Before I get into the meat of this Off the Beaten Path review, I want to ask you a question. What comes to your mind when you think about Adult Swim? Like, what makes Adult Swim so singular compared to other channels? On the one hand, when I think about Adult Swim I think about their content. Classic shows like The Venture Bros and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, new classics like Rick and Morty and Primal, and the wild short-form content like Too Many Cooks and Unedited Footage of a Bear. You know, the content that is inseparable from the channel.
But that’s just surface level. I mean, every network has distinct programming, that’s just a straight-up fact. So let me ask you again. What makes Adult Swim so distinct, so singular? To me, it’s the ethos. It’s an ethos defined by cheap DIY content made by the viewers for the viewers, short-form counter-cultural surrealism perfect for insomniac stoners, and late-night animation for anyone but kids. I remember watching a documentary about Adult Swim once (I’m not sure where), and they said Adult Swim is the MTV of the 21st century. Honestly, I can’t argue against that – classic MTV was before my time, so I can’t speak from experience if Adult Swim carried the MTV torch.
But enough pre-amble. The topic of this review is the first season of the cult Adult Swim show Off the Air.
So What Is Off the Air?
So what exactly is Off the Air? Like FLCL before, it’s easier to talk about the production side of Off the Air, since that at least is easily describable.
Off the Air is a short anthology show (as in episodes are at max ~10 minutes) with a comedic bent. It was (and still is) created by Dave Hughes, an animation editor fresh off a stint at MTV. Hughes originally conceived of Off the Air as a kind of visual mixtape that utilized content from all over the internet along with clips from Adult Swim shows. Not surprisingly, they had to dial it back due to various rights issues, especially for the Adult Swim clips.
After the initial production snafus, the series eventually premiered on New Years Day 2011 at the bright ol’ hour of 4 a.m., where it has remained. Since it’s release, it has aired 36 episodes across 10 seasons. What’s more, it’s still ongoing (in other words, expect more season reviews in the future).
So wait, why did I launch into that whole preamble about Adult Swim before? Well based on Hughes’ vision, Off the Air is the most Adult Swim show an Adult Swim show can Adult Swim. So what do I mean by this?
Well, I’m not gonna lie, this is one of the most out-there things I’ve ever seen. As such, the best way to describe it is to tell you what an episode is like. First off, each episode of Off the Air is a collection of short-form surrealism, with around 10ish segments stuffed within 10 minutes of screentime. Think less Love, Death & Robots, and something more like Cake.
Side note, it’s not exactly deliberate that I’m repeatedly one-upping myself on the weirdness of the animated shows I review for you. Or is it? I guess I’m not sure. Either way, I swear the next thing I’ll review for you all will be a relatively straight-forward live-action drama.
The segments are either surrealist mood pieces or surreal music videos, with transitions that are often as psychedelic as the shorts themselves.
Some of the segments are animated. Others are live-action, which itself is either stock footage, viral footage, or home shot video. There is no cast of characters to follow. There is no narrative structure beyond a loose theme that ties the shorts together. It’s like watching a fever dream, or a collection of all the fan-made Adult Swim commercials edited into a kaleidoscopic chimera.
So Why Off the Air S1?
So, yeah. Why Off the Air exactly? Why another psychedelic animated show? Well, it should come as no surprise that since I reviewed FLCL my animation kick has largely continued. Sure, since I reviewed FLCL I’ve started watching a very live-action show in Veronica Mars. Other than that, everything new I’ve watched has bee some kind of animation. On the anime front, I watched all 5 episodes of Afro Samurai (it’s decent). On the western front, I watched all 52 episodes of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (it straight up slaps yall).
The most interesting thing I watched though was FXX’s new anthology show Cake. Like Off the Air, it’s a curated collection of short-form content, both live-action and animated. I won’t go into what makes Cake, well, Cake because I’ll talk about it more once I get to what I thought of Off the Air. Plus, seeing how fast FXX is pumping out seasons of Cake, I plan on reviewing a season or two before season 4 comes out.
All this to say that I got hooked on Cake, and it has become a staple of my red-eyed stoned night watches over the last two-ish weeks. Seeing as there are currently 20 episodes of Cake, I blew through them fairly quickly. Fiending for a Cake fix to tide me over till the next episode premiers, I looked up similar shows, and Off the Air topped the list. Plus, it didn’t hurt that I needed a fresh new show to review for you all, and I didn’t want to watch Cake twice in a week (it’s not quite like FLCL in that regard). So I opened up the Adult Swim app, smoked a bit too much from my indica cart, and watched a cinematic acid trip.
My Thoughts on Off the Air S1
So that’s all fine and dandy, but now it’s time to get to the real meat of this review. Is Off the Air good? Or at the very least, is season one good? In my opinion, it is? And yes, that question mark is intentional.
