‘Black Mirror’ has a cartoon counterpart in HBO Max’s artful ‘Close Enough’
J.G. Quintel, who created Cartoon Network’s much-loved “Regular Show” (2009-17), has an artful new series, “Close Enough,” premiering Thursday on HBO Max. (Cartoon Network, which lives under the same corporate umbrella, is again the producing studio.)
Concerned with the death of old dreams, the birth of responsibility and the acceptance of life as it turns out, “Close Enough” is very much a series for adults — millennial adults, most specifically, old enough to feel old, young enough to hate feeling old — but relevant to anyone who’s lived that moment. I suppose there are some 10-year-olds who wonder disconsolately why life has lost the flavor it had at 5, and if that is you, please ask a grown-up for help. In any case, it’s not really for kids. (There are drugs. There is sex, which is often failing to have sex — but that, too, is sex.)
Quintel comes out of the same CalArts generation that produced “Adventure Time” creator Pendleton Ward and Thurop Van Orman, who cooked up “The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack,” on which Quintel worked as creative director — a generation that helped move mainstream cartoons to new levels of depth and weirdness. The characters on “Regular Show” included, along with its talking-animal leads, an anthropomorphic gumball machine, a lollipop person, a cloud woman and a video game ghost, who led more or less normal, emotionally relatable lives much of the time; other times things could get strange.
“Close Enough” takes place in an almost completely human world, though, once again, it’s liable to get uncanny. It concerns Josh (Quintel) and Emily (Gabrielle Walsh) and their 5-year-old daughter, Candice (Jessica DiCicco). He’s a hopeful video game designer who installs flatscreen televisions by day; she works, though would rather not, as the assistant to the head of something called Food Corp. (Emily has the better job, with health insurance. When Josh insists, “My job gets us important stuff too,” mother and daughter just laugh.)
The beloved Cartoon Network show “Adventure Time” returns with “BMO,” the first of four “Distant Lands” specials coming to HBO Max.
They share a small apartment with Josh’s old friend, Alex, a community college philosophy professor (who is voiced by and looks a lot like Jason Mantzoukas) and Alex’s artist, or perhaps just artistic, ex-wife Bridgette (Kimiko Glenn), who sometimes sings comedy songs in coffeehouses with Emily, and who is apparently rich enough to live elsewhere.
The setting is Los Angeles, with a higher level of specificity than one might expect from a cartoon. The two-story fourplex where the characters live is a familiar L.A. type — the rough-wood back porch replacing one that probably rotted away is a nice touch — and there are a host of local references and locations: the Brite Spot coffee shop, the Fashion District, Travel Town, the 110 freeway tunnels, the perilously steep Baxter Street, the L.A. Weekly, Vons market, the Griffith Park Observatory and on and on. A character in one episode is called Toluca Lake, though perhaps is too much of an old hippie to be named for the neighborhood where Bob Hope lived.
Such details ground the stories in reality even as events turn dark and bizarre, like a cartoon version of “Black Mirror” or any number of movies where ordinary people find themselves living in an action film. (They come two to an episode, as is cartoon-traditional, and pack a lot into 11 minutes.) These elements are well enough integrated, with sufficient thematic resonance, that you don’t really notice when “Close Enough” slips from one mode into the other.
At bottom, you’re always watching a domestic comedy, even when vasectomy robots are attacking Josh or a giant snail with a magic hat gulls Emily into a bad bargain, or, dreaming of places she can’t afford to live, Emily finds herself trapped in a sitcom called “Open House.” To be sure, “Close Enough,” whose title could serve for nearly any CBS comedy in the last or next 10 years, observes some standard sitcom rules — for one, the husband is not quite in the same league as his wife, who is drawn cute while he is drawn goofy. (Reference is made to Josh’s “hummingbird” nose.)
Times TV critic Robert Lloyd on the HBO Max original content available at launch, including Elmo, ‘Legendary,’ ‘Love Life,’ ‘Looney Tunes’ and ‘Craftopia.’
As mentioned, age is a recurring theme. Of course, the disinclination to grow up — as a gateway to growing old — is at the heart of many comedies, from silent film on, and here it takes some usual and unusual forms. Josh and Emily would like to be the people they think they used to be, sometimes: “I occasionally love that you feel like you’re in high school,” Emily tells Josh. (To a younger co-worker, he’s “so old if you said racist stuff we’d kind of just let it slide.”) But when their daughter spends a night away, their idea of a hot time involves errands and taxes. When they do venture out of their lane, they live, sometimes barely, to regret it; in one episode they find themselves in a nightclub where patrons discovered to be over 30 are … well, watch the show, it’s a spoiler. The late-night coffee shop chocolate chip pancakes that tasted so great at 25 seem “disgustingly sweet” a decade later.
Quintel’s work has grown up a little too. Women play a larger part here than in “Regular Show,” which was mostly dudes hanging out. And much of what makes the series sing happens between Walsh and the ink-and-paint person she inhabits; indeed, Emily is the most developed, lifelike character here. She works (“which I want to, because feminism”) but still doesn’t know what she wants to do. She longs to be among the “cool moms” at the Chamomile Elementary School where her daughter goes. But the point is that it is cool not to be cool, and if this is a defensive position, it is one many of us will, or will one day, recognize from the inside.
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