On DVD: Ugly Americans: Volume One

Ugly Americans has an enjoyable irreverence about it and its EC Comics-inspired design is inventive, but this animated Comedy Central program lacks both characters we can latch onto and consistent comedy value. The premise is built around an alternate version of New York City in which monsters, demons, and all manner of fantastic and mythical creatures live side-by-side with human beings. The non-human creatures are "managed" (from a civic point of view) by the Department of Integration, which helps place them in jobs and receive education and training. The show's main protagonist, a human named Mark Lilly, works for the Department of Integration, and rooms with a zombie named Randall.

The first volume of
Ugly Americans on DVD collects seven episodes, which is admittedly not a long run for a half-hour show. (The show has been renewed and new episodes begin airing on Comedy Central this month.) Since most major network half-hour comedies run in seasons of about twenty-five episodes, it's hardly reasonable for a new series such as this to hit its stride after only seven shows. This DVD release doesn't do Ugly Americans any favors, since television programs are often clunky in their first seasons. Characters are still being shaped by the writers and actors, story arcs continue to be fleshed out, and the question of tone is often a tricky one. This is all a very long way of saying that I feel both premature in passing judgment on such a new and unpolished show. But the fact is that these first episodes aren't terrific.

The show's creators have assembled an appealing visual experience: a monster-ized NYC, designed using the recognizable color scheme and heavy outlines of EC Comics' artists of the 1950s. It's whimsical, creative, and rooted in an under-appreciated legacy. The writing, however, leaves much to be desired. The show's sense of humor derives from that stonefaced, 1990s-era, monotonous style perfected by shows like
Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. What makes this harder to accept is the fact that the show's main characters are quite flat, without any history, dimension, or personality. The writing assumes that it is funny enough - or that the show's premise is strong enough - to float these under-developed characters through these episodes. Unfortunately, neither is true.

I'm glad that
Ugly Americans has been given further opportunity to develop its world and (hopefully) its characters. I actually look forward to checking in with the show again - perhaps when the next DVD is released. The premise is promising. The show is not wholly without laughs. It will be interesting to see whether this next set of episodes ordered by Comedy Central reflects the writers working out the kinks in the show's characters and milieu.
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