Also, before I go on, I want to make some comments about what I will be talking about. Namely, this won’t be like any review I’ve written before. If you’ve read my previous reviews, you know I like to focus on the writing elements like character arcs, story beats, symbolism, the works. Sure, I make sure to mention the acting, along with the more technical aspects like cinematography, sound design, set design, editing, I could keep going. But the thing is, Off the Air features next to none of those. It’s just Dave Hughes making a visual mixtape of whatever weird shit he finds on the internet and stock footage archives. So yeah, this review is going to be hella different than anything I’ve written before.
With that said, let’s leap into what Off the Air does right and what it doesn’t do right. First and foremost, Hughes succeeds in his goal of making a visual mixtape that evokes the experimental spirit of old school Adult Swim. Oh good lord is he successful. This truly is the reincarnated spirit of old school Adult Swim given a physical form, to the point it could only be found on Adult Swim. If it weren’t for some of the recognizable viral videos and some often used trap music, I would have thought Off the Air premiered back in like 2001 or 2002. So, you know, a real home run there.
In terms of segments, with a show like this and Cake, not every segment is going to be a winner. Sure, there were some segments that were just straight fire, especially if they had some good musical backing. There were also a couple of segments in Off the Air that I just wasn’t vibing with at all, either because I found them uninspiring or because they creeped me out more than they made me laugh. That said, for the most part, I thought the segments were fine.
What’s more pertinent is that I think Hughes has a very specific taste in what he wants. So specific, in fact, that it can feel surprisingly one-note. This was especially notable to me in the first few episodes like Animals. Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, the segments were incredibly fun to watch as a whole, especially the more complex animation shorts. My big issue was that they started to feel samey to me. This struck me as odd since Hughes does manage to find a diverse set of videos and animation that fills the old school Adult Swim mold. It’s more the content of the segments tends to be surreal or fucked up in similar ways.
Look at Animals for an example. The two best segments were 2D animated music videos that both featured lots of bright and vivid colors and involves a lot of psychedelic imagery melding into different things in a constant loop of creation and destruction. Granted, this gets better later on, especially with Dance. That said it’s something that Off the Air never fully gets away from.
If there’s anything that tempers the samey feeling of the segments, it’s the pacing. Again, Hughes manages to pack in one segment after segment after segment, all within a 10-minute span. In a way, this breakneck pace is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if you start losing interest in a segment here and there (somehow), you’ll only be a few seconds away from the next segment. On the other hand, you don’t have time to catch your breath, because when you do you’re already into the next segment.
Speaking of runtime, the short runtime and quick pacing mean it’s incredibly easy to watch a whole season or two in a sitting. Hell, the first season of Off the Air could fit into a slightly longer episode of Veronica Mars. But this is also a double edge sword.
For one, seeing as there aren’t any traditional breather segments (that aren’t at minimum psychedelic) and any backbone or recurring segments that act as anchors for the episodes, it’s surprisingly easy to forget just what you watched. Like, if you were to put a gun to my head and told me to list the segments of Dance in order, I couldn’t do it. And I watched that yesterday.
On a similar note, I think that Off the Air has the perfect runtime. Namely, I don’t think you could successfully market this as anything other than a 15 minute with commercials episode. Why you ask? Well again because without a narrative backbone like what Cake has with Oh Jerome, No and Shark Lords and/or without good recurring segments like Quarter Life Poetry, Drifters, or Two Pink Doors, it’s easy to get lost and exhausted.
Like, don’t get me wrong. I love me some heavy psychedelia and surrealism, especially when high. Like I watched Yellow Submarine last 420 while blasted out on edibles. But good lord can that shit get tiring. I mean it can be too much at times. Off the Air wisely avoids that by being as bite-sized as you can on a broadcast TV network. Even then though, especially if you watch multiple episodes in a sitting, I can easily see people getting to that point where they need to shut it off.
Which brings me to what I consider the crux of whether or not the first season of Off the Air is good or not. Namely, this is not a show for everyone. Now I don’t mean this in a “Spicy City isn’t meant for everyone” sense. For one Off the Air can actually be really good. It’s more in the sense that this is so niche that I can see many people being turned off by the show. And you know what, I can fully understand.
Not everyone is going to be into a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of crazy. Especially if there’s nothing to anchor the episodes like a recurring segment to act as a backbone, a breather segment, or a segment with a narrative. I can even see someone who either doesn’t like to get high or who can get overstimulated having an issue with Off the Air. Hell, I watched Animals while writing this, and it didn’t hit nearly as hard.
All that said, I do think Off the Air can get just as much love from a small, dedicated fanbase. Like, while I can fully understand people not being into the show, I can see this being catnip to a certain kind of viewer.
Like, while I may have my complaints, I still thought it was a wild ride worth trying out.
