“Are you Echo Johnson?”
“’Tis my pleasure and ‘tis my plight.”
It may have taken some time, but TBS has put together a legitimately great collection of programming. The network currently has a more impressive, more eclectic comedy slate than most of the major networks and are capable of going head-to-head with many of the cable outlets. Their latest offering, the animated series Tarantula, makes for yet another worthy addition to their lineup.
Tarantula’s opening title sequence depicts a fly lazily cruising through the community as it stops in and touches base with each of the show’s characters. Those 30 seconds are surprisingly representative of this show in a nutshell and what it feels like to watch it. Tarantula makes the audience feel like a dizzy fly on the wall to all of the boozy, unscrupulous antics that go down in this show. Tarantula is a weird, poetic cure for the soul that isn’t perfect, but neither is life and that’s sort of the point.
Tarantula’s charm lies in the derelicts that occupy the Tierra Chula Resident Hotel, more commonly referred to as the Tarantula. Echo Johnson, the show’s hapless center, and the others that are around him are the people that society forgets about—or rather, tries to forget about. This is hardly the first time for a comedy to focus on such unrefined individuals, but this show finds a healthy balance. Most importantly, Tarantula understands how to still make these characters lovable in spite of their many flaws. Much like with many of the undesirable residents of the Tarantula, viewers may not want to stare directly at all of this, but they will also find themselves weirdly unable to look away.
Echo is oddly wise and sage-like in his plebian ways. He’s the sort of person who’s afraid of gorillas (and their existential pain) and cries when he eats a bison burger. His friends include characters like an unrecognized sci-fi writer who splits his time as a truck driver, a musician named after a butt, and others that are mostly covered in unsightly rashes. These are beaten down, unusual characters, but they help reflect the refreshing level of honesty that’s present in this simple comedy.
Tarantula is also a universe that feels at home within that usual skewed realm within Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s work. Carson Mell created the show (and also writes the bulk of it), but McBride and Hill are executive producers and it’s definitely easy to picture the miscreants of the Tierra Chula get along with any of the characters from Eastbound & Down or Vice Principals. If anything, it feels like My Name Is Earl meets Apollo Gauntlet (with a pinch of Mission Hill thrown in for good measure) in terms of tone and substance.
Much like its humble characters, Tarantula tells modest stories. There are episodes about simple things like chasing after a dog or the importance of a good, hearty lunch. Echo’s struggles are those of the extremely common man, like how movie tickets can grow so high in price or his fear over the growing incorporation of computers in everything. Tarantula isn’t interested in complex plots like time travel or the higher storytelling found in something like Rick and Morty or South Park. That’s not a bad thing though. Tarantula is far from rocket science, but it’s confident and comfortable in its own skin. It does an effective job to make this rough around the edges universe a place where the audience wants to return.
The show’s pilot is smart to not spend too much time on things like the series’ larger premise. It knows that it’s better off to just throw viewers into this world and let them figure out the show through exposure. There is also some interesting flair present in the series like the construct where each episode Echo re-tells his story to someone. Everything is told through hindsight like his tales are those of some local legend. It’s a fun touch.
In spite of the show’s modesty, it still has urges to get surreal and become more unhinged, like when it gives a glimpse into Echo’s daydreams and some of his absurd thought process. These characters admittedly have an unusual way about life and the show is at its best when it truly embraces that idea. There’s also an installment that’s all about drugs that’s unquestionably the show at it’s craziest, but it’s also the show’s second episode. It kind of feels like Tarantula wants to throw some crazy at the audience early on in order to keep them around through some of the more grounded material that follows. It makes for a strong example of where the show is capable of going with its more extreme impulses.
Tarantula provides some really sweet, wholesome stories too, like the complicated bond between a girl and her mother. Instances of Echo’s family life also usually resonate more than the episodes where he’s helping out the weird community of the Tarantula hotel. More than anything though, this show is about community and the many weird places that it can be found and how—most importantly—that there are always people willing to accept one another. The series also boasts a subtly beautiful animation style that slowly grows on you. Rough Draft Studios (Futurama, the underseen Sit Down Shut Up!, the one-season Napoleon Dynamite animated series adaptation) are the ones responsible for the show’s look.
Tarantula is certainly easy to binge and with how TBS has made all of the series already available to audiences, it’s easy to just watch a handful of episodes and chill out with Echo and company. While this might be plenty of fun, Tarantula does also feel somewhat forgettable and like low-impact viewing. Everything that it does works, but the show’s first season feels more concerned in letting the audience know its characters and its off-kilter, laid back attitude than it is in getting too experimental elsewhere. The series may not be the strongest show in TBS’ varied lineup, but it manages to earn its position here and feels unique to the rest of their programming. It’s easy to picture this show turn out an even stronger, more well rounded second season to this impressive introductory debut.
This review is based on all ten episodes from Tarantula’s first season.
Tarantula’s first season is currently airing on Mondays at 10pm on TBS and the entire first season can be binged via the TBS app or TBS.com