May 31, 2020

Off the Beaten Path | Spicy City

Hey everyone, welcome to the first post of my overhaul of Off the Beaten Path. Safe to say, things will be different for Off the Beaten Path. If you haven’t heard (aka you don’t know me in person), here’s what’s changing real quick. Instead of reviews episode by episode nominally 3 times a week (those reviews are what I’m calling The First Trek), I will be reviewing a whole season at a time every other week. If you’re disappointed I’m no longer reviewing each episode, don’t despair. I’m still giving my thoughts about each episode during my reviews, just much more streamlined. This way, I have an excuse to watch more TV, and I cover more ground for you all.

So what show did I decide to usher in this new change? Well, this show is truly one that is worthy of Off the Beaten Path. It’s an HBO show from the 90’s that has been so forgotten it’s not even on the HBO apps on top of never getting a physical release. It’s a trailblazing show that has been eclipsed by similar programming that followed suit. A show created by an established filmmaking figure that many don’t realize he made. Hell, this is also the first show I’ve reviewed for you all that I’ve never seen before. This show I talk of is Ralph Bakshi’s Spicy City.

So What is Spicy City?

So what exactly is Spicy City? Spicy City was an HBO show that aired in the summer of 1997, which ran for 6 episodes before being canceled due to disagreements between HBO and Bakshi on how season two would be produced. By all technicalities, Spicy City is the first adult animated show ever made (it beat South Park to the punch by a month), and good lord does it wear that badge proudly.

Ralph Bakshi 

If I had to sum up what the show is from a genre and structure standpoint, I’d call it, for the most part (I’ll get to what I mean by this later), an erotic cyberpunk anthology. Each episode is hosted by the mysterious dame Raven, the curvaceous proprietor of the Roost Nightclub, a typical noir setup in a grimy cyberpunk metropolis. Raven starts off each episode with some kind of anecdote, which is then expanded upon by the story of the episode. In a way, it reminded me of Bakshi’s early anthology movies like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic.

My Thoughts on Spicy City

But all that, to be honest, can be gleaned from a quick internet search. The real question here is “what did I think of the show?” To be quite frank, I found it to be rather lacking. 

Poster for “Spicy City” featuring Raven, the sultry host

If you know me in person, you know my interest in Bakshi as an animator (check out Bakshi’s biography here, he’s an unsung titan of animation). I mean, he was pretty much the only animator who pushed back against the constraints of the attitudes towards animation during the period we now call “The Dark Age of Animation”. Sure, his stuff was always caricaturesque; in response to the attitudes of the time that animation was solely for children, he would overcompensate, making his movies as in your face explicit as humanly possible. That said, his early works have a soul, a sense of being. To put it another way, Bakshi had things he wanted to say about the human condition. Spicy City doesn’t have that.

Watching the 6 half-hour episodes that makeup Spicy City, I never felt the spark that makes stuff like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic worth the trip (as weird as those movies are). It didn’t feel like Bakshi (or his specially chosen writers room for that matter) had anything of note to say. Instead, it felt more like a cheap vehicle for titillation. It was almost like Bakshi was trying to copy himself without understanding what made his early stuff work.

“Fritz the Cat”, Bakshi’s first feature movie

Ok, but what about some specifics about what I didn’t like as opposed to generalities and feelings? This wouldn’t be an Off the Beaten Path review if I didn’t throw any specifics in, would it?

Well, for something in my filmmaking wheelhouse, my first thoughts tended towards the writing. If I had to sum up my opinions on the whole at its best, it would be Anatoly Dyatlov from Chernobyl saying “not great, not terrible”. The characters are very thinly drawn, relying on stereotypes that even at the time of release were considered at best mildly offensive. Also, it didn’t help that a lot of these characters have no redeeming qualities to latch onto, making rooting for them to be extra hard. 

It also doesn’t help that the stories were, for the most part, not all that interesting on a pure storytelling level. It’s an odd situation where the stories are both filled with fat that can be trimmed, but also not substantive enough on their own. Like, if the plots, you know, helped facilitate arcs (or had arcs for that matter), the lacking characters wouldn’t have been so egregious in my mind. Instead, we get story beats that keep their one-dimensional characters from becoming anything more. 

The dialogue was also pretty hammy and stilted, which in conjunction with the stereotypes at play and overly fatty storylines made for one hell of an uncomfortable melange for far too much of the overall runtime.

