The two latest entries in prime-time animation, Sammy and Baby Blues, evince contrasting sensibilities: Sammy, from snarky David Spade, is positively pickled in irony, while Baby Blues is about as earnest as prime-time cartoons are currently permitted to be in the post-Simpsons era.
At least earnest is better than bland, which describes the limp little newspaper comic strip by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott on which Baby Blues is based. The TV version focuses on Kirkman and Scott’s main characters Darryl and Wanda MacPherson — the well-meaning, perennially exhausted young parents of infant Zoe, and gives these aging-Gen-X clichés some backbone courtesy of the voice actors, Mike O’Malley (yes, the former star of last-season’s short-lived The Mike O’Malley Show) and Julia Sweeney.
Sweeney, the Saturday Night Live alum and performer of the marvelous one-woman theater piece, God Said Ha!, is a wonderful cartoon voice performer. Transcending Baby Blues’ minimally expressive animation style, Sweeney conveys a range of emotions for Wanda, including a young parent’s perpetual anxiety about whether she’s mothering properly, and the way tiredness mingles with adoration to create a kind of radiant weariness when Wanda picks up Zoe and looks adoringly at her.
Sweeney and O’Malley are helped by the presence of Dharma & Greg’s Joel Murray (Greg’s best bud) and Arabella Field (Godzilla), a newcomer to TV animation, as the voices of next-door neighbors Carl and Melinda Bitterman. Carl (loud, loutish, but essentially well-meaning) and Melinda (a Wanda who’s given up: She chain-smokes, guzzles coffee, gobbles prescription drugs) are supposed to be examples of the sort of parents Darryl and Wanda don’t want to be. But since Baby Blues aims for gutless, lesson-learning, ”very special” moments, in the first episode we already find Darryl and Wanda asking the Bittermans to be Zoe’s guardian.
Drew Carey makes a funny cameo as an animated version of himself in the second episode, but his tossed-off energy only reminds us how restrained the rest of the script is. Except for Melinda’s occasionally funny despair (”Gotta go make the tuna-ghetti,” she sighs, as if consigning herself to suburban hell), Baby Blues is a bummer, and a bummer packed with talented actors going to waste.
By coincidence, Julia Sweeney provides the voice of David Spade’s mother in Sammy. Or rather, James Blake’s mother — the animated character voiced by Spade, a barely disguised version of the comic actor himself. James Blake, like Spade, is the star of a successful sitcom (Blake’s is Hey, Rebecca; Spade’s is Just Shoot Me). James, like Spade, has a father — the Sammy of the show’s title — who, according to the son, abandoned him during his youth and only made contact with him once he became a star. Sammy’s voice is provided by the relentlessly self-conscious Spade in not just an imitation of an old man but a parody of an imitation of an old man.
Sammy is supposed to be an incorrigible codger, manipulating his son’s yearning to reconnect with Dad to install himself in the young star’s Hollywood mansion and put the moves on young starlets. Where the James character is an aloof, mildly sarcastic observer, Sammy is the party-hearty wild man who makes all the tasteless comments. (Regarding reluctant sexual conquests, he remarks, ”Just quit the grinnin’ and drop the linen, we’re going to do some sinnin’, baby.”)
Like Baby Blues, Sammy is packed with good supporting voices: Two NewsRadio grads, Andy Dick and ER’s Maura Tierney, play James’ agent and assistant, Mark and Kathy, respectively. And Bob Odenkirk, from HBO’s cultishly beloved Mr. Show, and nutball comic Harland Williams (RocketMan) portray James’ brothers. All are effective at fleshing out their two-dimensional-in-every-sense characters, and the animation is a bit more interesting than that of Baby Blues — Sammy’s figures, designed by artist Kevin Pope, are amusing blobby-faces with wedge-shaped bodies.
There aren’t many laugh-out-loud moments in Sammy — like Spade’s too-hip-for-a-belly-laugh humor, the yuks are dry ones. (As Andy Dick’s Mark-the-agent character says to James, ”We know you don’t like to make things too jokey.”) But, once again, Sweeney is sweetly touching in a guest appearance — the back story is that James’ mom and Sammy split long ago due to his philandering — and Tierney makes Kathy a surprisingly sensitive, nuanced character in a generally heartless comedy. Sammy, not on NBC’s fall schedule, is burn-off material, but unlike Baby Blues, its warmth reaches higher degrees, generated by the anger of being betrayed by one’s father. In fact, Spade’s best joke is his succinct nickname for his cartoon dad: ”Scammy.” Baby Blues: C-