Plus, keep in mind that this is only the first season I’m reviewing. The season may be rough at times, but Dance and Body show me Off the Air has some great potential. Plus, I gotta mention, I watched a later season episode last night called Liquid. And you know what? It blew Dance and Body out of the goddamn water. Like, I was surfing a Northern Lights head high, and that shit fucking floored me. Makes me excited to watch and review more of the next 10 seasons for you all.
My Thoughts on the Episodes
Episode One: Animals
As an intro episode, Animals is fine. You don’t get any false expectations about what Off the Air is like. So on that note, it succeeds.
That said this is probably my least favorite episode of the season. The samey feeling I complained about earlier is strongest here, even with my favorite segments (the two animated music videos). Plus I just wasn’t feeling some of the other segments. Some I felt like ran on for too long, like the cats one. Others, like the floating cow one, felt more like graphics engine rendering tests than an actual short. Also, I was confused by the bookend segments, since they didn’t really have anything to do with animals.
In the end, it was entertaining enough to pull me in, but this is definitely not the best season one has to offer.
Final Recommendation: Recommend with Caveats
Episode Two: Food
Food is in a similar boat as Animals, in that a lot of my issues with the first season as a whole are present. I wasn’t vibing with all the segments. Some of them felt too similar to each other, a couple felt like they lasted too long, and I was unsure what some of them had to do with food as a concept. Worst of all those complaints aren’t mutually exclusive from one another. Granted it has a bit more style than Animals, but not a ton. I highly recommend watching the one-two punch of the craft store spaghetti segment with the live-action soul segment.
Is it a step in the right direction? Kinda? At least it’s not worse.
Final Recommendation: Recommend with Caveats
Episode Three: Dance
It should come as no surprise to you all that Dance is where I really started to vibe with Off the Air. For one, the dance theme meant that the episode always had some forward momentum. Hell, you could say Dance builds momentum and raises the bar for the season. Plus, for the first time, none of the segments felt out of place, and they were all of consistent quality. If I had to pick a favorite segment, I’d go for the spider mating dance (is it just me, or did they make those spiders cute?), but I easily could have picked a few others.
Is Dance perfect? No. There is still a samey feeling permeating the episode. I’m still not sure what the intro segment has to do with the dance theme. Plus I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indian Condom dance segment rubs people the wrong way. But it’s also the best episode of season one so far by a considerable margin.
Final Recommendation: Recommend
Episode Four: Space
If Dance was a step forward for season one, then Space is a step back. Which is a shame. On the one hand, I love space shit – I have a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics, so there’s that. Plus, the physics that determines how the universe functions, at both the macroscopic and the microscopic, are trippy. Like, trippier than anything we can begin to comprehend. Lastly, astronomy can be straight-up beautiful. Like achingly so. It should come as no surprise to you all that the segments that hit me the hardest played into those. The Carl Sagan Cosmos remix, the diagram of the solar system collapsing into itself, flying through the rings of Saturn all hit me in the feels.
Which is a goddamn travesty the weak segments don’t even compare to the strong ones. You could say they aren’t in the same Local Group. The worst offenders, namely the judo dogs and the cat head thing, don’t even have anything pertaining to space. For a show that defines itself for surrealism, it’s a fucking travesty they didn’t lean into the space theme since again, astrophysics and the universe as a whole is on a whole other level of surrealism we can never hope to approach.
Final Recommendation: Recommend with Caveats
Episode Five: Body
The last episode of the season, aka Body, is the best episode of the season. For one, the segments are varied enough to keep you on your toes, largely avoiding the samey feeling that has hamstrung the season as a whole. Momentum is maintained throughout the episode. Plus there aren’t any outright weak segments to drag down the ones that hit hard. Segments like the vengeful hotdog and the chroma keyed dancing man in particular raise this episode above the rest. Side note, this was the only segment this whole season that had a narrative, which I found to be a breath of fresh air.
If there was any segment that made me stop, it was the nude doll-thing wandering around town, but that’s at least on-brand with the theme. Otherwise, this was the strongest episode, the one I would recommend to people curious about Off the Air, and the episode to convince me that it’s worth continuing Off the Air.
Final Recommendation: Highly Recommend
So yeah, that’s the brief flash that is season one of Off the Air. Is it the best thing I’ve reviewed for you all on Off the Beaten Path? No. If anything I’d put it on the lower end of the quality spectrum of what I’ve reviewed so far. This is also easily the most niche show I’ve reviewed. So niche to the point that it pushes more people away than it pulls people in.
That said it’s easily the boldest and most out-there show I’ve reviewed, which I commend. Like, I’d rather watch a failure that takes a big swing and misses than one that plays it too safe, like Crashing. Like, I dare you to tell me this show doesn’t have one hell of a unique ethos and soul. I fucking dare you. Plus, the highlights of this season prove that Off the Air has some good potential, enough to keep me on the hook. Here’s hoping future seasons build on that potential.
Final Recommendation: Recommend with Caveats