The Strange Failure of ‘Strange Planet’

What could go wrong with a Dan Harmon-made TV adaptation of a popular webcomic? Everything, apparently.

Apple TV+ is still trying to come up with a consistent brand. Sometimes it can be epic science fiction, like with For All Mankind and Foundation, other times more cerebral science fiction like with Severance and Silo. They’ve also done mundane prestige style work like Pachinko and Coda. But to date the only big hit for the platform has been Ted Lasso, which has distinguished itself with excessive positivity rather than attempting to say anything complex. The adult animated comedy show Strange Planet from Dan Harmon is one of the few Apple TV+ projects to try to build on this brand- and its failure to make any kind of impact has been one of the more ambivalent pop culture stories of the year.

Harmon based Strange Planet on the Instagram webcomic of the same name by Nathan Pyle. If your first thought upon seeing “adult animated comedy show from Dan Harmon” was that you could think of fewer things that sound less like Ted Lasso, then you can probably already see how Strange Planet faced an uphill battle from a marketing perspective. In theory Strange Planet should be marketing itself–the original comics are quite popular, and you’ve probably seen one before without context or any idea what it was called. The premise of any individual comic is that these nondescript, unnamed blue beings in the shape of aliens do the same normal everyday stuff that we do every day, they just use funny, overly literal words to describe it.

At its best, Strange Planet recontextualizes rituals we tend to think of as being “normal” as actually being fairly odd, like the extent to which people accept casual lies (or deception as Strange Planet calls it), as common social behavior. What makes Strange Planet kind of clever is that it calls attention to how the difference between “normal” and “exotic” behavior is often dependent more on how we explain that behavior than what it actually is.

But Strange Planet in adult animation form is most definitely not a show that Harmon wrote with that messaging in mind. Bizarrely, Strange Planet actually ends up going the other direction entirely, with outright fascist messaging. This is a very ironic aesthetic for the show to have, given that it’s Dan Harmon at his most family-friendly, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he took on the project to push back against the idea that he has right-wing sympathies.

A lot of fascist propaganda was sentimental romance that just spouted platitudes about how people can easily overcome problematic short-term situations with effort and submission to fundamentally just societal norms. And this pretty much nails the aesthetic of Strange Planet in animated form. The characters don’t have names and they you can only distinguish them by their clothes. They might or might not have genders, I honestly can’t tell, and to whatever extent this might be a commentary on queer culture, it’s an enormously discouraging one. I’d never really thought of gender nonconforming as a means of expressing conformity before. But then I never thought that regarding tattoos or rap music either, both of which the penultimate episode presents as wholesome, uncontroversial, unremarkable activities that can only make people uncomfortable in the most literal possible sense.

Now you might be thinking this isn’t fascist messaging, just situation-comedy messaging. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. But for a show to just be standard situation comedy, except the characters are all nameless blue conformist aliens who describe their actions literally…well, that isn’t really much of a premise. At least when Ted Lasso told a story about people who solve their problems by making a sincere effort and thinking positive thoughts, it was doing so in the fairly unusual setting of an American football coach trying to succeed in the Premier League.

By contrast, the main recurring setting in Strange Planet is the restaurant Careful Now, so named because it’s located on a cliff of dubious structural integrity. Careful Now is barely even a sight gag, such that it’s not terribly surprising that Strange Planet has to resort to one-off adventures with completely different, but still physically and emotionally identical characters, dealing with low-stakes band drama, or high-school drama, or sports drama, or flight attendant drama. All of these storylines only seem to say that real-life problems exist, but aren’t a big deal and we shouldn’t worry about them.

Even setting aside the question of how important a  standard situation comedy can be, it struck me that pretty much nothing in Strange Planet is, well, adult. Like at all. Aside from being boring I couldn’t find anything in this cartoon that would be objectionable to children. Strange Planet is adult animation in the same sense that a coloring book can be an adult coloring book. Ironically, there’s even a Strange Planet comic which makes that exact same kind of joke.

Strange Planet even as a comic always vacillated between self-deprecating humor and narcissism, specifically the narcissism of thinking that self-deprecating humor counts as enough insight on its own to not bother going any further. It’s a nice sentiment for buying a cute little comic book from Harper Collins to give to someone you don’t know that well in the office Secret Santa. But that’s all Strange Planet is good for to the point that even 20-minute episodes feel too long.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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