Looney Tunes, the Warner Bros. cartoon series, started its blessed life as a series of theatrical shorts and became an institution with its 1955 television debut. It should go without saying that its choicest bits—the opera bouffe of “The Rabbit of Seville,” say, or any given snippet of Foghorn Leghorn’s southern-fried bluster—collectively represent a high point of Western civilization and are destined for an immortality to rival that of Guernica, the “Ode to Joy,” and the Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga cocktail table arcade game. But recent years have been unkind to the franchise, with Michael Jordan’s Space Jam somehow out-unclassed by an infantile Baby Looney Tunes spinoff. Perhaps the crowning indignity has been the characters’ adoption as mascots by the kind of guys who think it sweet to decorate a jet ski with the voracious face of the Tasmanian Devil.
This month, the Cartoon Network has rehabilitated the franchise with The Looney Tunes Show (Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET), on which the sketch-length vaudevillian antics of yore give way to a half-hour sitcom. The new program owes a little to feuding-roomie shows like The Odd Couple and a lot to the dynamics of Seinfeld. In this equation, Bugs, hardly the trickster of yore, is the Jerry figure—an ironic wiseass cocking his head at an absurdist universe. An episode where he quickly falls for—and even more quickly flees—a clingy, clueless light-brown hare named Lola (voiced by Kristin Wiig) is precisely the stuff of Seinfeld’s unswinging bachelorhood.
Hewing closer to his established personality, Daffy Duck combines the spluttering narcissism and yammering schlubbery of George Costanza with the unhinged restlessness of Kramer. A sponge—one soaking with his own self-absorption—Daffy claims that he’s “just crashing [with Bugs] until I get back on my feet.” The bird and the beast share the place—not Bugs’ old furnished warren with a Joroleman mailbox at its circular entrance but a proper suburban house—with Speedy Gonzales, who passes his lazy days among the floorboards and in the fruit bowl. As voiced by Fred Armisen, the mouse’s accent and attitude are blissfully undisturbed by the dictates of political correctness.
One would suggest that the producers, settling on the sitcom structure, are implicitly complimenting the much-derided attention spans of their young viewers. On the other hand, one is uncertain about whether young viewers are whom the program is for. In one of the show’s rare deviations from a linear plot, each of the first two episodes featured a mock-music-video in the parodic style of Lonely Island. In one, Elmer Fudd delivers a slow jam that, in the tradition of Cibo Matto and Slim Gaillard, is an obsessive ode to food. The song is titled “Grilled Cheese,” and the singer is lisping with lust for a sandwich, dwopping internal rhymes: “I just can’t wait to get home and put you on my pwate.” In another such interlude, Marvin the Martian, rapping to what sounds very much like the backing track for J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic,” cheerfully outlines a plan to destroy the very planet you’re orbiting the sun on right now, tossing in a “boom shacka-lacka” in the process. I found these clips, with their knowing goofiness and goofy knowingness, both delightful and perplexing. Are they for an precocious 8-year-old? Possibly, but it seems more likely that the 8-year-old’s mother, either punchy with parent-fatigue or just mildly stoned, is more likely to appreciate the material.
Bugs and Daffy, both voiced by Jeff Bergman, are consistently amusing—but not so much so that they aren’t upstaged by two low-profile pests from the Looney Tunes stable, the Goofy Gophers. Prissy and witty, these little fellows conduct themselves like a less acrimonious, more cuddly edition of Niles and Frasier Crane. Their fates intersect with those of Bugs and Daffy in the first episode, on a game show within the show titled Besties, which is a sort of Newlywed Game for people who do not share in the physical act of whoopee.
During the episode, it transpires that Daffy is so daffy that he does not really know anything about Bugs, not even his catchphrase. This shatters their supposed bond, and the duck, experiencing an epiphany, begins to display his affections for the wabbit with a deranged avidity. I’m giving you the bare outline of a rich plot. The meditation on friendship is coherent enough that one doesn’t even mind that Bugs and Daffy never were friends in the old days, just colleagues. The existential overtones of the classic Looney Tunes segments—with their predators and prey, their ever-impending Porky Pig-roasts—make way for an examination of quotidian emotional struggles. Plus, people get smacked in the face with cream pies, and pupils go cockscrewy with dizziness, and the old movie-theater excuse-me-pardon me-’scuse me bit continues to fail to get old.
Meanwhile, the eternal struggle between the Coyote and the Road Runner has been updated for the age of Michael Bay, with a recent clip going heavy on flipping trucks and flashy adrenaline blasts, and the Coyote’s drooping snout more pathetic than ever. Folks, sometimes that is all that you need to hit the heights.