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Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

'Apocalypse Now'-ish: Exploring and Understanding 'Eagleheart's Ambitious Latest Season

Where would Jaws be without its malfunctioning mecha-shark? Or Apocalypse Now and its malfunctioning mecha-Brando? The unintentional influence of circumstance can lead to some unpredictable and wonderful things, and that is certainly the case with the most recent season of Adult Swim’s Eagleheart (entirely available online).

The Jason Woliner-helmed project, starring Chris Elliott, Maria Thayer, and Brett Gelman and co-written by Woliner, Michael Koman, and Andrew Weinberg, has always flown under the radar on Adult Swim, despite an impressive list of guest stars (Conan O'Brien, Dean Norris, Ben Stiller, Mickey Rooney, and most recently, Joe Estevez) and a steady output of bizarre scenarios. The show recently wrapped up its third season and its first serial story arc, essentially one long Eagleheart movie told in 10 parts. The story and structure were shaped by a number of complications during production, and the result was an unexpected masterpiece: Eagleheart: Paradise Rising.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW

The most clear change this season was the move to a serial story arc. For a show that has, in the past, shown a blatant disregard for continuity, there's a different set of challenges inherent to relating the quest for Brett Mobley in over 700 chapters (of which we see the 10 "most interesting"). It's always difficult to balance the forward momentum of the main story while remaining true to the show's tendency to morph suddenly into something completely different at a moment's notice. Jason Woliner credits that balance to the writers "sitting in a room and talking through it until ideas connected in unexpected ways and started to make a certain kind of sense." One example is the climactic scene from arguably the season's best episode, "Spats," which finds Chris Monsanto and company stumbling upon an underground colony of grown-up shoeshine boys and erupts into a giant, absurd battle by the episode's end.

While each side story is its own bizarre little gem (a man enslaves mutated clones of himself to form a prog-rock band, in one of the more grounded detours), they all add at least some small piece to the underlying puzzle (that band recorded the only album that can guide you through the labyrinthine KillZone, naturally). There's a nice overarching focus on the strangers and supporting members of the community throughout this season in particular, and it adds a lot of darkness to the show. The pace is less manic, and the universe that unfolds outside the realm of Marshalling is a very strange one indeed. According to Woliner, the show is at its most exciting when it "goes off in directions one wouldn’t normally expect, and often that involves following stories and characters like Bernard Moss, Dr. Gardner, and others. And it’s also been really fun, the more episodes we’ve done, to try and expand the world in a Springfield-like way."

Several story ideas had to be scrapped due to actors being unavailable. The romantic relationship between Chris and Tess would have ended in Brett (and to a larger degree, the Devil himself) revealing that he had been Tess, the whole time, and that yes, they did have actual sex. When guest star Paz De La Huerta was unavailable for a second shoot, it became just one of a number of failed relationships that Chris has on his journey. It's a less ridiculous resolution, but by the end of Paradise Rising, Chris Monsanto is a less ridiculous man. In a similar vein, a minute-long flashback revealing that Brett/the Devil had in fact been everybody that Chris had encountered throughout the season (with Gelman re-dubbing all of the voices) had to be cut due to union rules — they would have had to re-pay all the actors, which proved to be too costly. "It may have been overkill, anyway," admits Woliner.

But the ending we get to Paradise Rising is messier and leaves the audience with some questions. People died, maybe. Woliner elaborates, "We were sort of able to put in every ending we considered, in typical Eagleheart-pile-on fashion. We had figured out the Brett stuff from I believe the first or second week of writing. That final ending moment came a little later, but we basically knew how we wanted it to end from pretty early on. There was one beat after Brett hits the floor where you see he’s still alive and the lagging made no difference because he’s the devil. We ultimately thought it wasn’t necessary and better to give Chris one tiny moment of victory before the next massive gut-punch. Plus the bigger 'Everyone was actually Brett' sequence." Depending on how you perceive how 'real' Chris's reality is in the end, we may have met only figments of a tortured man's imagination. Or a real universe constructed and destroyed again and again by a godlike madman. The ambiguity really blows out the show's previously-established surrealism.

Another major difference between Paradise Rising and past seasons was the diminished role of Brett Gelman as Brett Mobley. Gelman was unavailable due to a contractual commitment to the NBC sitcom Go On. Gelman’s contract only allowed Eagleheart to have him for two episodes, which brought about the idea for this season's framework. When Go On was canceled (and Who the #$@! Are My Roomates, the sky-lot within “Eagleheart”, which is also canceled is purely coincidental. Not a jab at Go On, but merely eerie prescience), they were able to include Gelman in "Grandy", one of the standout episodes of the season. Having promised the network that there would be more “'on the run'/stand-alone stories" after the fourth episode, the writers were having a hard time fitting everything into 11 minutes, which resulted in the half-hour long "Grandy" (the first and final episodes were also double-length). It's a perfect, haunting episode, a wonderful Sam Beckett-esque digression taking place in some other time with a Chris and Brett that are not exactly Chris and Brett. It's a taste of the unrealities that are to come later.

The network's desire for stand-alone stories led to the excellent "Joe," "Spats," and "America," all of which would have felt at home in the previous non-serialized seasons with a few minor adjustments. "America" had even been one of the two episodes that Adult Swim rejected during the second season. Each of these episodes opens up the universe a little bit more and piles on a little more human tragedy. It can be a hard transition for a show to move away from a "villain of the week" format to exploring larger patterns, but sometimes, as with Paradise Rising, you can have both.

The loss of Brett darkens the tone in another way — without a buffer between Chris and Brett, the Chris/Susie relationship becomes increasingly rough. They were assigned to Chris in tandem for a reason, and without Brett's comic relief, Susie crumbles quickly under Chris's full attention. She tries to work out her frustrations with the Ap'p'pals, but the best she can do is make the Ap'p'pals' stories 'so bad it's good.' By the end, neither Chris nor Susie can remember why they even set out on this journey.

So does the future of Eagleheart include more serialized experimentation or a return to the old order of storytelling? "We have no idea what’s next or if anything’s next for Eagleheart," explains Woliner. "We wrote the finale to be a pretty definitive ending. I’m not sure we could top that or where we’d go if we did more. But never say never, I guess?" With this final episode, which covers a lot of territory, there was a chance that it was going to only be 11 minutes due to financial and programming reasons, instead of the full half-hour it was allotted. With a whole season riding on the catharsis of this resolution, Woliner says, "We had zero plan. [Adult Swim exec] Mike [Lazzo] told us that that if we impressed him enough with the finale, it would have to happen." But as is usually the case with Eagleheart, justice prevailed, and the show got the full-sized season finale it deserves.

 

Daniel Kurland is a writer and comedian out of Brooklyn, New York.

Chelsea Gamble is a writer out of Toronto, Ontario.