They also, in my mind, wasted a good premise. When science fiction is good, and I mean really good, it often asks questions about the human condition, using extrapolations of current trends and out-there ideas to examine rather timeless themes. With something cyberpunk, I imagine stories about looking at the ramifications of a post-singularity society, how technology can be used as a tool of the oppressors and the oppressed, etc. When I think of good cyberpunk, I think of properties like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, and other stories akin to those. For the most part, Spicy City doesn’t concern itself with that.

“Ghost in the Shell” aka the peak of animated cyberpunk

To be fair, there are two episodes, Love Is a Download and Sex Drive, that address cyberpunk themes with something close to interest. Otherwise, the show isn’t all that concerned with examining these topics and themes. Hell, a lot of the time they don’t even use the setting to set up interesting scenarios. Sometimes they play a role, like the cloning storyline in Tears of a Clone, but never move beyond the point of window dressing; in other words, they didn’t need to be cyberpunk. 

If anything, Bakshi’s crew is more interested in the aesthetics of cyberpunk than any kind of subtext. I mean it looks and feels like noir styled cyberpunk; corruption is present at all levels of society, technology is used nefariously, and the attitudes of the people are expressly nihilistic. That said, I don’t think Spicy City even wants to be cyberpunk. Hell, maybe it would have been better as just a straightforward noir anthology, but I’m doubting that based on what I saw.

Even more than the misuse of genre and poor character writing, the treatment of women in Spicy City is something else. It made me think of the worst aspects of Heavy Metal and Love, Death & Robots (side note: isn’t it kind of fitting that my first review using the new format is also an animated anthology for adults?). Namely, the stories are often vehicles for women to be overtly sexualized for exploitive titillation, even if it doesn’t make all that much sense to do so. I mean, other than three characters (and they’re not immune to the exploitation), all the main women on screen are curvaceous dames wearing skin-tight dresses at best, with at least one being completely nude the whole time she’s on-screen (case in point, one of the notes I wrote down while watching literally says “are all the women in this world allergic to wearing pants?”). So yeah, I’m highly doubtful any women watching would appreciate what they see on screen.

To be fair, the show advertises itself as having a “seamy side”. That said, a lot of the seamier aspects don’t translate due to a lot of very ugly implications. More than once (as in multiple episodes), unconscious women are caressed and fondled. There are also instances of women essentially being assaulted, only for them to fall for their assaulters. All of this is played up for sex appeal. Look, I’m not opposed to eroticism in art. That said, it doesn’t play well when something that is portrayed as erotic would also be a felony in any sane world.

But what about other aspects of Spicy City? There’s more than just the writing to comment on. Like, what about the animation? The sound design? Well in that regard, Spicy City is somewhat better, but not great. If I had to put it in a nutshell, it’s that Spicy City is, at best, middle of the road Bakshi animation.

Let me also put it this way. If you were to show me any random episode of Spicy City, I would be able to peg it as a Bakshi production. Just the animation styles, like the character models and the world creation, would be enough. It’s not top of the line Bakshi though. It feels cheaper, rougher around the edges. I’m more liable to forgive Bakshi here since he’s dealing with a TV budget back when TV was still considered an inferior medium to features (The Sopranos was still two years away by this point), but that doesn’t change the fact his animation from 20 years prior looks better.

Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards”, my intro to Bakshi and my favorite film of his

What I find more disappointing is the score. Namely, the score was pretty forgettable, which for a Bakshi joint is saying something (I still think the Wizards score is the best fantasy score ever put to celluloid, and I will fight you on that). It wasn’t terrible by any means, but I’m not going to pull it up on youtube just to listen to it as I do with Wizards and Heavy Traffic

But enough of general complaints about the show, let’s talk about the episodes themselves.

My Thoughts on the Episodes

Episode One: Love Is a Download
The Boxer and the Geisha connecting for the first time

Now, this is an episode that has me feeling conflicted. When I watched it the first time, I thought Love Is a Download was going to be, at best, middle of the pack. After watching the entire show, Love Is a Download ended up as my second favorite. In hindsight, this is easy enough to see.

For one, Love Is a Download actually attempts to use its cyberpunk setting to tell something entirely cyberpunk; namely, a love story of two lost souls who meet in a very 90’s conception of a virtual chat room. It doesn’t dive too much into the ramifications, but it at least is a story that needed the cyberpunk setting to be properly told.

