“I may not be the best guy, but I sure ain’t no bad guy!” — Coop
In 2004, the Cartoon Cartoon block on Cartoon Network was being phased out. Hanna-Barbera cartoons were no longer such an essential part of the Cartoon Network block, ceding programming space to originally produced content and dubbed Japanese anime. Toward the end there, one show aired that was given a full season order. It was a little thing called LowBrow, about a New Jersey slacker who modified a mecha in his garage.
Megas XLR aired for two seasons on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. It was a very strange spot to put it. My guess is that most people watching Toonami wanted to see the genuine thing: Japanese anime redubbed for American audiences. Your Gundams and your One Pieces and your Narutos and whatnot.
Toonami audiences weren’t looking for what Megas XLR was offering. Our two male leads are not the attractive or hyperactive teen heroes of most typical anime. The third lead, a red-headed anime woman, is closer to the ideal… but is also generally more world weary and down-trodden than your typical anime female protagonist. She possesses the style and angularity of an anime-inspired character as rendered in graffiti on PacSun window display skateboards.
The world is not the gleaming, shiny world of technological marvels or even the lush forests of feudal Japan. Megas, instead, is set among the polluted, yellow skies of New Jersey, where a trip to the beach means being amongst open sewer drainage. Its locales are aggressively unattractive.
Still, Megas XLR managed to retain a cult fan base that still loves the show to this day.
That’s because you dig giant robots.
Megas XLR was created by Jody Schaeffer and George Krstic. Krstic was the story editor on an MTV animated series called Downtown, which aired in 2000. The show had been nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program but aired at such an ungodly hour that literally no one has ever seen it. NOBODY. Here’s the most interesting detail of Downtown as it pertains to this review: it features a character named “Goat”, a lanky, bearded long-haired weirdo. The exact same character appears here in Megas XLR as the guy who run the junkyard where our heroes find their giant robot.
Also, a fun Easter egg: a fakey MTV logo, for a channel called “Pop” TV, gets blown up in every episode. “We were still sore about the way MTV treated Downtown at the end, so that was my way of getting back at them,” George Krstic said in an interview at Untied Magazine. (Note: type in the names of any of the creators plus “interview” and you get a plethora of resources. Every single one of them loves to talk about Megas XLR.)
Animation was handled by their friend Chris Prynoski (who was the main creator of Downtown). He was just starting up a new studio called Titmouse, Inc. Prynoski had worked on several other MTV productions — Daria and Beavis and Butt-Head for starters — but with MTV pretty much shelving animation entirely (RIP Liquid TV era) Prynoski was starting to look to get jobs elsewhere. Megas XLR would be Titmouse’s first series. Since then, you’ve seen their work on The Venture Brothers (which also traffics in pop culture parodies), Black Dynamite, Ballmastrz: 9009 (another anime parody and for my money is Megas’ modern day successor), The Midnight Gospel, Metalocalypse, the Black Panther animated series, and the animated portion of the foosball episode on Community. From what I understand, Titmouse’s rep is that they can do quality animation quickly and cheaply. I wonder if a huge part of that is borrowing cost saving yet eye catching techniques from their animated counterparts in Japan.
With Megas XLR, our creators tap into one of their favorite childhood past-times: classic old school anime. There are tons of sly references to cartoons from the 80’s and 90’s… some of which are totally unexpected unless you get into the details. Like, voice actors for example. I could probably spend this entire review just going through all the references… and I probably will, just give me time. At the same time, there’s the almost perverse twist that the anime gets so mangled by a bunch of New Jersey chuckleheads who want to make things cool by painting flames on everything.
The star of our show is Coop, a guy who looks like Guy Fieri but with way less energy. He has two passions in life: video games and cars. One day, he’s looking for some parts in Goat’s junkyard, where everything is $2. For that low, low price, he finds a giant robot body which is mostly intact but is lacking a head. No problem, thinks Coop. He leans on the skills that has and makes a robot head out of a classic car and the dashboard is modified with video game controllers.
It turns out that the robot (an acronym for the Mechanized Earth Guard Attack System) hails from the future. Kiva has stolen a powerful Mecha from an evil alien race known as the Glorft.
Kiva had then modified it so that it could be piloted by a human. (In her version with the head still intact, Megas resembles Soundwave from the Transformers.) The Glorft launch a final attack on the humans before she can put her plan in to action. In a last ditch attempt, Kiva wants to sent Megas back in time to a crucial turning point in the war. Unfortunately, Megas’ head gets blown off before the time jump. The robot and Kiva are also sent back to the wrong time, and the time travel device is destroyed.
