"Bunsen Is a Beast," a new cartoon from "The Fairly OddParents" creator Butch Hartman, is about a beast named Bunsen — you may have worked that much out — and a boy named Mikey who become instant friends when Bunsen is "commingled" into Mikey's middle school. That it's a story about embracing outsiders, even the ones you're told might eat you, puts it well within a tradition of children's literature, and yet it's also particularly timely.
"Beasts have moved to town, and the first beast student ever is attending middle school," we are told, although "humans and beasts have always had problems commingling." Whether there are other towns full of beasts and beast-only middle schools somewhere over the horizon doesn't come up, and all the goofy monsters of Muckledunk seem to live in Bunsen's house, a madcap Addams Family-esque manse where the walls have eyes, as do the welcome mat, the chair and the toilet.
The series premieres Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. and continues Wednesday and Thursday evening before taking up its regular post Saturday mornings at 10:30. Although Bunsen is the Ruby Bridges of Muckledunk Middle School, the show is not broad social commentary. The opposition to Bunsen is narrowly concentrated in one character, a classmate named Amanda (Kari Wahlgren), whom Hartman has saddled with a set of braces and a spittle-soaked way of speech, along with an apparently bottomless checkbook to fund her anti-beast activities.
"Back off beast," Amanda tells Bunsen. "You are different and therefore bad." She would like to see him driven out of the city with pitchforks and torches and does her best to make it happen. That Bunsen can go bad, against his will — if his head comes off, for instance, and he can't retrieve it within a certain time — adds suspense.
Bunsen (Jeremy Rowley), a familiar sort of friendly monster, is furry or feathery depending on how you see the drawing — "decorative protein strands" is how he describes his covering. He has ears that look a little horns, or horns that look a little like ears. He eats through a spout in the top of his head that also pumps out confetti, he drinks through his tail, and he sprouts appendages as necessary.
What makes Mikey (Ben Giroux) and Bunsen such immediate soulmates is their dialed-up metabolism, their pedal-to-the-metal, turned-up-to-11 enthusiasm. As did "OddParents," "Bunsen" comes on fast and loud, retro and modern; it has the body of an early Hanna-Barbera cartoon with the engine of Tex Avery at his eye-popping extreme. Most characters speak at the top of their lungs; there is literally an air horn.
And like most good children's shows, it pitches jokes a little high or outside the box, the better to extend younger viewers' reach and to please older ones. An old lady cries, "It's the end times" after a disembodied hand hops onto her tea table. Amanda references "Sunset Boulevard." Mikey's home-schooled friend, Darcy (Cristina Milizia), who plays the banjo, has a casual regard for property: "I brought a bike, even though I walked," she says in one adventure. "It's not my bike." Later, she'll steal a helicopter.
There is also a teacher, Miss Flap (Cheri Oteri), who says things like, "Rather than teach today I thought I'd tell you about the tiny door I found in my house that leads to an enchanted garden — maybe that was just a dream." She gives as a reason for her own lateness to class, "I forgot I was a teacher and accidentally took a joyride with some rebel bikers." She waves to them out the window.
Hartman has described the show being "about every kid's experience in school trying to fit in and be popular." But I would say it's about something else, even something opposite — not assimilation but integration, the celebration of difference and the right to be weird.
Weirdos who don't tolerate other weirdos' weirdness are, of course, still to be mocked.
'Bunsen Is a Beast!'
When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-Y (suitable for young children)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd