The Quicker Stop... of the Future!
Clerks: The Animated Series
It's hard to fault Kevin SmithConsidering where he came from, working as a clerk in a convenience store, it's pretty impressive that (for at least a little while) Kevin Smith became a defining cinematic voice of a generation. for dipping into his View Askewniverse as often as he does. These are his original characters, the ones that helped launch him to stardom all the way back with Clerks in 1994. He built a series of films off of his characters and they managed to get him a solid life in Hollywood. So when he goes back to the well with them, creating another Clerks film or teasing a possible Mallrats continuation, you know it's because he loves these characters and their world. They suit his particular voice. They're what he knows.
There was, however, a time where the writer / director assumed he could escape the 'verse and verge out into other stories. To get there he released a one-two punch of productions set in his world, a way to really expand the scope and, at the some time, put a final button on these characters. It started with Clerks in 2000 (often called Clerks: The Animated Series, and simply Clerks Animated) and, while not a huge success, it did show that Kevin Smith could really expand outside the set boundaries of his world and do some strange and hilarious things in the process. If Dogma, with its rubber poop monster, wasn't silly enough for you, just wait for the animated adventures of Dante and Randal.
Clerks Animated is set after the events of 1994's Clerks with Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) continuing to have odd little adventures around their jobs, the clerking at the Quick Stop and RST Videos (respectively). They're joined in their daily grind by Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), the two degens who peddle smokes and other substances outside the Quick Stop. And then Leonardo Leonardo (Alec Baldwin) moves into town and throws off the whole vibe of the community. He has plans for Leonardo, New Jersey (home of the Quick Stop) and Dante and Randal won't be able to get in his way.
But it's about more than just saving their town (and it's also about a lot less). Dante and Randal will also think back on the life they've had, coach a little league team, fight off a deadly pandemic, and meet their own creators. Through it all they'll laugh, they'll fight, and they'll do science segments alongside Charles Barkley. The wacky adventures never end... right up until they're canceled by ABC altogether. And then then end pretty permanently at that point.
Released on ABC in the summer of 2000, it was immediately obvious that Clerks Animated was a bad fit for the network. Hell, it was kind of a weird fit for everyone, including fans of Smith's past films. ABC wanted a show that would fit their demographics and broadcast standards and that meant changing the tone of the world in pretty substantial ways. The 1994 film had an understated quality to it, silly yes but in a grounded sort of way. The characters went on little adventures around their store but the movie never really got weird or wacky. It was a hang out movie with these two losers and, well, that was that. It worked.
The cartoon, though, embraced all that its format could allow and that meant, first and foremost, wackiness. The first episode of the series involved Leonardo Leonardo coming into Leonardo, NJ and building a giant, L-shaped tower across the street from the Quick Stop. His plan was to build a bigger and better Quicker Stop so he could take over the town and, as we slowly discover, launch a 100-and-something point plan involved miners, mole-men, aliens, and more. Oh, and this was probably the most grounded episode of the whole run. Despite this, ABC asked for a second pilot and shelved this episode entirely.
The follow-up episode is probably my favorite of the set. It's a subversive play on the idea of a "clip show", illustrating various moments from the lives of these two characters. Moments, of course, we haven't seen before because, despite the clip show format, this was only the second episode of the entire series (and only the first broadcast). It was dumb but also amazing that Smith and Co. decided, "screw it, let's just fuck around and be dumb." That was the energy that worked best on Clerks Animated, and when the show could find just the right story to tell with its tone, it really flew.
The third episode is also brilliant, making the starting trilogy of episodes the best of the run. This one follows the clerks has they have to deal with a fake outbreak of "the deadly Motaba virus" accidentally caused by Jay, Bob, and a monkey. Oh, and also some bad burritos; sometimes this show could go in deep on the layered plot lines. The episode also has some of the best lines from Leonardo. Alec Baldwin can deliver "exquisite" with such panache it makes the episode all on its own. Seriously, this one is a solid episode to watch. Sadly it, too, was shelved by ABC, which is just ridiculous.
The next episode was the only other one to actually make it to the air before ABC pulled the plug. It involved the clerks getting sued by Jay for a spill in the store. There are a ton of cameos and non sequiturs, making for a very strange and chaotic episode. And that doesn't even get to the ending which "was lost and had to be redone by Korean animators." It's just absolutely ridiculous. Thing is, in the context of the previous three episodes it does actually work. It's a funny episode that builds on the humor of what came before. But as only the second episode to air on live TV it's an absolute mess. I don't know why anyone would want to watch this series with this as its second episode, following the weird clip show before. The audience tuned out, even the Smith faithful, and the show died.
Thankfully a DVD released followed, putting the episodes in order. It also allowed us to see the last two episodes, one where Dante has to coach a little league team (which parodies The Bad News Bears, The last Starfighter, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom while also revealing that Randal makes all women lesbians) and the other a true cartoon adventure in the vein of the weirdest from Looney Tunes. The show went for broke, no doubt, and fans could finally see the proper, weird vision on home video. And then Comedy Central re-aired the show and Smith admitted they probably should have been the original home for the series all along.
Don't get me wrong, the series doesn't entirely work on all levels. The last three episodes are weaker than the first, and there are moments throughout the series that just don't work as well two decades on from it's original release (all the "gay panic" humor, for example). Despite this, though, it's still a fun watch, one I go back to every few years just because. It illustrates a specific vision Smith had, one that didn't exactly align with his movies but still felt right among their legion. This was Smith indulging his cartoony humor and he managed to push his storytelling in interesting ways. I love it the way it is, a six-episode morsel that works on its own. Had it gone longer maybe it could have been great, but it also could have petered out quickly and sucked hard (as evidenced by the weaker episodes). It's easy to say, "hey, this was really good and I wanted more," but maybe it burning bright very briefly was truly for the best.