I generally like most of the Williams Street shows on Adult Swim. Shoot, I even liked 12 Oz Mouse, which I think was one of the most hated shows on the Adult Swim message boards. I couldn’t tell you why, though. Perfect Hair Forever was another favorite target (mainly because they aired it on the day that the hotly anticipated Squidbillies was set to debut), but that one gained a cult following pretty quickly. Perhaps it’s because it featured an anime girl in a thong.
Ah, the Adult Swim message boards. I have no idea if they still exist or if the entire endeavor has transitioned to Reddit by now. Threads were full of people slinging hot takes like “Why is Adult Swim airing this?” and “Things were so much better when they were airing Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sealab 2021”. It may have applied to every show… except for Venture Brothers. Now there was a place for the Venture Brothers fans to post every reference they could think of like a real time IMDB section.
Another show that tended to garner negative comments is today’s subject: Xavier: Renegade Angel. The show has a cult following now, but back the we were just not ready! I too was one of those scofflaws who dismissed the show … until I saw one episode that made me laugh out loud. I remember telling my brother, “This show is a lot better than everyone is saying it is.”
Yet, I held off on revisiting the show… until today.
Xavier: Renegade Angel was created by PFFR. They’re a collective of Brooklyn artists who create music albums and put on art exhibits. Their most visible work, though, is on television. In 2005, their children’s show parody Wonder Showzen aired on MTV. It gained a strong cult following.
Cringe comedy is great for some people —- shoot, it seems like the main comedic form of the 2000’s. Personally, I didn’t care much for the show. I’ve honestly never been a fan of any iteration of “The Muppets, but vulgar” concept. I am also not a fan of man-on-the-street segments that boil down to harassing passerby’s, whether you have a puppet on your hand or not. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog gets a bit of a pass because often people are in on the gag. On Wonder Showzen, though, it just comes off as assholish behavior.
Xavier: Renegade Angel bears some resemblance to Wonder Showzen, I suppose. It is likewise irreverent and disdainful at people who talk down to you. I like it much better, though, in part because no one except an off putting CGI monstrosity is getting embarrassed.
One of the reasons I think Xavier is received better today is that we had to live long enough to experience 90’s nostalgia. In the mid-2000’s, there was nothing particularly humorous about poor computer graphics. Seriously! We were only just getting used to the idea that SNES graphics were funny. Think of all those webcomics released at the time that were re-colors of Mega Man sprites! Minecraft and its normalization of early 3D aesthetics was still a few years away yet. It’s been said that Xavier: Renegade Angel looks a lot like Second Life, and it’s true. What’s also true is that Second Life was only in its fourth year of operation and had yet to reach its peak subscriber base when Xavier hit Adult Swim in 2007.
The cartoon didn’t look like it was rendered in a deliberate retro style made to awaken nostalgia of polygonal video games from a long gone era. It looked like what we were seeing on computers at the time. To our primitive minds, the art direction bore the stench of laziness.
Then there’s Xavier himself, who seems to intentionally be the most off-putting protagonist possible. He’s covered in brown fur, which you will see a lot of because he is mostly naked. He has a beak for a nose. He has a mop of blonde hair. Nipples run up and down his chest. One of his arms is a snake. And his knees are backwards. Later we see what’s underneath his loincloth, and it is not pleasant.
He’s obnoxious, too. Xavier is the sort of guy who will butt in whenever he sees a problem —- mostly imagined —- and offers completely useless solutions. Or, he will provide solutions, but they will be terrible. More than once it leads to the destruction of the entire universe. One time it leads to him eating several babies. And once it leads to him sleeping with his mom. Yup, that’s that sort of thing you can expect in Xavier: Renegade Angel.
What can I say… it was the 2000’s.
Over at the Mothership, the creators say that the show “is a warning to children and adults about the dangers of spirituality.” That’s what the Wikipedia entry lists as a theme of the show. Reading that interview, though, Vernon Chatman and Scott Lee spend the entire time giving non-answers or obvious joke replies… so it’s interesting that the person writing that Wiki entry zeroed in to the one statement that Josh Modell calls “an almost-serious answer”.
I guess I can see it, though it is less preachy than your typical episode of South Park. If anything, Xavier is closer parodying the pop spirituality displayed in things like 80’s action-adventure shows. Xavier is sort of the magical Native American, the racial counterpart to Spike Lee’s famous epithet about a person of a certain race whose only responsibility is to guide a White man to enlightenment.
Yet he’s not Native American. We get glimpses of his parents. They are both white. Xavier might not be totally Caucasian, though. Likely he’s half-beast and a product of an orgy his drunk mom had with a host of animals. But that’s beside the point. He’s not Native American.
Meanwhile, his mentor who sends him in his vision quest doesn’t seem Native American either. He’s more like an old White man who spouts native wisdom as learned from TV shows. He also despises Xavier and fakes his death to get rid of him.
Now let me tell you about Jamake Highwater. He was once considered an expert for Native American heritage. He was responsible for several shows on PBS and was a Hollywood consultant. The guy who came up with Chakotay’s embarassing background on Star Trek: Voyager? This guy.
Actual Native Americans criticized this guy for promoting a stereotypic portrayal of their culture. “This person has invented and repeated stereotypic and biased information about Indians,” read one statement from the National Congress of American Indians in 1984. Investigative journalism showed that Jamake Highwater wasn’t a Cherokee as he had claimed. In fact, his real name wasn’t even Jamake Highwater. It was Jackie Marks. He was of Eastern European descent.
