“The most popular sport in human history is back!”
Expectations are a pain in the ass.
In that sense, animator/writer/director Christy Karacas and professional Ballmaster Gaz Digzy aren’t that different. They both find themselves facing the lofty expectations that they’ll once again champion a winner. They’re both in situations where audiences expect them to do what they do best, but the question lies in if they can succeed. Whether it’s intentional or not (and it likely isn’t), it’s kind of incredible that an animated sports show with “Ball” in its title can also function as a deeper meditation on meeting your idols and the pressures of having a valued reputation.
It’s been almost four years since Superjail! closed its doors back in the summer of 2014, but ever since then Adult Swim has struggled to find a new series that’s capable of replicating the chaotic cartoon’s Rube Goldberg-esque sensibilities. Christy Karacas’ follow-up series was announced all the way back in 2015 shortly after the end of Superjail!, but it’s taken some time (and a minor name change) for Ballmastrz to finally make it on the air.
At its broadest moments, Ballmastrz: 9009 inexplicably feels like some impossible mash-up between Escape From L.A.and Dragon Ball Super’s Tournament of Power. Ballmastrz initially feels like the slightly less polished show that Karacas would have made beforeSuperjail!, not after, but that’s not to say this is a normal show by any means. If anything it somehow has an even more elastic reality than Superjail! It puts dozens of different styles and genres into a blender together and then jumps into the bathtub with it. This show feels like a computer did a speedball and the finished product is a disorienting, glitched-out drug overdose.
One example of the sort of fresh insanity that Ballmastrz offers to its viewers is the “unlimited death” concept that it develops. In this version of the future there are advanced healing organisms that allow every character to get brutally murderized multiple times in each episode, yet still be able to shake hands and say “good game” at the end of a match. It’s an idea that doubles down on the ridiculous future science that this show pushes, but it’s a simple enough way to maximize the show’s carnage and make something that’s as intimidating and permanent as death turn into a punchline.
Another psychotic way in which Ballmastrz defines itself is with the heavy anime influences that it dresses itself up in. Characters will phase in and out of anime-like mannerisms and animations with zero warning. Even the titles of episodes choose to address themselves with the cumbersome, tongue twister-style names that anime series often use. Ballmastrz: 9009 honestly feels like an anime, which has been turned into an Adult Swim show, that they’ve then tried to turn back into an anime. The glorious works of Masaaki Yuasa feel like a major inspiration for the Adult Swim series, particularly his must-watch anime, Ping Pong.
This pilot soars through exposition at 100 miles per hour as if it’s a game ball that flies through the air. Basically there are two rules to Ballmasters: 1. Use the ball to kill; 2. Use the ball to score. Got it? Great, now you’re as up to date as everyone else in this world. Ballmastrz makes a point to explain what life was like pre-Ballmasters and before the “Rad Wars,” but it really doesn’t care if you retain any of the details. In fact, the intense, jittery narration hopes that you lose your bearings and don’t know what’s going on. This is a fast-paced, unpredictable universe and whether you’re a character in it or just a viewer it’s going to trample all over you. This is a show that constantly interrupts its narrative in order to hurl more facts and atmospheric details at the audience.
As punishment for her reckless behavior, Gaz finds herself saddled with the Leptons, who are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Ballmaster teams. Not only does the team have a questionable track record, but some of them also seem to have major disadvantages that get dressed up as avant-garde assets. One member of the team is without extremities and he traps his head in the sort of sensory deprivation casing that would make Jigsaw blush, all while he allows his elongated, disturbing “umbilicus” do the lion’s share of his work for him.
Another member is a tiny mute alien who has enviable psychic powers at his disposal, but it’s just a matter of getting him to summon the confidence to use them. All of these guys are freaks for different reasons and now Gaz Digzy is stuck with the near-impossible task of making them champions. At least all of the other teams have some sort of unifying theme and style, as weird as they may be. The only thing that the members of the Leptons share is a sense of failure.
Karacas’ Superjail! didn’t exactly have a complex ongoing plot, but the recurring nature of that show’s cold opens would be helpful to a show like this, even if it feels like a retread. That being said, this show does attempt to tell a more important story about redemption, underdogs, and the power of entertainment. On top of that, there is an ongoing story as well, even if this is a show that largely revolves around an extreme sports match each episode. As the season progresses the show begins to unlock the secrets of the Ballmasters and the scared union between ball and human where anything can be achieved. It seems that the journey for the knowledge behind these transformations will be the key to the series and only become more complex as the season continues.
Unfortunately the characters in Ballmastrz are one of the show’s weaker links at this point. None of the characters are that memorable yet, even if they are all painfully unique and could make a travelling freak show feel normal. However, the show’s Warden surrogate, Supreme Leader Quasar, feels like he has some real depth that will be fascinating to explore. It’s also interesting to see that each different planet/district/universe all represent a distinct style of animation and tropes. Dragon Ball Super recently did the same thing with how one of their universes was all robots, another was all Sailor Moon-esque “Magical Girl” anime, and so forth. Karacas does the same thing here, but it allows the show to be more unpredictable and fluid as a result. Naturally, the bulk of Gaz’ new teammates on the Leptons are bland as all hell, but they’re supposed to be. This is the one group in the universe that isn’t interesting. They might have moxie or spirit or something, but who the hell cares when you’re a tedious bore? This is like an intergalactic, drugged up Bad News Bears where apathy reigns supreme.
“A Shooting Star Named Gaz Digzy Falls Fast and Hard!” gets caught up in introducing the audience to this universe and the rules of its game, but there’s a lot of information to convey in a series that’s this bonkers and out of control. The following episodes get more done and feel a little more natural, which is encouraging, but it’s still a little unclear of where this show ultimately wants to end up and what it’s larger goals are. There’s a strong structure in place here as well as an impressive original universe that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Judging by how the second and third episodes play out, it looks like this will be a show that only gets stronger the deeper it gets into its story and universe.
Furthermore, when a creator has earned a considerable amount of respect with their past efforts, it often allows for a lot of liberties to be taken with their next project. This degree of clout often earns you the freedom to then do whatever you want, but the worst thing about this is that it means that you can dowhatever you want. Limits aren’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s great if you’re able to briefly transform your show into an anime or a blacklit psychotropic fever dream, but that doesn’t mean that you should.
Ballmastrz: 9009 is far from perfect and it’s a series that wears its issues on its sleeve, but it’s also just so damn gorgeous and full of energy. This show may not pop as much as it should, but it’s still a project that deserves the benefit of a full first season before any final judgments are made. If Ballmastrz can sort out some of its larger problems with characterization and structure then this could turn into something quite special. And even if it doesn’t, it should still be a whole lot of damn, flawed fun to watch.
Ballmastrz: 9009 premieres Sunday, April 8that midnight on Adult Swim with back-to-back episodes
This review is based on the first three quarter-hour episodes from Ballmastrz: 9009’s first season