The Watcher - Give me the Bird

'Harvey Birdman' and the summer's best new adult animation

He's a B-list Hanna-Barbera superhero saved from obscurity thanks to a laugh- out-loud new incarnation on the Cartoon Network. You're thinking, "Duh, it's Space Ghost."

Wrong. "Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law" rethinks the nearly forgotten late-'60s star of "Birdman and the Galaxy Trio" as a hard-drinking legal eagle who champions justice — for an hourly fee.

The real humor of "Birdman" comes in its clients, drawn from various corners of the cartoon universe. One episode finds Fred Flintstone accused of being a mob godfather. In another, Shaggy and Scooby get pulled over in a routine traffic stop and face marijuana charges, and the evidence against them is daunting: munchies, paranoia and a strange aroma in the back of the Mystery Machine.

But my favorite episode to date has to be "Very Personal Injury," in which former-SuperFriend Apache Chief spills a cup of hot coffee on his lap (a la the famous McDonald's case) and can no longer "enlarge" — a hilarious double entendre on his pointless superpower. The episode takes obvious anti-PC pleasure in trashing the token ethnic SuperFriends (Black Vulcan has a cameo) and ends with Apache Chief forming a new team, the Multicultural Pals.

No middle-schooler tuning into "Birdman" would get the humor, or recognize half the obscure characters that populate each episode. Luckily the show is part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, the lineup of edgier adult-oriented animation that airs Sunday through Thursday 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Though Adult Swim started back in September 2001, the package expanded to five nights a week this January and has experienced a minor ratings coup this summer. Nielsen ratings from late July and early August gave the network its first ever No. 3 ranking on basic cable for adults 18-34, thanks to Adult Swim's popularity.

"Birdman" shows alongside a handful of other original series, like the bizarre "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" (with a crime-fighting team of fast food) and "The Brak Show" (a spin-off from "Space Ghost Coast to Coast"). But familiar titles also surface: "Futurama," which is an acquired taste, and the woefully under-appreciated "Family Guy," which never got a real chance to shine on Fox.

What those shows have in common with "Birdman" is their sharp, often offbeat and typically multi-layered writing. This summer has seen a couple of other networks take ostentatious stabs at animation aimed at adults, with decidedly less success. SpikeTV's "Stripperella" has some fun with its smutty premise ("Stripper by night — crime-fighter by later night"), but the T-and-A humor gets old pretty fast. Worst even is "Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon," which is too disgusting for even me to write about.

But the single most pointless and poorly written new adult cartoon of the season has to be Showtime's "Free for All." The mostly unfunny series is based on Brett Merhar's mostly unfunny comic strip with an underdog teenage protagonist and a too-cool-for-school best friend. You're better off watching "Daria." I was recently thrilled to find reruns of the MTV show running on The N, the late-night version of the toddler-friendly Noggin network. "Daria," like "Birdman," dips into a big bucket of pop culture references and produces a sarcastic and oh-so-tasty dreamsicle of hilarity.


The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.