There are moments in Moonbeam City—an ’80s-themed cop cartoon premiering Wednesday night on Comedy Central and starring the voices of Kate Mara, Elizabeth Banks, Will Forte, and Rob Lowe—that next-level the art of the dumb joke. In one, moron detective Dazzle Novak falls for an exotic singer who performs at the local mall. She plays the wind chimes—to win her over, Daz will eventually hire a backup band comprising a cymbiosphericus, a koobly-koo, a rain stick, and an anal flute. (I originally remembered that last one as “ass tuba,” but I was incorrect, it is anal flute.) But first, their sex scene, which involves kaleidoscopic lighting, hot Cinnabon icing, synths, and a fake toothbrush ’stache. Entwined with the vain and hunky Dazzle, Love Interest confesses that even she has no idea how to pronounce her name. “In my home country,” she coos, “women who say their own names get their elbows cut off.”
Tropes being rightly lampooned—the exotic beauty, the caddish hotshot, the repressive Islamic homeland—have never looked stupider. Individually and in aggregate, the gags stretch with their whole being toward silliness like plants toward the sun. Moonbeam City is an exercise in the sort of dumb—weapons-grade, analysis-resistant—it takes MENSA-levels of intellect to achieve.
Like Archer before it, the show belongs to a genre Emily Nussbaum has called “dirtbag sitcoms: crass, confident comedies that feature idiotic characters but are not themselves idiotic.” That balance is hard to strike. It requires the show to place the idiot character in a world that can plausibly accommodate his brainlessness: If he is dumb but the world is not, his exploits strain credulity, or inspire an uncomfortable mix of embarrassment, irritation, and pity. If the world is dumb but he is not, then rather than comedy, you have existential tragedy in comedic disguise, a la BoJack Horseman.
But Moonbeam City cranks up the dumb wherever it can; surrealistic dumb pours from both characterological and situational spigots. If this substance were chocolate, creator Scott Gairdner (who got his start making YouTube videos) doesn’t just bake a chocolate-chip cookie—he embeds the chips in a double chocolate batter, so that chocolate blots out all other sense impressions. The totality of the dumbness is part of the joke.
Moonbeam City stars Rob Lowe as Dazzle Novak, a police officer with ice-blue eyes and a peanut’s cognition, prone to egotistical speeches and sexual dalliance on the job. His boss, Pizzazz Miller (Elizabeth Banks), is gorgeous and tyrannical, constantly trying to rein Dazzle in. Rad Cunningham (Will Forte) plays the Reggie to Dazzle’s Archie, a flamboyant manchild whose sole mission in life is to thwart his rival and watch soft-core porn. Mousy Chrysalis Tate (Kate Mara), the single competent cop on the force and a welcome “straight man,” cleans up after the rest of them.
Someone surely pitched Moonbeam City in an elevator as Archer meets Miami Vice, though it also shares DNA with Venture Bros and South Park in an especially absurdist fettle. Neon-drenched, shimmery visuals make the show nice to watch; strangely, the pleasure principle behind viewing attractive actors also seems to apply to charismatically drawn cartoons. Which is to say: Dazzle is hot! (If you’re wondering why on Earth you should tune into the doings of an incompetent narcissist in crazytown, that’s one possible reason.)
In the second episode, Chrysalis fashions a metal dolphin suit so that Dazzle can interrogate real dolphins about a possible drowning murder. This leads to a dreamlike underwater sequence in which our hero cavorts with the pod to the strains of a song modeled on Toto’s “Africa.” (“The silver angels chart the course with their echolocation … I kiss the reef in Aquatica.”) Later, trapped in a CPR-training seminar, Dazzle yells that he has “better things to do than saving lives,” before jumping off the instructor’s head into an air vent so that he can escape to visit the cetacean, Splasha, with whom he’s fallen in love.
Should anyone be watching this? Does such unapologetic, relentless silliness add anything to the TV ecosystem, which already has Archer? Moonbeam City characters do not temper their funniness with humanity or complexity, as in Bob’s Burgers. They lack the melancholy, almost allegorical, quality of the BoJack Horseman cast. These characters are types—the glamorous, sexy, demanding police chief; the arrogant rival—but they’re not symbols. They don’t mean anything because there is nothing to mean. Scour Moonbeam City for a message and you’ll end up with a fart noise.
Yet it may be impossible to launch a cop show today that doesn’t somehow comment on our vexed moment in law enforcement. Police on Moonbeam City are not just incompetent; they’re malicious and brutal. In the third episode, all the officers in the force gather at the annual CopCon. While they meet an hour away from the metropolis, Moonbeam City’s criminal element decides that it feels “re-enfranchised” by the break from police violence. Gangsters and thugs start a grassroots movement to clean up the city and “replace hate with hugs.” The initiative fails when the cops return and open fire on the Huggers’ gospel choir.
Still, a heavy rotation of dick jokes and surrealist gags overshadows the darker commentary. (The climax of episode three occurs at Cop Prom, with Dazzle bafflingly dressed as Elvis.) In part this is because Moonbeam City has enough on its plate: The simple principle of all-in doofery must do surprisingly complex work. Take Dazzle’s head-scratcher of a witticism when he corners a perp. “I hope your brain’s hungry,” he says. “It’s having bullets for dinner.”
The joke—skewering hard-boiled detective-ese (and that annoying habit crime-fighting heroes can’t seem to shake of quipping their foes to death)—results in a blur of emotional responses. You feel smart because you recognize it’s stupid. You feel stupid because you’re laughing anyway. You feel, perhaps, a wave of identification with the character: He so clearly feels smart, just like you, even though he is stupid, just like (hopefully not but maybe?) you.
Insofar as it implies a profound misinterpretation of the laws governing reality, dumbness often registers as insanity in disguise. Watching Moonbeam City might make a viewer wonder about various anti-hallucinatory drugs. I almost empathize with the old lady who, in the opening minutes of the pilot episode, gets her purse snatched. “My pills are in there,” she quavers, and the thief grins at her in a hilarious parody of evil. “Also your lighter,” he says, upon which he throws the lighter at her and she bursts into flame.