I’m trying to find words to express how much I love “Clarence,” one of six pilots Cartoon Network just released. This one was created by Skyler Page, a classmate of mine at CalArts. My money’s on Clarence to be the network’s next hit series for the following reasons:
[Update: The pilot has been posted and then removed twice as of this blog post and is currently unavailable, which is lame. Hopefully it's reposted soon. C'mon Cartoon Network!]
I don’t know remember the last time I loved a character this much, this quickly. He’s a combination of pathetic and adorably enthusiastic that is somehow incredibly appealing. The pilot begins on Clarence’s first day at a new elementary school, where he decides to hand out personalized invitations to a slumber party. About ten seconds into his opening speech my heart breaks a little bit – I feel like no one will come, but I want them to come for Clarence’s sake! I just met this character and already I’m feeling for him? It’s a good sign.
He’s also chubby, and has a speech impediment, which somehow only increases his ability to pull heart strings. Like Michelle Williams’ lisp in Brokeback Mountain, it adds a layer of vulnerability and offbeat charm. There’s definitely a Napoleon Dynamite quality of the lovable loser here as well. If the main character anchors and defines the show, then I’m intrigued to see what a series built around this guy will look like.
With the exception of one Lynch-ian cutaway, the pilot has a very local, mundane scope. So far it’s Clarence’s school, and Clarence’s house. There’s no super powers, no fairies, no magic except that found in everyday life: pizza poppers, heavy metal, and a mystery piñata. It feels a bit like the between-music-video lives of a younger Beavis and Butthead. But what’s remarkable is the show’s specificity.
Clarence stands on an air conditioning unit so the air fills his shirt. He shaves another character’s head (Sumo, whose introduction is a simple request that his head be shaved) while they are perched in a laundry basket nailed high in a tree. I get the impression I’m watching actual lives being lived, not just a cartoon being made, and I’m guessing a large part of this is due to Skyler using material from his own childhood growing up in Prescott, Arizona, where the show is also based. It feels too personal not to be, and that’s a great thing.
The first thing that struck me is this show’s unique visual language. The colors are super saturated without being overpowering, and the characters are simplified and abstracted to a degree that’s rare, but really works. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of drawing a character with a square for a head, or even drawn a human without ears, but this show pulls it off. My theory is that a lot of this may be due to the influence of Ryan Matias, a design prodigy who’s the character designer for the first season. Many cartoonists (myself included) tend to get stuck drawing in established styles, but Ryan has a rare gift for infusing his designs with heavy abstraction and a visual freshness that’s hard to come by. The choices made really emphasize the performance.
I would imagine that when you pay Korean studios to animate your shows like Cartoon Network does, there are limitations on artistic expression. That’s why so many shows have a similar line quality and feel to the animation. So to say that Clarence feels different is a real achievement.
The second time I watched the pilot, I literally had the thought “I want a Clarence toy for my desk.” (Which is also good news for Cartoon Network!) To hold myself over until that time comes, I made a sheet of Clarence expressions:
All in all, a worthy effort, and I couldn’t be prouder of Skyler and crew!