June 25, 2006
What It's Like Being Alone, a new series debuting this Monday on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's television network, follows the adventures of the misfit children in Gurney Orphanage, located "geographically and metaphysically in the middle of nowhere." Canada is currently creating a lot of stop-motion output, but other than late-night episodes of Aardman's Creature Comforts last summer a series of this type—on the CBC, made by Canadians, and during prime-time—is the type of thing that makes people straighten up and take notice. So I really want to like it, I really do.

The design of some of the characters and setting recall Edward Gorey and Tim Burton. Aldous, the eldest of the orphans, looks like she could do a cameo on the set of the Mystery! opening credits and her banter is reminiscent of Lydia at the beginning of Beetlejuice.

The initial comparison to Burton and Gorey are expected. The setting seems a little darker than most and there are children involved in what could be possibly macabre situations (which applies to both creators), there's stop-motion involved (definitely Burton) so it lends itself to this type of evaluation. But the mix of characters includes some that one wouldn't see in one of their works, which I find thrilling, since it was an indication the creators of this show want to do their own thing.

Maybe that's true
as far as character design goes. Most everything else about this series takes the easy way out.

The first episode, "Being Alone For Beginners," suffers from "pilot-itis." It is obviously the first episode in the series, trying to explain everything and leave few rocks unturned in 23 minutes, and barely wraps a story around itself. Princess Lucy is a grey frog-like lollipop-clasping mutant in a signature pink bow and frilly dress, who shows up at the Gurney Orphanage. She, along with the audience, gets acquainted with each of her fellow orphans and other supporting characters. When she tries to escape, the viewer gets a rather pat description of her geographical surroundings instead of letting the facts unfold a little at a time. Much of this is done rather artlessly, and it doesn't help that Princess Lucy has one of the most irritating voices I have heard in a long time. Unfortunately, she gets the most lines in the episode.

There is enough that was potentially interesting about the characters and possible interactions between them that I was hoping subsequent episodes would pull back more from the cheap gags (I didn't mind some of the visual gags from the first episode but prayed for improvement), especially Lucy's ability to pass incredibly bad gas. I also hoped there would be better developed ideas, including gags with better timing.

In the second and third episodes, "Do Orphans Dream of Electric Parents" and "An Orphan's Life Indeed," things seem to get better in the first few minutes but quickly take a turn for the worse in both cases. "Do Orphans..." had a little more going for it at the beginning, focusing on Brian Brain, whose face is in his torso to make room for his extra-large brain in his head. Which makes for a greater let-down when the "jokes" go, yet again, for the cheapest, easiest laughs (I find that rather unfunny, really).

The show has a few funny pop culture references, but relievingly, isn't littered with them. They include the play on words in title of the second episode, a nod to Don Knotts and an Army of Darkness spoof. But that's about it, over a three-episode span.

I'm not often interested in pigeonholing a show, but I couldn't help thinking, "Who is this for?" Sammy Fishboy is always drunk and makes some uncomfortable remarks from what should be a young boy, in contrast to Princess Lucy who is naïve and extremely childlike. But she is used endlessly for fart jokes! And someone is often getting stabbed to garner laughs (which I wouldn't mind if the attempts were funny).

There is a lot of fodder for a fun series here: some of the more interesting orphans include the cyclopean Seymour Talkless, who uses his art to express himself; Sammy Fishboy is definitely the lovechild of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Sea Monkey queen that graced many back covers of comic books in my youth; Charlie is a human torch who is a flamer in more than one sense of the word. There was enough to keep me watching, always hoping that it would get just a bit more sophisticated. But in the end it didn't, making grab after grab for the cheapest laugh possible.

I felt a sadness at the end of the third episode. I didn't know if I wanted to watch ten more episodes in the season and be subjected to more of this, just to give it a chance and see if it changed for the better. Because it would be a terrible thing if the CBC gets a chance to air more animation during prime-time and turns it down because of the more sophomoric aspects of this series.

What It's Like Being Alone
debuts on CBC Television
Monday, June 26th
9:30 p.m. EST



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