Adult Swim has a lot on its plate. The late-night adult-oriented programming block of Cartoon Network is about to debut the second season of Tuca & Bertie following its cancellation on Netflix. They've also got a Blade Runner anime in the works, as well as an adaptation of the terrifying horror manga Uzumaki. Their slate of shows is jam-packed with the likes of Robot Chicken, Birdgirl, and, of course, Rick and Morty filling the airwaves. Now, they're returning to their past.
Last week, it was announced that three of Adult Swim's most influential series would receive full-length features. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Metalocalypse and The Venture Bros. will all have full-length finales of sorts, which will receive physical and electronic releases before arriving on HBO Max. Fans of Aqua Teen Hunger Force will find out what happens next with Frylock, Meatwad and Master Shake. The Metalocalypse movie will dive into the secret lives of the Tribunal as well as the future of Dethklok as a band. After being cancelled last year, The Venture Bros. will offer some much-needed conclusion to the series' infamously entangled plots, from Hank's journey of self-discovery to the Monarch's search for answers from his past to Doc Venture's continually terrible plans to become rich and famous. There are currently no release dates for any of these movies.
For fans of these shows, these movies have been a long time coming. You’d be hard pressed to find a trio of series that better exemplify the surreal, boundary-pushing, and surprisingly deep oeuvre of Adult Swim’s programming. Adult Swim has long been underestimated as a foundational space for television. Many to this day write it off as a dumping ground for “weird cartoons” designed as frivolous distractions for stoners and insomniacs.
The trio of series getting their long-awaited movie finales are essentially the Rosetta Stone for Adult Swim’s creative model: start with a seemingly random or obvious one-joke concept with niche appeal and build it into something so densely layered and experimental that the audience suddenly realizes they’re watching something kind of incredible. Metalocalypse pushed itself as This is Spinal Tap for metalheads before spinning its mythology into an epic rock opera with high stakes and real emotional force. Aqua Teen Hunger Force was a spin-off series of Space Ghost Coast to Coast that became a masterclass in absurdism seemingly about nothing that revealed levels of surprising thematic heft. And, of course, there’s The Venture Bros., a Hardy Boys and Jonny Quest parody that slowly evolved into one of TV’s most ambitious shows, a study of failure and familial trauma set to the backdrop of superhero lore that mined the bonkers for mundane genius. This was a show that would introduce a one-joke character then turn them into a crucial part of the cast with a fully fleshed out identity and unique relationships with the other misfits who had been brought in for similar reasons.
It’s not exactly hard to see why Adult Swim eventually pulled the plug on The Venture Bros. The show may have been beloved and a critical darling in a way that few of their shows have ever been but waiting years in-between seasons clearly became a problem. This is a show that was on the air for 81 episodes over seven seasons, which took around 15 years to make. Still, for fans, the wait was always worth it. The labyrinthine plotting, agonizingly detailed character arcs for a vast ensemble, and the sly genre parodies were wholly deserving of the time they took to craft. There was nothing on TV like it, so why not let them do their thing? The seventh and final season ended with many unresolved plotlines as well as a minor cliff-hanger, so of course fans needed more! Even if we weren’t getting the film, it just wouldn’t have seemed right for Adult Swim to treat one of their landmark series so shabbily.
These are the shows that paved the way for the current big hitters of Adult Swim, most notably Rick and Morty. Everything that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s series was celebrated for can find its roots in these series, particularly The Venture Bros. That show's often fatalistic willingness to delve into the bleakness of sci-fi tropes and play them out to their inevitably horrifying conclusion wouldn't feel out of place in Doc Venture's lab. The main difference between them is that Rick and Morty broke out into the mainstream, finding an audience and critical celebration in a manner that had sadly eluded much of its Adult Swim brethren. Rick and Morty helped to prove that an esoteric creative approach could work with a major audience, but it followed in lofty footsteps. Adam Reed, creator of Archer, got his start on Adult Swim with Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo. The influence spreads far beyond Cartoon Network too. Seth Macfarlane owes a major debt of gratitude to Adult Swim, as does Netflix and shows like BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth. Think of Adult Swim as the animation world’s Velvet Underground: not a lot of people saw the shows but those who did had a habit of going on to make a hell of a lot of beloved film and TV.
We're all too used to our favorite shows ending before their time. In the fickle age of Peak TV, networks are more trigger-happy with calling time on a series than ever before. Streaming services and their almighty algorithms of suspect influence have made premature cancellations dishearteningly commonplace. Just ask any fan of a Netflix show that ended after three seasons with no closure. Adult Swim is rectifying a big wrong by letting some of its most interesting creators take the reins once more to finish what they started. The series that helped to make the programming block what it is, and allowed them to be home to some of the most sinfully underrated shows of the past 20 years, are owed that.
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