Spicy City intro screen

So What is Spicy City?

Ralph Bakshi

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 western adult animated show ever made – it beat South Park to the punch by a month – and good lord does it wear that badge proudly.

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.

Why is Spicy City 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. 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. Responding 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.

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?

On the writing
Bakshi’s first and most infamous feature

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.

On the premise

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.

Can feminine representation catch a break?

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 S1 (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. Hell, one of them was 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.

What else grinds my gears?

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.

Wizards aka my favorite movie by Ralph Bakshi

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.

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.

By 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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