Rooting for the Good Guys: Thoughts on Unsupervised

There are few shows I’ve found as immediately gratifying despite a wildly inconsistent, sometimes downright disappointing, first season as Unsupervised. In its inaugural season, Unsupervised found its footing only a few times but it was a goofy underdog that I’ve been rooting for from the start.  The reason for my immediate enjoyment is that (and this is likely an unpopular view) I’ve always found myself far more fascinated by what makes kind people kind in the face of evil than what makes evil people evil in the face of kindness. It is easy to make a character like Hannibal Lecter exciting to watch because he’s so different from “normal” people. But when a show or movie can make nice characters interesting, I get very excited. It is refreshing to see a show that knows exactly who its characters are right from the start even if it doesn’t always seem sure what to do with them. There are few characters on TV like the ones on Unsupervised and the show manages to make them nuanced and fascinating in their own right without changing their underlying, unswaying kindness and love. Anger is easy, happiness is hard.

Unsupervised is the less flashy animated show on FX. The show that everyone talks about (deservedly so), Archer, is like an animated version of Get Smart with funnier, cruder jokes. Archer and Unsupervised are two in a long line of great recent animated shows, notably: Adventure Time, Bob’s Burgers and Gravity Falls, (which absolutely everyone should be watching because it is just that enjoyable). Archer and Unsupervised have virtually nothing in common aside from the fact that their humor sometimes borders on the dark and grotesque.

Unsupervised is about two best buds in high school, Gary and Joel, both fairly dumb, trying to get by in a world that doesn’t seem to want them. They do this by being boldly, often foolishly optimistic in the face of their dark lives. They may get peeved with their lot in life but they always have the safety net of each other to fall back on. This optimism often comes out in the hilarious vernacular that Joel and Gary have created for and with each other. They pepper many a sentence with “frickin’ awesome as hell”.

The obvious and common comparison to Unsupervised is Beavis and Butthead. Both shows are about the trials of two poor high school kids whose parents are largely absent from their lives. But the comparison ends there. Beavis and Butthead uses the stupidity of its two main characters to highlight and expose the world’s moral corruption and excess of consumerism. Beavis and Butthead, the characters, might not be teaching us a lesson but the show always is. The characters may not be better than the terrible television or music videos they are watching but the show is telling us, through the commentary of its teenage protagonists, that all of this “stuff” that we expose ourselves to, is making us stupid. We are becoming Beavis and Butthead, sitting on the couch all day, mocking the world or enjoying what others mock. When Beavis and Butthead venture out into the world their ineptness and stupidity usually gets them into and out of various jams. They are a stark contrast to everyone else that inhabits in their world but everyone in that world is ripe for mocking.

Unsupervised is clearly a recession era show. Gary and Joel are in a terrible spot, where none of the adults in their lives seem to care very much about what happens to them, if they have anything to eat, if they go to school, if they have TV to watch.  But here is where the biggest difference to Beavis and Butthead lies: the show cares about Gary and Joel and WE care. I don’t think I’d ever care about the fates of Beavis and Butthead but I care deeply when bad things happen to Gary and Joel. The truly heartbreaking thing is that, because Joel and Gary are kids (and not very smart kids at that), they can’t do anything to change their circumstance. Even when Gary and Joel try to get jobs to throw a party (in one of the funnier episodes in the first season, “Jess Judge Lawncare Incorporated”) Joel learns that he is too weak to do the work and Gary decides that the happy, carefree life he leads with his friends is more important than money.

Gary and Joel can’t do anything about their circumstance save one thing. The one thing that they do have on everyone else in their lives is their unflappable optimism. Their two other friends, Darius, a large African-American kid and Megan, a stick thin white girl, fare better than Gary and Joel in the money, smarts and parents department (Megan’s mom, for instance, is hilariously overbearing) but they are at a deficit in the optimism department. Darius and Megan are significantly more realistic than Gary and Joel, sometimes bordering on cynical. Unsupervised is always telling us that money can’t buy us happiness but it also seems to be saying that money is a harbinger of reality.

Joel and Gary use their optimism as a way to fight off what would otherwise be a difficult existence. They are unaccepting of negativity, unafraid to rail against it. For one, they always know that they could be worse off. One of the most hilarious characters on the show is also the least supervised of the lot: Russ, a kid who looks like a tiny Mitch Hedberg, is seemingly poorer and stupider than either Joel or Gary and sometimes eats wires, pretending that they are spaghetti. Russ is accepted if not always welcome with the rest of the gang but this acceptance usually has the whiff of pity attached to it. If anything, Unsupervised often uses Russ to remind us that Joel and Gary aren’t saints. They have Russ’ back but they don’t always enjoy it.

One of the best episodes in the first season is “Stupid Idiots” (it is a good starting point for the series, actually) where Gary and Joel realize that the school is segregating students into tracks and uncover a conspiracy that leads all the way up to the school’s principal. Unsurprisingly, Darius is some kind of genius, Megan is on the regular track and Gary and Joel are on the same track as the burnouts. Not only are the students separated by intelligence, they are also separated into progressively worse classrooms in the school. Darius and Megan get to sit in regular air-conditioned classrooms, while Gary and Joel have to sit in a stifling classroom next to the school’s heating and cooling system. Even worse: Russ and a number of his track mates (appropriately called “sardines”) are relegated to sitting in a storage-type unit outside the school where a drill sergeant-esque instructor barks orders at them. Half of their day seems to consist of naptime. What Gary and Joel expose in this episode are not only the horrible conditions their school is putting them in but also the bigger societal concern of the class system in the U.S…or something. Thankfully, the show never really gets into it. Joel and Gary try their best to fight against the corruption of their school and they sort of end up winning.

The television world is full of guys like Walter White, Don Draper and Tony Soprano. When the world gave these characters lemons they became lemons themselves. Joel and Gary have been given lemons all their lives and, even if they don’t have sugar in their cupboards, make lemonade. It’s amazing and almost unheard of if protagonists are truly the good guys.  And Joel and Gary aren’t just good they are frickin’ awesome as hell.

Despite low ratings, Unsupervised was renewed for a second season. 

One thought on “Rooting for the Good Guys: Thoughts on Unsupervised

  1. Pingback: We Took a Break | The Golden Age of Television

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