‘The Heart, She Holler’ and PFFR’s Insane Trilogy of Ignorance
The production company PFFR, headlined by the infinitely unconventional Vernon Chatman, John Lee, and Alison Levy, have produced some of the most unique, challenging, (and naturally) hated programs to have graced Adult Swim, a channel already known for different, more absurd programming. In the past, PFFR created such brilliant experiments in television like MTV2’s Sesame Street-skewing, public-enraging Wonder Showzen, the CGI New Age-spouting, low-rated Xavier: Renegade Angel, or the most “mainstream” of their programs, Delocated, a series whose star is wearing a ski mask and has his voice modulated for its entirety.
But their latest entry, the Southern gothic, soap opera-aping, The Heart, She Holler, almost immediately proved that it was going to be PFFR’s weirdest entry yet, what with the David Lynch infused universe it takes place in, where a deceased magnate talking to his kin through an endless supply of VHS tapes is the most grounded aspect of the show. But when it began (or endginned, your call) in 2011, it was far from clear that it would be the final piece of a trilogy that PFFR has been telling nearly since they began. A trilogy of ignorance, racism, and destruction that started with Wonder Showzen, developed through Xavier: Renegade Angel, and is now finally coming into focus and concluded with what the third season of The Heart, She Holler has had to say.
It’s worth noting that while PFFR’s Delocated also contains many of these themes and more than the same twisted sense of humor, it is much more Jon Glaser’s brainchild, with PFFR merely being the conduit it moves through, which is why it is not included amongst PFFR’s mission statement on ignorance, racism, and destruction.
PFFR’s initial series, Wonder Showzen, employed the usual tropes of educational children’s programming, such as puppets, child interviews, and stock footage, while already volatile topics like politics, race, religion, war, and sex were explored gleefully. The result was deeply satirical, cynical television, containing segments like “Beat Kids,” where child reporters were seen out on “the beat.” Or episodes with stories about letters of the alphabet having body dysmorphia, the Number 2 dealing with suicidal thoughts, or Middle America enchanting everyone with its Stupid, essentially taking over the show and turning it into a mass-appealing, homogenized piece of trash called “Horse Apples.” PFFR illustrates that the force of the ignorant is overwhelming, not just by the idea of Middle America and “Horse Apples,” but that eventually this concept becomes so debilitating it completely silences Wonder Showzen, like later on where there’s an episode that’s entirely an outing of “Horse Apples.” The ignorant have succeeded, and this would just be the first time that PFFR would play with the idea of the enemy completely hijacking their show.
Xavier took all of the surrealism and perplexity of Wonder Showzen and threw it in a blender with peyote for good measure to create this fever dream of a show, one that often treats plot itself as an unnecessary detail, often flowing in an incoherent, nonlinear style, mirrored with the nonsensical, pseudo-esoteric ramblings of Xavier, your snake-armed, parrot-beaked cipher of a protagonist.
Xavier: Renegade Angel continues with many of the areas of interest that PFFR introduced in Wonder Showzen, like religion, sex, race, and Middle America, as the series is said to be “a warning to children and adults about the dangers of spirituality.” Once again, the danger here is to be uninformed and perpetuating the ignorance of America. Xavier is constantly using racial slurs and epithets randomly, removed from their meaning, as he tries to be affable with the new people he encounters. It’s a brilliant example of the power of words and labeling, and even though Xavier is spouting reprehensible things, it’s without meaning and treated as mundanely as asking for directions.
In spite of its spiraling nature, Xavier: Renegade Angel actually starts with the relatively simple, focused goal of Xavier seeking the answer to, “What doth life?” With this slowly expanding into Xavier’s general pursuit to do good and improve the world around him. Most episodes see Xavier wandering the desert, coming upon community after community, with each one seeming to be a different depiction of how morally bankrupt the world has become. Xavier is constantly encountering disturbed, backwards, stubborn subcultures that he tries to aid, but more often than not ends up confirming our thoughts on how wicked they were.
