Monday, January 4, 2016

Pilot Review: Bordertown

Bordertown (Sundays at 9:30 on Fox)

It's been five years since Fox successfully introduced a new animated comedy to its lineup, when Bob's Burgers joined the Animation Domination family. Since then, Fox has let go of two long-running animated shows (both by Bordertown executive producer Seth MacFarlane: The Cleveland Show and American Dad!) and introduced three failed newcomers (Allen Gregory, Napoleon Dynamite, and Golan the Insatiable). Bordertown is the best attempt at capturing the magic of stalwarts The Simpsons and Family Guy, but it's not as good or as clever as either of those shows.

Only time will tell if Bordertown will have the ratings power of the other Sunday cartoons, but it at least matches them in satire, this time focusing on immigration and racism (a timely topic thanks to the insanity of Donald Trump). Set in the fictional state of Mexifornia, along the U.S.-Mexico border, two families live as neighbors and enemies: border agent Bud Buckwald (voiced by multiple Emmy winner Hank Azaria) and his wife and three kids; and ambitious immigrant Ernesto Gonzalez (Nicholas Gonzalez, recently late of Sleepy Hollow) and his wife and children. When Ernesto's nephew J.C. returns home from college, he proposes to Buck's oldest daughter Becky (Family Guy's Alex Borstein), sending Bud into a tailspin. Soon after, however, a new ordinance is passed in Mexifornia which allows for the immediate deportation of non-Americans, and J.C. finds himself sent to Mexico despite his American citizenship.

Bud is a bigoted blend of TV dads from American Dad's Stan Smith and Archie Bunker, both of whom share Bud's racist inclinations, to Peter Griffin, who's similarly bumbling. Azaria gives Bud an odd voice that's something like a raspy old man, incongruous to the age and presentation of the character (though I'm just thankful he didn't resort to a redneck twang, as would have been temptingly easy with this material). Bud's opposite is the cheerful, hard-working Ernesto, an immigrant with his own lawn-mowing business; it's a stereotype, for sure, but the pilot's first laugh out loud moment comes from his business's slogan: "I will murder your grass and its entire family." Creator Mark Hentemann, a Family Guy writer who also created the MTV show 3 South, which Bordertown most closely physically resembles, has loaded his script with visual gags like this. Other fun examples include using a patriotically bedazzled cannon to shoot immigrants back over the border into Mexico, and Our Lady of Guadalupe materializing out of a tortilla.

There's a breadth of material surrounding the argument of immigration for Hentemann to draw from. The main source of humor is, understandably, derived from the differing conservative and liberal approaches to such political issues. The conservative viewpoint is the most lampooned (when Bud decries while in Mexico that "these people don't know what it's like to have foreigners come in an ruin their country," the image cuts to a bunch of drunk college guys on spring break puking into a sombrero), but the leftists views of J.C. don't go unchecked: his know-it-all attitude is what eventually gets him shot from the cannon into Mexico, since he correctly answers who won the WNBA championship to a patrolman, something "no American would know." The humor could stand to be more biting, more focused. Considering the pilot script was co-written by famed Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, who will also serve as a consultant moving forward, there's hope that will eventually be the case. If Bordertown falls on a side of the argument and sticks to it, the satire will be more effective. It's not entirely lost in thep pilot, but things do get muddied with an extended subplot about alien abductions and the weirdness of Bud's other kids: the beauty-pageant loving Gert (Missi Pyle) and manchild Sanford (Judah Friedlander, 30 Rock). If Alcaraz's voice can be focused into a more pointed takedown of conservative views, Bordertown will have more sting to its satire.

As of now, it's on a Family Guy-level of satire, where it sometimes makes a fine comment on a political situation, but those are usually lost in the intervening silliness. But with a little work, it can be at least as good as the early seasons of American Dad in terms of mocking the more extreme conservative "values." And with Alcaraz on board and Hentemann's ability to take hot-button issues and make them memorably funny (he's responsible for one of Family Guy's most loved episodes in "Stewie Loves Lois," which sees Peter suing his doctor for sexual harassment following a prostate exam), there's hope that Bordertown can get there.

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