Also, the protagonists of the Boxer and the Geisha are comparatively well-drawn and easy to root for. All they want is to be together, but the Geisha’s monster of a boyfriend/the Boxer’s client (the Boxer is a virtual PI) gets in the way. Plus, they have some interesting backgrounds and goals: the Boxer, in reality, a one-armed morbidly obese man, used to be an Army vet; the Geisha, the prized girlfriend of a mobster, wants to escape into virtual reality so she can be viewed as more than a hot body. It’s not a lot, but compared to the rest of Spicy City, it’s enough to stand above the others.

That said, it’s still highly flawed. While the Boxer and the Geisha are easy to root for, their love story seems incredibly rushed; they’re professing undying love to each other within minutes of meeting each other. The writers don’t really understand how the internet functions; it easily the most dated of the sci-fi ideas in presentation. The use of offensive stereotypes is in full force. I mean, how long has it been since the idea of the computer guy being an obese slob like this been discredited? Plus. the treatment of women is about the same as other episodes.

That said, if you’re going to check out Spicy City, Love Is a Download is a good litmus test to see if you’re cut out for the show as a whole.

My Recommendation: Recommend With Caveats

Episode Two: Mano’s Hands
Raven and Mano as Mano performs for an excited crowd

I legit don’t understand Mano’s Hands. I truly don’t. Like, why is there a magical realism story in this universe? It feels like Bakshi had this idea for a movie, found it didn’t work as a movie and decided to throw it in as well.

And you know what else, this episode just sucks. The story is rather jumbled at best, hopping from one set piece to another without any real throughline. There’s no one to root for; Mano, the closest thing to a protagonist, is an asshole who falls out of the narrative. The stereotypes at play are outright offensive. I mean, how can you not wince at the portrayal of the voodoo priestess? And the ending, god that ending. Somehow they decided to portray what’s clearly Stockholm Syndrome as a romantic end? It really was the dingleberry to top off this shit sundae of an episode.

My Recommendation: Don’t Recommend

Episode Three: Tears of a Clone
Flaxson receiving his assignment

While I at least understand Tears of a Clone on a story level – it’s about a PI who’s hired by a rich man to find his missing daughter – I still don’t like it. While Mano’s Hands left me baffled, Tears of a Clone was just cold.

For one, I find it very hard to root for Flaxson, the main character. I mean, the man is a monster. I mean, even before seeing Raven’s Revenge, Flaxson’s massacre of the mutants struck me as more horrific than heroic, and that feeling only intensifies after watching Raven’s Revenge. That, on top of how he weasel’s his way to finishing the job at the end, makes him one of the hardest protagonists of the whole show to root for.

Also, the treatment of women is just terrible here. I mean, the daughter of the client is never shown with clothing on and is disturbingly treated as a sex object by everyone, including her father. Hell, the clone he delivers is literally treated as an object. 

While the story makes use of the cyberpunk atmosphere, it only does so at face value. Other than the cloning bit (and even that is pretty inconsequential), this could just be a typical noir story. If anything, this feels like the writers watched Blade Runner, took none of the nuances, and added way too much nihilism to make it seem more adult. Also, good lord is that ending dark, but not in a way that feels justified.

My Recommendation: Don’t Recommend

Episode Four: An Eye For An Eye
Ernie’s first attempt to stop Margo

An Eye For An Eye continues down the Tears of a Clone road. Take from that what you will.

This is another noir tale that doesn’t make much use of the cyberpunk setting beyond surface elements – like An Eye For An Eye, it has to do with mass organ manufacturing. It follows a bunch of protagonists that are at best hard to root for. I mean, Margo is a straight-up monster and while her partner Ernie is at least trying to do good to bring down Margo, but good lord is he jackassy and ineffective at doing that.

At least compared to Tears of a Clone, the treatment of women isn’t that of just sex objects. Now they’re also monsters. Like, I know by the point I watched An Eye For An Eye I was craving a more well thought out woman character, but man Margo and Nisa are just the TVTropes descriptions of The Vamp (Margo in particular) and Lipstick Lesbians, which isn’t all that much better. On the whole, it’s slightly up the ladder of quality than Tears of a Clone, but not enough for me to ever feel like rewatching this.

My Recommendation: Don’t Recommend

Episode Five: Sex Drive
Nisa Lolita recording an impromptu testimonial

Now I finally get to talk a little bit about Sex Drive aka my favorite episode of the show. I mean, it’s still not all that great, it has a lot of the flaws that seem to be wired into the DNA of Spicy City (I’ll get into this in a bit). But also, after 4 episodes of at best mediocrity, Sex Drive is, despite the title, a breath of fresh air.

