In a media landscape that’s increasingly obsessed with the mythical binge-worthy show, one which the helpless functional addicts in the audience will try and polish off all at once, Strange Planet has come to the dubious achievement of creating a show that actively resists binging. This is because it fundamentally has one (1) trick, a single note which it keeps striking like a long-dead horse.
Despite that title, Strange Planet does not depict a planet that’s strange, or even slightly unusual. In fact it depicts an aggressively ordinary world, for all intends and purposes the modern Western world at its most by-the-numbers – except, of course, for the fact that everything’s phrased in an overly literal fashion. This was the unique selling point of Nathan Pyle’s original webcomic, and sure enough, what was mildly charming in four panels starts to cloy quickly over twenty minutes.
(At a standard 24 frames per second, the process of adaptation has here turned consuming 4 images at a sitting into consuming around 30,000. It’s an unfair comparison, but one which reflects the awkwardness inherent in the adaptation process.)
This does boil down, quite simply, to how much you liked the original. If you did, great, here’s some more. Lots more, as we’ve established mathematically speaking. And it’s not just a series of non-sequiturs, there are episodic story arcs of a sort here, though nothing beyond ‘there’s incredibly mild peril/jeopardy, but now it’s all fine’.
If you browse internet content aggregators even casually, you almost certainly do know the original. As such, you, too, will probably be able to appreciate what is by contrast the less-is-more of the comic – Pyle had a subtle but effective line in conveying tone through the placement of text. It wasn’t a groundbreaking Mona-Lisa’s-smile of an artistic trick, but nonetheless a good one. Here, it’s expensive celebrities doing the voices.
(D’Arcy Carden’s helpful-robotic shtick from The Good Place does make her a natural fit here, though.)
The comics, too, had the tautness needed to start and be done within four panels. This adaptation has brought in actual TV writers, which is odd, because it all feels like it’s wrestling with an entirely unfamiliar running time. The preponderance of unexpected musical numbers and montages suggests that there was space left to fill during post-production.
When Strange Planet’s narratives attempt to come to any sort of conclusion, the show’s sanitised nature inevitably makes it feel a bit like some corporate-mandated video guide of Ways It Is Appropriate To Behave. Especially when paired with stuff like someone addressing a crowd, asking them to respond, and then going ‘you can do better than that’, the go-to move of utter bores the world over.
Now I’m harping on the same note too, but Strange Planet is very pointedly non-strange. It has no space for any sort of idiosyncrasy, or variation from the collective idea of normal. If we talk about it in terms of all the meats of our cultural stew, Strange Planet is just the brown water.
To an extent, this is a kind of skill. It’s trying to be one-size-fits-all, and to never even dip its toes in anything the median audience member wouldn’t find relatable (or, as it’s often termed nowadays, ‘hashtag relatable’). You’ve had feelings, right? You’ve used public transport? You’ve enjoyed any kind of popular culture, ever? Finally, a show for you!
About its one serious departure from our reality is that when feelings come to the fore, they will occasionally be discussed as bluntly and explicitly as the blue creatures who make up Strange Planet discuss everything else – not so much dancing around the subject you get from homo sapiens sapiens. As possibly its one departure from cheddar-cheese beige standardisation, Strange Planet is of course careful to discharge these moments as fast as possible and move past them, rather than, for instance, mining them for comedy.
This is probably Strange Planet’s original sin. There is no attempt to wring comedy out of its unusual phrasings, beyond the unusual phrasings themselves. I use words for a living, I’m intimately aware of the value a non-conventional deployment of verbiage can have, but even by that count Strange Planet barely nudges the envelope. It’s phrasing something literally, ho ho ho, repeat for twenty minutes – apart, of course, from when their inspiration deserts them and the blue creatures just speak in standard English.
Make no mistake, Strange Planet is very proud of its rephrasings of commonplace concepts. And the big giveaway is that occasionally, the signs and advertisements of its mildly mixed-up world, what are natural background gag material, will get their own spotlight shots. They’re brief, but they’re there, giving away that the show has to make the absolute most of whatever material it has.
Its only comedic technique, other than these rephrasings, is the occasional bit of cartoony wackiness. By the high standards of cartoons, it’s never especially wacky, but against the rigorously ordinary baseline it can seem deceptively so. This, too, is a trick in its fashion, in the same way that a slushy romantic subplot in Schindler’s List would have really stood out.
While Strange Planet isn’t particularly funny, especially if you ever took in a single one of the comics on which it’s based, there’s nothing objectionable about it either. This is by design. It’s inert and harmless, it’s what people think Randy Newman’s like (rather than what he’s like when not scoring kid’s films). For those who think Disney’s a little too coarse, here’s the comedy for you.
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Aggressively, furiously inoffensive, the animated equivalent of a ‘live, laugh, love’ sign or jokey greeting card, Strange Planet succeeds completely in adapting a good-natured but ultimately forgettable and not particularly funny webcomic.
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