“How would you describe it, Judge? A man who sits around watching movies all day—these Sleepless in Seattle Hobbit movies? Is that a winner?”
“It’s better than killing people at a music festival.”
Remember when Seinfeld’s series finale thought that it could hold its “terrible” characters accountable in a court of law and it would make for the perfect goodbye? It was a controversial idea that people still look at with mixed opinions. Adult Swim’s “On Cinema Universe” takes this idea to create one of the craziest “long games” of all time. It’s an experiment that requires such dedication and foresight that it’s the sort of comedy performance that Andy Kaufman would watch and say, “I can’t believe what these guys are doing.” That’s how ambitious the connected world of On Cinema has become.
On Cinema began as one of the simplest projects of all time.The movie review vehicle started as a podcast and then turned into an Adult Swim web series. Cut to nine seasons later and On Cinema remains a movie review show, but it’s steadily gone off course. Stalwart co-host and self-designated movie buff Gregg Turkington tries to keep the show on topic as Tim Heidecker’s personal life begins to fall apart on screen. Somehow over the course of these nine seasons the show has created one of the richest universes ever conceived. The Adult Swim show Decker is a joke from On Cinema that’s come to life. Much of Decker’s gags and characters don’t even make sense unless you’re aware of the heavy On Cinema baggage that accompanies it.
The most recent season of On Cinema ends on a note where Tim awaits trial for 20 second-degree murder charges due to a toxic vape pen formula that he gave out at an EDM music festival that he also produced. This was a dark turn for the season to end on, but what they follow this up with is truly incredible. Between On Cinema’s 9th and 10th seasons, Adult Swim has broadcast Tim’s murder trial in five hour-long segments that are painfully real and naturalistic. If a feat of this magnitude wasn’t enough, the content that fuels the trial is a laundry list of Tim’s crimes and backstory throughout the run of On Cinema.
A lot of the testimony from the “Electric Sun 20 Trial” turns into a who’s who of On Cinema guest stars. This bizarre project is the perfect culmination of nine years of abuse and somehow the logical conclusion of the downhill slope that Tim’s character has been on for seasons. The whole thing plays as a deep character study of Tim’s twisted persona as he’s finally forced to come to terms with who he is. It only takes a murder trial to get him there (and this is after On Cinema hosts an elaborate intervention for him to no avail).
For the past week and a half, Timothy Richard Heidecker has been on trial for 20 charges of second-degree murder. Not really, but really. The trial opens on the harsh facts and charges that Tim faces after his venture with Luther (“Dr. San”) Sanchez. The People of California vs. Timothy R. Heidecker is simultaneously a cornucopia of fan service, but also a helpful primer to the series. Someone with no On Cinema knowledge could watch the court proceedings and have a pretty good understanding of the show and its history by its conclusion.
These trial segments are amazing in the sense that they’re not at all concerned about pacing or even if they’re entertaining. They want to feel like an average day in a courtroom and they absolutely succeed on that front. Furthermore, the legal staff all do an impeccable job and it’s truly difficult to ascertain if they’re actors, court personnel, or if there’s even a firm script in place or just an outline. Everything feels beyond natural.
Inger Tudor, the actress who plays the prosecution’s assistant DA is indeed an actor, but more importantly she also went to Harvard Law School and Cambridge as a paralegal. If Tudor’s history is the model to follow here, it’s safe to assume that the rest of this “cast” also has legal experience in some capacity (with likely also a mix of theater experience) in order to create the eerily accurate courtroom proceedings here. Additionally, Mark Dwyer, Tim’s defense lawyer that’s present on the first day of trial is also a practicing arbitrator and mediator of the court.
Tim and Gregg assemble people that merely do their jobs while they’re in these roles. These aren’t actors who are making choices. The fact that Tim and company inject absurdity into it all is the perfect twist. The “cast’s” professionalism acts as a brilliant foil to all of the actual comedy that goes on. It taps into that sweet spot that something like Nathan For You happens to excel at (it’s no coincidence that both of these are Abso Lutely Productions).
While the dry court performances are definite highlights, it’s also quite the spectacle to see Tim continually drag his own reputation further through mud. He fires his defense attorney after the first day of the trial and unsurprisingly stumbles as he attempts to represent himself. Day three of the trial even sees Tim get thrown out of the court and the judge raise his voice “for the first time in twenty years.” A brief recess and two contempt charges later (something that nearly happens the day earlier with Gregg’s testimony), leads to Tim eventually able to carry on.
The prosecution cripples Tim with flawless witnesses that bring forward grieving parents, medical examiners, as well as fan-favorite On Cinema characters like Alessandro “Axiom” Serradimigni and Ayaka Ohtani. However, Tim’s witnesses are barely even support systems. They offer nothing of actual substance in regards to testimony of character. He just pays all of them to testify on his behalf rather than him coming forward on their own accord. They’re all so clearly coached and bribed.
Through all of this, the trial pulls shocking pieces of evidence from On Cinema’s extended history. It even uses one of actor Mark Proksch’s tweets as evidence and documentation of Tim’s history of abuse. Miniscule background actors from Decker episodes are brought up as character witnesses for Tim until the prosecution makes the connection and proves the conflict of interest. Even Dekkar tracks (Tim’s rock band, not to be confused with DKR, his EDM band) are dissected to get as much info as possible on Tim’s behavior. A long-established song, “M.T. Bottle” gets revealed as a piece of music that Tim has actually stolen and plagiarized the melody from.
Gregg’s whole testimony even comes down to a nearly decade-long argument between Gregg and Tim over whether Star Trek II or IV is set in San Francisco. Tim is willing to pay $10,000 to a witness just in order to be vindictive and to prove a point to Gregg for once and for all. On top of that, there are also a flurry of hashtags like #Timoccent or #LockTimUp, courtesy of the #GreggHeads. The fictitious @NewsAppleValley has also reported on the proceedings over the past month and change, but never tips its hat at all to the fact that it’s a parody account.
What a gamble of this magnitude confirms is that Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington are tired of traditional programming. The jury is yet to reach a verdict, but it doesn’t look good for Timothy Richard Heidecker. At this point it wouldn’t even be surprising if the show’s following season sees Tim on the run and delivering short video updates from a spider hole or hiding place. Just don’t expect to get straight movie reviews. Movies are the least important part of this show now and that’s become the series’ greatest asset.
As the lyrics of Dekkar’s #1 single M.T. Bottle say, “I’m like an empty bottle, drained of everything left in my mind. Checking out life on the dark side, riding down the road ’til the end of time.” Tim and Gregg’s elaborate On Cinema world might feel empty and vacant, but experiments like this prove that their audience will follow them to the bitter end.