Kiva is stuck in the past. Worse, Coop’s modifications are so extensive that she has no idea how to pilot this robot anymore. If you’re keeping track: Megas XLR (the “XLR” stands for eXtra Large Robot) was originally a Glorft robot, modified by Kiva, and then further modified by Coop. Fortunately a lot of Kiva’s modifications are still intact and she can still serve as the robot’s co-pilot. Meanwhile, Coop’s slacker pal Jamie… is along for the ride.
When the show first aired, I did not like Jamie at all. Coop and Kiva are cool, of course, driving around a robot that gets into fights and whatnot. Jamie is a scrawny weakling who hangs around Coop and complains all the time about why they don’t just use to robot to cruise for chicks. However, there’s an element of Jamie that totally redeems him: his voice. Jamie is voiced by Steve Blum. Kiva, on the other hand, is voiced by Wendee Lee. They are two very prolific English anime voiceover actors… but specifically they played Spike Speigel and Faye Valentine. The two, in fact, were chosen because the creators wanted Spike and Faye on their show. So Jamie is basically Spike if he was even more of a slacker… and that’s cool.
They’re not the only prominent voice actors on the show. If you watch the intro, one of the villains is a giant head with tiny arms and legs. So obviously he’s influenced by MODOK. If you take a good look at that face, though, he looks mighty familiar.
Bruce Campbell plays an alien wrestling promoter named Magnanimous. His dialogue is peppered with some familiar Evil Dead/Army of Darkness catchphrases. Does he find his robotic armor “groovy”? You know it! He plugs his head — body? — into a much larger robot body that resemble Elvis Presley’s Vegas outfit. And that’s not all! In his second appearance, Magnanimous’ robot body has a chainsaw attached to one arm while his other arm holds a
There are also a ton of references to classic anime. Our team fights against and then befriends a group of heroes in spandex and helmets named the S-Force. They’re a call back to Gatchaman (or G-Force as they were called in the American translation), but they incorporate some other familiar elements. The S-Force pilot bunch of animal robots that combine into a larger robot (that looks like Starscream, specifically the version from Transformers: Armada) and take orders from a holographic head named Targon like The Power Rangers do. Coop and friends also run into an all-female team of sailor-based superheroes known as the Ultra-Cadets, who spend much of their screen time in twirly transformation sequences.
By far my favorite reference is to a space pirate who has a fondness for roses. He creepily tries to entice any red-head to be his unwilling pirate queen. His name is Captain Jean-Michel Warlock. Let’s just say his appearance made me go on a huge Leiji Matsumoto binge-watching bender.
In an interview at Review or Die, George Krstic mentioned their goal was “to take the archetype, where there was an archetypical story or character, and kind of flip it on its ear.” Hence why your hero is a jolly simpleton instead of the brooding pretty boy of anime. It’s why Peter Cullen sorta becomes Megatron, why Frank Welker sorta becomes Starscream, and why a guy who looks like Unicron turns out to be a tiny fella with a massive chip on his shoulder. It’s why Alan Young — Scrooge McDuck himself! — provides his voice acting talent here… but his role is that of a completely unintelligible weirdo. Not that the voice of Mr. Ed didn’t have experience in that respect, but why get a guy so legendary just to speak in weird gibberish? Because our creators know and love their voice actors, that’s why. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: correction —- Alan Young played Mr. Ed’s owner.)
Taken one way, Coop is a poor excuse for a hero. “A big fat screaming idiot driving a giant robot,” as he’s called by Jody Schaeffer. He didn’t receive a hero’s call to action and only modified the robot because he’s a hobbyist. He seems to be dragged by Kiva into taking any action at all. When Coop finally gets serious, he always goes through a long speech about how the bad guys have finally broken the last straw.
Not to mention that he’s very destructive. The world’s most powerful robot is used to execute wrestling moves. Flying elbows, legdrops, suplexes, whatever. And when that fails, Coop goes to his modifications. New buttons for extra weapons pop up, deux ex machina style, on the dash. This typically means opening every panel of Megas — arms, legs, shoulders, and the voluminous chest cavity — which are crammed to the brim with guns. Such an arsenal inevitably leads to one thing: New Jersey is toast. They city is lucky to get only blown up twice per episode. Buildings crumble to dust as Megas punches robots through multiple buildings. Streets buckle and crack. Explosions, resembling Evangelion’s Second Impact, can be seen from space. Coop is as much a danger to the people of New Jersey as he is to the villains from afar.
Which would be distressing, except no one seems to care, really. Coop can stroll around town in his big robot, and it gains as much attention as if the car itself weren’t attached to the robot body. An entire DMV can be demolished, and the only reaction is from pissed of people waiting in line, wondering how long the wait was going to be now. Even when Coop ends up causing massive destruction on friendly planets and piss off his allies, they seem to forgive and forget his clumsiness a short moment later.
