I've talked a lot in this series about the importance of adult swim in modern adult animation, as well as the importance of "The Simpsons." In today's entry, those two pre-eminent entities collide in an unusual and unexpected way.
For "Simpsons" die-hards, it's a genuinely accepted opinion that seasons 3-7 were when the show reached its apogee. In retrospect, season 1 was weak as Hell, season 2 had a few highlights, but season 8 was when the show started to go off the rails. Fans generally point to "Homer's Enemy" or "The Principal and the Pauper" in season 8 as when the show stopped being what it once was. Of course, there are still incredible episodes in seasons 9 and 10, and vague flashes of brilliance ever since, but for simplicity's sake, let's just agree that seasons 3-7 were the show at its apogee.
One of the main reasons for that level of quality during that time period was the writing time of Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who penned countless classic episodes before finally being appointed showrunners for seasons 7 and 8. Oakley and Weinstein were "The Simpsons" at the time of the show's greatest success.
And then they decided they wanted to do something different.
One of the complaints that Oakley and Weinstein had about working on "The Simpsons" was that it was basically a show about kids and middle-aged adults, with no real ground in between. Springfield was remarkably fleshed out with hundreds of supporting characters, but almost every single one of those characters fell into two categories: Bart and Lisa and the schoolyard or Marge and Homer and their friends and co-workers.
"The Simpsons" was also a suburban show. Springfield, for all of its wild vacillating between being an apparent one-horse town and a major metropolis depending on the needs of the plot, was nonetheless always portrayed as suburban.
So Oakley and Weinstein wanted to write a show that was about teenagers and twenty-somethings, who in all of Springfield were basically represented by Otto and the squeaky-voiced teen. They also wanted to do a show about living in the city at that formative age. And thus was born the brilliant "Mission Hill."
"Mission Hill" was a brilliant season of television. It was, in many ways (and for obvious reasons) the true spiritual successor to the greatest seasons of "The Simpsons." The story focuses on two blue-haired brothers, Andy and Kevin French.
Andy is what we would today call a hipster: someone who is ultimately nothing but proud of being poor and hip, yet is deeply insecure even about his own coolness. Kevin, meanwhile, is an unabashed nerd, and while he makes occasional protests that he is really just normal, is comfortable in his skin playing role-playing games and watching "Babylon Five."
The two brothers never got along growing up in the suburbs, and so Andy is happy to be rid of his dorky little brother when he moves to the Mission Hill district of the fictional Cosmopolis. But when the elder Frenches decide to move to Wyoming - and Kevin insists on moving in with his brother instead - the sparks really begin to fly.
"Mission Hill" really made a go of being a show with two genuinely equal protagonists. In Kevin-centric episodes, Andy could often take on an antagonistic role, and the reversal was true to some extent. (Honestly, how much of an antagonist could an annoying younger brother be?) And occasionally the episodes were dual-hatted, featuring both brothers sharing the spotlight, as in the episode when they fall in love with the same girl or the episode when an inexplicable news event turns the city into a latter-day "Dog Day Afternoon."
Overall, "Mission Hill" had all the elements for greatness: great characters, genuinely funny jokes, a killer cast, smart writing, and tons of room to breathe and grow. It was also surprisingly well- realized. The worldbuilding was phenomenal, even down to the importance of who drank what brand of beer.
But we can only guess about what "Mission Hill" would have evolved into, because it had the singular misfortune of being placed on The WB. And, like "Home Movies" before it, The WB had precisely zero time or interest in promoting "Mission Hill." And, like "Home Movies" before it, "Mission Hill" found new life on the early days of adult swim, which really should be viewed as something like a museum for all the detritus of late '90s attempts at adult animation.
So check out "Mission Hill." It's available on DVD and I believe some adult swim streaming. At only 13 episodes, it is redolent of lost opportunity, but what is there is brilliant, and deserves to be seen. You won't regret it.
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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