for what they are right now, but for what they could be.