Somewhere in the middle of Netflix's new animated sci-fi anthology series Love, Death & Robots, there's an episode about super-intelligent yogurt (yes, really) that proposes a plan to resolve the national debt—in a single year, and with no tax increases—if only America's politicians follow the plan exactly. America's politicians promise to do so, but, being politicians, don't. (Although the details are never specified, large spending cuts are presumably involved.) That's when the yogurt assumes total control—for our own good.
The six-minute short, closely adapted from a short story by the science fiction writer and internet wag John Scalzi, is representative of the series at its zany best: It's short, silly, bizarre, unexpected, frequently amusing, and even, from time to time, somewhat profound. Not every episode is as sharp as "When the Yogurt Took Over," and several are too dour and self-serious for their own good. Developed by David Fincher (Seven, The Social Network) and Tim Miller (Deadpool) as an outgrowth of their planned reboot of animated cult classic Heavy Metal, the series, like its predecessor, skirts the boundary between extremely juvenile and extremely adult, sometimes in the same episode. But there's plenty of variety, and more hits than misses. And even the least effective episodes work as beautifully rendered exercises in sci-fi and fantasy design.
Perhaps more than anything else, the series serves as a showcase for the largely untapped potential of smart, serious, animated storytelling aimed at adults. Animated filmmaking is, of course, already incredibly popular, with animated features regularly raking in some of the biggest box office hauls of the year. But in Hollywood, animation tends to fit one of two boxes: family-friendly features and series, ranging from big-budget Pixar and Dreamworks films to the wide array of cheaply animated series designed mainly to distract young kids; and adult comedy, often with an absurdist bent—shows like The Simpsons, Archer, or anything on Adult Swim.
These sorts of animated products often flirt with more serious dramatic elements. Pixar's features are designed to be appreciated by adults as much as children, and they are often surprisingly emotionally weighty. A show like Netflix's Bojack Horseman uses absurdist comedy as a vehicle for exploring depression and psychological vulnerability. And the best superhero cartoons, from Batman: The Animated Series to Young Justice, have long boasted a somewhat more adult sensibility.
But while these shows might stretch the conventions of American animation, they rarely break them. And while there have been occasional exceptions over the years, from the 2001 Final Fantasy feature film to HBO's adaptation of the comic book Spawn to the original Heavy Metal, the vast majority of American animation tends to fall into the categories of stuff-for-kids and stoner-comedy-for-adults.
This is different overseas, particularly in Japan, where there are decades' worth of anime films and TV shows that are fundamentally dramatic rather than comic and are generally targeted at adults. Although genre standards like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop have been available in the U.S. for decades, much of this material has been somewhat difficult to find. But thanks to online video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon video, that's changing: Both services offer large libraries of both dubbed and subtitled anime.
That may help explain why American producers are finally starting to experiment with animated programming that doesn't fit the traditional molds. Netflix, in particular, has been wading into this territory, with original animated series like the clearly adult Castlevania, a video-game adaptation written by comics scribe Warren Ellis, and Neo Yokio, an absolutely delightful and wholly original series by Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig that might be best described as an ironic and R-rated cartoon riff on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but with robots and magic.
Even still, in the era of peak TV, with hundreds of scripted series produced each year and genre programming like Game of Thrones and Walking Dead among the most popular programs, it seems a little strange that there are so few examples of animated genre shows targeted at adults. That's part of what makes Love, Death & Robots so fascinating. It's basically a demo reel for different styles of genre-focused adult animation.
Some, like "Secret War" and "Beyond the Aquila Rift," feel a little too much like extended video game cut scenes. But there are several standouts as well. "Fish Night" is a character-focused vignette about two salesmen stuck in a desert that takes on fantastical properties in the evening. "Lucky 13" is a relatively straightforward but effective example of military s.f., based on a story by writer Marko Kloos. "Suits" is a fun, funny, and surprisingly affecting action comedy about redneck farmers fighting extra-dimensional invaders in hand-built mech suits; it hits all the major beats of a big-screen blockbuster in just 17 minutes.
Each of these shorts is animated in a different style, from the computer-generated photorealism of "Lucky 13" to the clean-lined comic-book style of "Suits" to the emotive, evocative computer-assisted sketch-work of "Fish Night." And each hints at the sort of animated offerings we're not seeing: Why isn't there already an all-CG show about space marines? Or a line-drawn series about the dreamlike adventures of two world-weary traveling salesman? Or a full-fledged feature about hearty farmers fighting monsters in homemade mechs?
Part of the answer, I suspect, is that some Hollywood gatekeepers still view animation as something for kids and odd teenagers. There's a lingering sense that adults just won't accept it, at least not for anything that isn't cloaked in a veneer of irony. But today's adults grew up with high-quality animated fare, which is one of the reasons Disney has spent so much money remaking its hand-drawn classics into "live action" reboots that are, for the most part, just CG animated features with a handful of human actors. Indeed, the prevalence of computer generated imagery in today's biggest productions may provide another answer: There's already plenty of dramatic, adult animation—it's just billed as live action.
In any case, Love, Death & Robots is a step in the right direction. Not every episode works, but the diversity of tones and styles keep things interesting and helps the series serve as a helpful reminder of all the things that animation could—and should—be doing but isn't. And along the way, it also offers a larger lesson or two about the nature of life, human and otherwise. Among them: We probably should have listened to the yogurt.