A year after Adventure Time earned a full-length New Yorker tribute, a few months after BoJack Horseman earned comparisons to one of the Golden Age’s defining dramas, and slightly past the halfway point of Rick and Morty‘s second season, we’re long past seeing “animated prestige TV” as a novelty, let alone an oxymoron.
If BoJack and its peers are Mad Men, then Moonbeam City, the new ’80s cop show parody created by Conan and Funny or Die alum Scott Gairdner, is Masters of Sex. In his review of Netflix’s Narcos, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald recently examined the “swollen middle” of television’s ever-expanding landscape: “there has never been so much glorious OK-ness,” Greenwald wrote. “If you’re looking for something to fall in love with right alongside everyone you know, you might be out of luck — but if the only taste you’re looking to satisfy is your own, the future’s never been brighter.”
Enter Moonbeam City, which may not trigger the Thinkpiece Avalanche á la BoJack or attract the rabid cult following of any Dan Harmon production, but promises to satisfy the tastes of several groups that might otherwise make for unlikely bedfellows. Miami Vice fans — who, given the demographic of home network Comedy Central, probably caught the series in syndication — will find something to like in the namesake city’s abundance of palm trees and irresponsibly handled speedboats; ditto devotees of Jem and other ’80s cartoons, which influence Moonbeam City‘s look as much as Miami Vice does its content. And, of course, Archer fans could probably use another cartoon crime-fighting show modeled after a certain procedural to ease the wait for Season 7.
As might be expected of a comedy lovingly spoofing a series that’s three decades old, Moonbeam City‘s setup is formulaic, albeit intentionally so. Cops with names as tacky as their tracksuits — or shoulder pads, depending on their gender — fight crime in a city overrun with gangs, cocaine, and “shabbings” (when someone is stabbed via a knife shot out of a gun). Dazzle Novak (Rob Lowe) is an irresponsible playboy who’s also, somehow, MCPD’s star detective; Pizzaz Miller (Elizabeth Banks) is his exasperated boss; Rad Cunningham (Will Forte) is his nemesis who always winds up just a few steps behind. If we’re sticking with ’80s cartoon analogies, think of Rad as the Vegeta to Dazzle’s Goku. Kate Mara rounds out the core cast as Chrysalis Tate, the token Plain Jane who does 100% of the actual crime-solving, not that anyone ever notices.
Where Moonbeam City stands out from the crowd is the look. Google Image search “vaporwave,” and you’ll understand it instantly: purples, pastels, and grids straight out of early computer graphics are everywhere. It’s an aesthetic, or rather an #aesthetic, that’s already been appropriated to death by Tumblr and its legions of teens, but hasn’t made the leap from GIF to full-length animation until now.
The ’80s obsession doesn’t end with the animation, either. Somehow, Moonbeam City manages to incorporate a musical number into every single episode while coming across as only mildly gimmicky; an Iranian Kate Bush equivalent figures prominently into the pilot, and another episode reimagines “Africa” as a tribute to the carefree lifestyle of the dolphin. (Just go with it.) The commitment is so total that the FCC-mandated bleeps worn by other shows like a badge of honor are swapped out for period-appropriate synth notes.
All this enhances the appeal of a show that, while pleasant enough, isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. There’s none of the jaw-dropping social commentary of buzzier Comedy Central shows like Key & Peele (RIP) or Inside Amy Schumer, though there is a subplot about police brutality and the virtues of community-based law enforcement. (Which perhaps speaks more to such ideas’ newfound status as common knowledge than any edge or progressiveness on Moonbeam City‘s part.) Nor does its humor have the groundbreaking absurdity of Review or the sheer density of Archer.
Instead, the jokes are competent enough, driven by Dazzle’s incompetence and hijinks that inevitably stray away from actual policing. Buoyed by an all-star team of voice actors and well-executed nostalgia, however, Moonbeam City may not need to be hysterical to carve out a niche.
Moonbeam City premieres Wednesday, September 16 on Comedy Central.