As observed by tribal author Homer Yellow Snow: “The realities of Indian belief and existence have become so misunderstood and distorted at this point that when a real Indian stands up and speaks the truth at any given moment, he or she is not only unlikely to be believed, but will probably be publicly contradicted and corrected by the citation of some non-Indian and totally inaccurate ‘expert.’”
Long story short: the spirituality that Xavier: Renegade Angel is largely mocking is the one made up by Jackie Marks.
It makes me wonder if Xavier’s real target is the cult of personality. There is an episode where a local televangelist becomes a national sensation. I also turns out that televangelist is a gorilla who can only speak through sign language and is only interpreted by an attractive woman. There’s something there, definitely. But the main takeaway from the episode is going to be the beastiality.
The most defining element is that the comedy tries to be as gross as possible. I mean, geez. There’s an episode where Xavier ejaculates, and it turns into a sentient puppy dog that leaves a sloppy white trail everywhere. Totally being warned about the dangerousness of spirituality here.
Yet, you’re not totally put off because you’re continually aware of the fakery of the CGI environments. It’s an element that keeps the show from ever being as offputting as Wonder Showzen. When someone barfs, it looks like that pixelated stream that comes out of your characters’ mouths in The Sims. We’re not in the uncanny valley. We’re in that safe space still. So when Xavier’s snake hand eats a bunch of babies, we’re fully aware that they’re just pixels.
The show even makes its game-like world an element of its stories. When Xavier unwittingly releases a computer virus from a town’s kiosk, its residents suddenly lose a lot of their polygonal definition. They go from looking like Second Life people to something from the “Money For Nothing” video.
Later, when Xavier goes on a sort of dreamquest, the screen begins to look like a kaleidoscopic screensaver that morphs into a re-skin where you can recognize a shape that’s covered in fractal patterns. As primitive as it is… it’s legitimately soothing, especially when paired with pan flute music.
The turn towards being a legitimately engrossing feast for the was a surprise. This sort of thing happens several times in the run. One particularly trippy episode consists of viewer submitted clips that cycles from several different styles of outsider animation and live action. A dry run for Xavier: Into the Renegade-Verse, perhaps?
That’s what I like about Xavier. It’s always surprising you. And now for that episode I really liked what back when. Xavier goes on his typical self-righteous roll. This time he’s lecturing a Latino gang that takes him in. They tell him he has to go an shoot someone. Xavier’s not going to do that, so he pays the pizza guy off to pretend he’s dead. The gang buys it without any evidence. (“Yes! Now Phase Two! You have to watch us eat the pizza, with nary a slice for yourself!”) The pizza guy, though, comes back with the breadsticks. Rather than catch on to the rise, the gang members think Xavier got a ghost to deliver.
Later, they ask Xavier to put tags up in town. It’s Tags Tuesday, after all. He proposes a new tag: SOLID WHITE. The gang does so… and they’re amazed by how the paint scheme just opens everything up. They act like people on an HGTV reality show.
Previous episodes of Xavier had so conditioned me to expect nihilism. When I got the rare episode where everything turns out nicely, I couldn’t help it.
I laughed so hard.
In a Season 2 ep, Xavier runs into a pretentious Goth graffiti artist (who paints the walls with his own blood) named Dark Notion. Dark Notion admires Xavier, especially since he has currently turned himself inside out so that he’s a mess of blood and guts. “I do haunch squats to power-crunch my GUACS!” Xavier brags, referring to his biceps. I don’t know why this hasn’t become an Avocado meme yet.
After one of DN’s monologues, Xavier observes (with the cadence of a beat poet), “My God. You’ve been… abused! Who is your… a-bruiser? You can tell me!”
To which Dark Notion replies, while dramatically gesturing his hands, “It was … SOCIETY.”
Anyway, Dark Notion eventually realizes he’s part of society and he changes his name to Baron Society Weinberg because the humor on this show is madness.
It is at this point, at the end of the review, that I have been subconsciously avoiding calling this show as “so random”. In retrospect, though, it might not have been fair to do so. It was the mid-2000’s, after all. The world was still recovering from the horror of 9/11 and finding solace in absurdity. The internet was blowing up. YouTube, especially, wasn’t filled with algorithms weeding out copyright violations. Videos were filled with pirated footaged remixed with new content, with glasses-wearing nerds claiming “fair use” left and right.
We were in an era of I Can Has Cheeseburger, Dr. McNinja, and Fred Figglehorn. It was the weird time where South Park was censored for it’s depiction of Muhammad, and the internet responded by doing an “Everyone Draw Muhammad Day” in support. It was in this meaty crucible of ideas that the chimera that is Xavier: Renegade Angel emerged —- a drippy, ugly newborn covered in mottled brown fur. Upon searching my heart-soul, I discover that perhaps that’s why we didn’t love this show then. Was it so “lol so random” that it was played out? Monkey bacon dirt bike fish lips greenhouse?
There was an underlying method to the madness, though, which may be why Xavier endures. It’s more assured in its randomness. The words spewing out of Xavier’s mouth are an eloquent combination of lyricism and absurdity… perhaps a parody of Bob Dylan but only slightly so. It’s a veteran, too, asserting itself as a master of the form to all the newbies on YouTube. It’s a show that’s incredibly stupid and subversively witty at the same time.
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!