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TV Picks: 'Bravest Warriors,' 'Gritty City,' 'The Tonight Show''

By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

4:30 PM PST, February 14, 2014

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"Bravest Warriors" (Cartoon Hangover/YouTube). Given the enormity of my affection for the works of Pendleton Ward ("Adventure Time"), who created these characters, and Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi ("The Adventures of Pete & Pete") -- who, with writer-director Breehn Burns ("Dr. Tran"), helped develop Ward's 2009 "Random! Cartoons" short about a multicultural quartet of 31st century teenage space heroes into this Web series -- it surprises me that I have taken so long to get around to watching it. Possibly, as with all things I hope to take seriously, I was waiting for a moment of ease and concentration.

Realizing that that would never happen, I finally clicked the mouse. (Yes, friends, I am still using mouse-based computer technology.) For the period of this writing, at least, "Bravest Warriors" is my favorite thing on the planet. (Though, to be fair, not my only favorite thing on the planet.)

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Although, for reasons the Internet has not disclosed, the credit "created by Pendleton Ward" that opened every Season 1 cartoon has disappeared in the second, replaced by a development credit for McRobb, Viscardi and Burns, the series is very much in the style and spirit of Ward's "Adventure Time." It is "scientific" where "Adventure Time" is magical, but it has its look, and its cadences, its rubbery limbs and noseless faces, its declarative sentences full of strange information, its poetical sensibility. (I am a person who finds poetry in a line like, "The fate of Bunless Nine is riding on this dance mixer," admittedly.) It is a bit more mature, without being too adult about it -- characters talk about "smooching" and "getting sassy." It is sexy on an Archie Comics level, or just above it, with allowances made for extraterrestrial notions of intimacy. But it is love, mainly, that makes these worlds go round, with the central recurring question of whether Warrior Chris will admit that, notwithstanding his protestations that "our bond goes way beyond all that stereotypical male-female jive," he is in love with Warrior Beth, when everyone else can see they're connected "in a soft-rock, soulmates-in-puberty kind of way."

"Pete & Pete" fans may sense familiar ground. "Doctor Who" fans might sense common cause.

Ward-like, too, are the smaller creatures who populate the periphery of the action, like Catbug (a cat with ladybug wings and a child's voice and manner) and the gelatinous Jellykid, who produces slices of bread from thin air. There are a butter lettuce party with Chippendale unicorn; cereal made with seahorse dreams and rainbow spit; a "gas-powered stick" (it never runs out of gas); a computer-generated elf who gains independent being, grows huge, and threatens to absorb/enslave the universe in pink bliss; a horse "frozen in my awe and knowledge of forever." All within the pulsing bounds of the "space-time calliope," as it is repeatedly called. Beautiful.

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"The Whole Gritty City" (CBS, Saturday). Like many documentary films, this feature-length look at New Orleans, marching bands, kids and band directors took a while to get done. Shot from 2007 to 2010, it was finished with funds raised from Kickstarter and acquired by CBS, which is airing it under the rubric of its crime-umentary series "48 Hours." (Richard Barber, who edited the film and co-directed it with Andre Lambertson, its director of photography, works for the series.) The venue is not entirely inappropriate -- murder is a recurring theme through the film, a low, dissonant pedal tone that fades up occasionally but never completely fades away. But it is not the dominant note, which is the creation of harmony, figuratively, literally.

It's sometimes hard to track -- there are three bands, three band directors and numerous young players, and it is not always easy to remember who goes with whom, and who goes where, and the film, which (excitingly) is as close to cinema verite as network television ever gets, jumps around between them, without narration or much in the way of identifying titles. But since all bend toward similar goals, with similar obstacles in the way, it is all, in a sense, the same story; the end, which is at once heartbreaking and hopeful, makes that clear. ("Treme" fans may be reminded of Wendell Pierce's story line, in which an itinerant trombonist finds himself -- and finds himself -- slowly becoming a teacher.) It is a look at life, rather than a structured argument; or rather, the argument is made continually, with casual eloquence.

Certainly, the adults here, teachers and parents both, have a sense of urgency and mission; New Orleans is a dangerous place, most years in the running for the nation's murder capital, and the hope for new generations of city youth is to redeem them with music -- the satisfaction it brings, and the discipline it demands -- which is a long city tradition in itself. But what is most affecting is what the camera catches -- the gleam of brass, a toddler drumming with fair authority on a sidewalk, figures in a field at twilight rehearsing, pages of music blowing in the wind, faces in thought, and not in thought. It shows you the town; it lets you listen to the music without getting in the way. (There are times when no one speaks, for the network equivalent of eternity.)

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The story is told not in facts and figures, which say little about how people are, but in observed activity and snatched talk: Child 1: "I can march for 16 hours, my brother. How long can you march?" Child 2: "Twenty-nine thousand hours." Child 1: "That's preposterous." Or a woman, crying as a parade passes by, "Brian! Come to class!" Or the voice of an 11-year-old, recording a video diary: "I got to sit in the cold weather waiting on a bus. Can't do nothing but sit on a horn case.... There's a lady running, a neighborhood lady. Some modern-day children getting on a streetcar... These are mansions on St. Charles. Look at these houses."

Wynton Marsalis (a CBS News cultural correspondent, I did not know) has been tacked on at the beginning and end and in the middle as a kind of host, narrative wrangler and human seal of approval that, practically speaking, the film might need, but artistically speaking, it can get along very well without. (Note: "The Whole Gritty City" airs at 9, an hour earlier than is customary for "48 Hours.")

"The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" (NBC, late weeknights beginning Monday). Jimmy Fallon's decampment from an early antemeridian to a late postmeridian start time will have no effect on the way I watch his show, which is never as it's broadcast and rarely from start to finish. (Which does not constitute a criticism.) I imagine this may be true of a lot of his fans, who are already living some version of television in which television doesn't exist. The question is, will the time change and the "Tonight Show" banner alter the presentation, the content, the attitude?

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David Letterman managed the shift without sacrificing his healthy outsider status -- it helped, after all, that Jay Leno consistently beat him in the ratings -- but was also smart to make the endlessly comical city of New York his costar. Conan O'Brien, meaning no disrespect, couldn't make "The Tonight Show" work for him; for all his intelligence and experience and self-professed colorful oddity, he couldn't expand into its perceived, asserted bigness, assertively big set notwithstanding. (He is much more at home, and doing well, seemingly, at TBS, where he can be himself without having to convince anyone that that's a good thing.) If he had taken over "The Tonight Show" after five years in late-late night, instead of 16, that might have worked -- though it never could have happened.

Fallon, on the other hand, has momentum. He has myriad skills and tricks in his bag no other late-night host can lay claim to, and a youthfulness -- almost a youth -- that suggests many productive years ahead; and "Late Night," in his tenure, was already the most ambitiously produced show in post-prime-time. It made Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" look lazy and uncommitted.

Some find Fallon's exuberance trying, which might be one reason to watch him in bite sizes, and he is not the best interviewer among his peers. But even when "Late Night" turned most obviously to selling some guest's product, the show felt genuine -- if only in that the selling was dutifully got through to get back to the fun -- and, in fact as well as in feel, inclusive.

I can't think of another show on the air, at any time, so regularly and reliably full of life and joy. Hopefully no one will try to fix this not-broken thing.

Plus: The Roots.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com
Twitter: @LATimesTVLloyd

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