“We could do chickies, or we could do fishies…”
China, Il might be one of the quieter, more under-the-radar Adult Swim shows that are out there. It very quietly comes and goes, leaving a fantastical, disorienting mess in its wake. And if you have been happening to check it out, then you’ve witnessed a rather satisfying cyclone of crazy, unusual things like mass murdering Beach Boys, a time-traveling Ronald Reagan, and the all-powerful Dream Reamer. And this is a cartoon about a university.
China, Il has also nicely grown in a way that it’s developed a healthy stable of characters that populate this universe. A lot of these people have come from the several worlds Neely created pre-China, Il, which have seamlessly been bridged together here as well as populated with new, outlandish voices (Cinna-Mon seems like he could have potential…). Neely elaborates on this by saying:
Early on, when I was creating the two series for the web, I needed settings and characters that facilitated first person storytelling. I like flawed narrators, and I feel there actually is no unflawed narration. I like exploring false positions of authority, so I chose teachers and a diarist. History and oneself are the most often mis-narrated narratives.
Self-mythologizing is rampant in this episode, primarily with Frank and Steve. It’s been made pretty clear that Steve and Frank’s relationship is kind of the center of the show, as much as I might want for it to be Baby Cakes. Episodes where they’re pitted against each other–or even literally in competition with one another like they are here–usually pay off well, with this being no exception as well as a strong premiere in general to bank off of.
Their story sees Frank and Steve returning to their yearly tradition where each of them pick two of their new students for the other brother, and whichever can get their pairing of students to have sex with each other first wins. It’s exactly as gross and ego-driven as Frank and Steve are, as is the prize of being declared the “better brother” and being made head of the history department. Seeing these guys play so irresponsibly with not only their students, but their jobs as well, like all of these things are just props to amuse them is wonderful. It’s also exactly the sort of bet that the show could return to each season with it not having much of a diminishing return on itself.
As this bet is really gotten into, Frank’s plan that Steve will end up having sex with his target rather than following through with his bet is also perfect characterization. It’s the right way to complicate the story, rather than turning to some cheap stunt. It’s comforting that three seasons in, we can already be at a point of knowing these characters so well.
I suppose we should also discuss Hoh-Hoh, the alleged troll student that crops up in Steve’s class, considering how much time is spent on him. While he’s as scaled back as a character like this can be, he works largely for exactly this reason. Hoh-Hoh’s never shoved in your face, and you almost experience him innocently through Sunshine’s (a well-used Kate McKinnon) eyes, making it all weirdly more palatable. Every time the episode returns to him though, you’re happy rather than groaning at his inclusion.
Meanwhile, as overcrowding plagues the campus and a skyrocketing population problems Ronald Reagan’s America, the volatile Dean and the even more hotheaded Mayor engage in a competition of their own that rivals that of Steve and Frank’s in some welcome symmetry. Here the two of them have assembled a think tank of UCI’s best minds (which includes Baby Cakes, Pony, and a lot of our favorite faculty members) that are being held hostage in a propane carrier until they can unanimously agree on a “Real Deal” style solution to the overpopulation.
Thank God this show is a full half hour now because scenes like the barrage of nonsense suggestions in the think tank would certainly be cut if this were still an 11-minute show, and it’d be a real shame because I could have honestly had a whole episode of this. Suggestions like flooding the South, doodoo dicks, and the popular death draft are some of the highlights that result from these characters trying to brainstorm. Not to mention, seeing Baby Cakes relish in the roadblocks coming up in Pony’s search for consensus, or endlessly trying to stir the pot here, is a lot of fun. Pony unhinged is always my favorite version of Pony, so to see her slowly and ungracefully unraveling in the think tank is beautiful, not to mention a solid callback to her grooming etiquette habits that we’ve seen before.
If there’s something to complain about here, it’s not involving Baby Cakes in Steve and Frank’s competition considering how well he works in the think tank. It’s possible that he might have been better used here and been given more to do, but his role in the think tank subplot, while minor, is still pretty fundamental to opposing Pony. Both still could have been done perhaps.
What this think tank plot nicely does is highlight how this episode is all about the nature of decisions. Steve and Frank spend nearly no time at all contemplating their decisions, heading strongly into underthought, careless bets, much to their detriment. The other extreme is Baby Cakes, whose inability to make a decision, or his overthinking of everything renders the think tank useless. Both of these viewpoints are dangerous, and as the episode approaches its conclusion, it tries to enforce the idea that there must be balance to all of this.
“A Gentleman’s Bet” is definitely a more than promising start to the season, focusing on the show’s basics, and is just a reminder of how nice it is to have these characters back in our lives. It feels like the UCI campus is only going to get weirder this season (and the inclusion of a troll in the premiere is a good place to start), and with this show, that is saying a lot.
So while you might want to pick chickies or to pick fishies, finding the perfect compromise where both chickies and fishies can work is really the answer. And all it took to get there was a little government-sanctioned genocide.