That Coop, you know? He’s just a guy.
A guy who just wants a Philly cheesesteak and hang out on the polluted Jersey Shore with his best pals. Villains? They’re just a nuisance that are in the way of good times. The disparate elements do form an impression that’s frozen in time: the early 2000’s. Anime, punk music, and the street racing days of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Just that glorious theme song that commands you to “find first gear in your GIANT ROBOT CAR” puts me in the crazy mood of the mid-2000’s. There’s almost a temptation in pop culture to talk about how somber and afraid we were after 9/11, and maybe it wasn’t until Michael Bay started blowing up buildings in his Transformers movies could we ever heal again. This show, on the other hand, has building collapsing every single episode in the New York area and every single character acting like it’s no big deal.
Mid-2000’s irony, maybe? Perhaps.
But this show is so unabashedly gleeful about pop culture obsessions that it reminds me of my own. Watching anime. Being delighting in Marvel Comics’ manga-inspired superhero titles. Downloading anime music videos from a non-streaming share site and discovering new music because it was featured on “AMV Hell 4.” Following wrestling semi-ironically in the days after the WCW and ECW were bought by the WWF/E. Playing SSX and Midnight Club video games and rocking to that soundtrack. And, what the heck, consuming pop culture so voraciously that I went and hung out with other like-minded obsessives at the AV Club. Reading ironic articles on ESPN.com’s Page 2 about questionable sports like the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. It all about loving things that “cultured” people would sniff at as absolute trash and not being ashamed about it at all.
Megas reflects our optimism of early pre-video streaming internet culture before the reality of it all made us bitter and cynical. The seeds were being planted, though. Megas aired one year before Ctrl+Alt+Del did that “don’t f*ck with us” comic. (If you want to get a sense of irony, check out a strip from last year where he reminisces how back in his day gamers used to be so well behaved. Really, Tim Buckley? REALLY?) Meanwhile, the Penny Arcade guys feuded with Jack Thompson via email. Coop’s chillness was rapidly an artifact of the past. The road to Gamergate, if you will.
The show lasted two glorious seasons. It ends with an episode where Coop meets versions of Coop, Kiva, and Jamie from an alternate universe (or possibly the future). Evil Coop is slimmer and has given in to his inherent destructive tendencies by going full villain. Kiva has become a cyborg. And Jamie of this alternate universe allows Steve Blum to go full Spike Spiegel. Looking back, maybe this episode was a cautionary tale. Coop’s gaming obsession led him down the path of being a psychopathic Nazi. (It’s pretty direct, too. Evil Coop is surrounded by red and black flags bearing the flame logo.) It’s ultimately a Star Trek parody, with the title (“Rearview Mirror, Mirror”) being the dead giveaway… but man, how close were Schaeffer and Krstic with their prognostication?
Coop never got to go fight for Kiva’s people in that final battle… though I doubt that that was ever in the cards for this show whose sole purpose was to pay cheeky homage to all things anime. Besides, Coop perhaps averting the future where he becomes a dangerous warlord may be a far more appropriate note to end the series on.
Apparently, Cartoon Network had lost money on this show due to its low ratings and had claimed it as a tax write off. If you’re wondering why you can’t find this show streaming anywhere (other than iTunes, where you have pay for two seasons), it’s because if the show ever made a profit, they would owe the government some back taxes. So it looks like that’s it for Coop, Kiva, and Jamie… doomed to an eternal limbo thanks to those bad boys at accounting.
If only a giant robot could coming along to smash up the IRS….
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!
Episodes watched: “Test Drive”, “Battle Royale”, “Bad Guy”, “DMV – Department of Megas Violations”, “Coop D’Etat”, “The Driver’s Seat”, “Ultra Chicks”, “The Return”, “S-Force SOS”, “Space Booty”, “Terminate Her”, “A Clockwork Megas”, “Universal Remote,” “Rearview Mirror, Mirror.”
This will probably be my last MADE ANIMATED for a while. Short story: when I started this I had a steady job, and currently I do not. So all of my energy is going to focused on finding work elsewhere. So more specifically, I’m not in the mental headspace. Also, a jobless guy at home watching cartoons? I am not ready to commit to that sort of Coop lifestyle. Though I guess I can’t guarantee that that’s not going to happen. Watch me come back after a couple week of bored unemployment. Still, I think that this is a good place to stop for now… which is basically the first time Fish Police gets kick off Page 1 when you click on the #MADE ANIMATED tag. I hope to pick this back up when things aren’t so crazy. Then we can finally get to the review everyone here has been waiting all year for: Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels. Until then, thanks for reading!