For one, the protagonists of Sex Drive are actually likable, just like in Love Is a Download. There’s Virus, the struggling hooker just trying to survive, and Nisa Lolita, the aspiring detective trying to get justice for the prostitutes who have been disappearing. After seeing episode after episode of monsters and jackasses as the protagonists, it’s great to see an optimist in the driver’s seat (sometimes literally in Lolita’s case). Sure, they’re fighting against an endless sea of rampant misogyny and corruption, but the fact they fight like hell for the right thing makes them all the more endearing.

Also, the story is the best of the lot. It makes use of the cyberpunk setting to ask actual questions about the human condition (namely, at what point does the virtual become more enticing than the real), it has the principal characters go through an arc fueled by conflict, and it has a solid ending. In a way, it’s almost as out of place as Mano’s Hands within the world of Spicy City, but in the exact opposite way. If anything, Sex Drive is the episode that demonstrates that with the right retooling, Spicy City could have been something.

That said, Sex Drive is still problematic. Like, a lot of the sensuality are instances of assault portrayed as sexy and romantic, the dialogue is still as stilted as all the other episodes, and also women are still treated as sex objects largely to be oggled by lecherous men. In other words, while it’s still the best of the bunch, it’s still bad enough that I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone.

My Recommendation: Recommend With Caveats

Episode Six: Raven’s Revenge
Raven performing her lounge singing act

With Raven’s Story, we finally get a story where Raven, the proprietor of the Roost Nightclub and our humble narrator, finally steps out of the shadows and gets a story of her own. And you know what, while it’s not the best, it’s certainly in the top three along with Love Is a Download and Sex Drive.

Like my other two favorite episodes, Raven’s Revenge gives us a protagonist we can actively root for; in this case, for Raven to evade capture by a shady bio-medical conglomerate. In the process, we learn about her past. In a nutshell, she’s Rachel from Blade Runner with the added wrinkle of being patient zero for a genetic plague. We also see that like the protagonists of Love Is a Download and Sex Drive, Raven is an inherently good person. Namely, she treats everyone with respect (especially those who are largely shunned by society, like the mutants that tag along in the story) and grieves for those caught up in wanton violence and despair. It’s a welcome change, seeing someone more of a visual femme fatale than Jessica Rabbit could ever achieve ending up as a good person.

That said, the story is rather weak, easily the weakest of my top three episodes. Mainly, while Raven is the de facto protagonist, she’s way too passive for my liking. She is essentially shepherded from scene to scene being told who she is and what to do while the people around her do all the actual work. It would have been nice to see her rally take charge and take control of her destiny, which would have neatly dovetailed into the reveals of her character. In the end, Raven’s Revenge is probably the best cap to a show as uneven as Spicy City.

My Recommendation: Recommend With Caveats

In Conclusion

So there you have it, the whole sordid show that is Spicy City. God this was both exactly what I was expecting and not at all. I was expecting a decent Bakshi production, another interesting milestone lost to the sands of time and pop-culture. Instead, I found something I wish had remained buried. 

That said, I don’t regret watching Spicy City. To be honest, I was beginning to worry that I was only picking good quality shows to review for you all here at Off the Beaten Path. I mean, as nice as it would be to watch good shows, I doubt it would be all that interesting to read review after review of me saying “I highly recommend this” and it also would lead me to stagnate as a reviewer. So in a way, Spicy City is a revelation. Not one I plan on revisiting, but a revelation none the less.

You know what, another silver lining is it’s a good representation of how far animation has come, especially western adul animation. Spicy City, as awful as it is at times, is a trailblazing show by all technicalities. If it weren’t for the one two punch of Spicy City and South Park in 1997, the animation landscape wouldn’t be recogizable. Also, it makes me appreciate my favorite adult animation shows all the more, like The Venture Bros., Primal, and Bojack Horseman.

So do I recommend this show to others? That honestly depends. If you’re a diehard Bakshi fan and a completist, then I think you’ll find Love Is a Download, Sex Drive, and Raven’s Revenge entertaining enough to be a cult interest. Otherwise, I’d just stay clear. You can find better ways to spend 3 hours of your time. Like, I don’t know, rewatch Love, Death & Robots, the good version of Spicy City.

My Recommendation: Don’t Recommend

I bet some of you are still interested in watching Spicy City. Maybe some of you are actual die-hard Bakshi fans. Maybe others are like “Joe, your taste sucks and I don’t trust your recommendations so I’m gonna watch it to prove you wrong”. Hell, maybe some of you are just plain curious. In any case, here is a link the episodes so you can watch them whenever.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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