Returning to the idea of the ignorant growing in power and taking over the show, Xavier: Renegade Angel manages to somehow top Wonder Showzen’s fantastic “Horse Apples” hijacking with their two episodes, “Damnesia Vu” and its follow-up “Damnesia You,” both of which completely dismantle the show in the name of ignorance and destruction. The first segment is a sprawling, unruly mess that could be enough to lose viewers from the show permanently, but “Damnesia You” goes even further, by not only continuing this anarchy, but also having the episode be constructed solely from submitted fan art for a “Make Your Own Xavier” contest. This episode isn’t just hijacked by an intrusive, increasingly ignorant framework that you feel powerless to; it’s not even animated by the series! They have found a way to force shoddy, unprofessional content onto you, and it’s entirely sanctioned by the bizarre mentality of everything.
It’s not long before Xavier’s roving journey begins to feel obviously hopeless, but even his personal quests, like avenging his father’s death and finding his mother, become tainted and destroyed. He realizes that he himself is likely responsible for his father’s death, with his mother being a truly wicked, drug-addled, sex-driven witch who tried to abort Xavier in the womb. There are no possible happy endings here for Xavier. He might not even be given an ending at all, with most conclusions becoming ever more incestuous with the introductions that made them in the first place.
The Heart, She Holler much like Wonder Showzenand Xavier before it, has a deeply impressionable, innocent character at its core, in the form of Hurlan Heartshe. While the creatures of Wonder Showzen want to educate and Xavier is interested in improving human existence, Hurlan is almost devoid of a perspective at all. He’s a blank slate and at the bottom rung of a community of bottom-rungers. It’s only fitting that the audience surrogate in PFFR’s final piece of their trilogy is the bleakest, most ignorant version of humanity that we’ve seen yet.
Three seasons in, there are still no shortage of bizarre, unsettling images that are right out of nightmares, rendering your faculties even less prepared to deal with all of the ignorance, racism, and destruction that is being heaped on you.
Even the background, inconsequential patter here is feeding into the bigger themes at hand. The jokes that are told around the bar for instance are all racist, because what else is there to joke about besides other people’s differences? This is the world they live in. This is all that these inbred people know, and it’s consuming everything, even affable jokes at a bar.
Lurking behind all of this stupidity also lies the truly innovative concepts that PFFR is known for, like Hurlan being considered “too dumb to be killed,” and so he wanders the episode, holding his own severed head until he’s educated to be smart enough so he can die.
Eventually the key to all of this comes in the form of it being made public that Meemaw is actually Virginia Dare, the first white person in America, and this all becomes an extremely satirical parlay into racism and ignorance, the series itself acting as a de facto treaty on the corruption and spoiling of America. A revelation that’s not at all surprising, considering how race and ignorance became such tent poles on PFFR’s Wonder Showzen and Xavier: Renegade Angel. It’s even all too easy to envision Heartshe as one of the many podunk burbs that Xavier stumbles upon on his journeys, connecting all of this together further. Only this community needs more than a single episode to illustrate its point — it needs an entire series.
This final season of The Heart, She Holler even got rid of Hurlan two episodes in, who was the closest thing the show had to a moral center, with it now being allowed to focus purely on the holler and America as a whole, expanding its view to this perspective that spans three series. As the layers are pulled back further here, the revelation that Meemaw is immortal and is never supposed to die feeds nicely into the theory that the white race and bloodline are never supposed to be eradicated. They’re supposed to outlast everyone else and be all that’s left, and if that isn’t a love letter to racism, then I don’t know what is. This thinking goes even deeper down the rabbit hole when it’s revealed that Meemaw’s life support machine is actually powered by a Chinese slave worker energizing it from a crank inside.
Looking back, there’s an entire episode of Wonder Showzen focused on the history of America, which it simply reduces to slavery. It almost feels like this episode’s spiritual successor was finally found this year in the form of The Heart, She Holler’s “Klansgender Rights” episode, an installment that revolves around a grade-school pageant of America’s history, where prepubescents don Klan robes and lynch Abraham Lincoln for what he did to slavery.
While back discussing Wonder Showzen, it’s easy to see the evolution of PFFR’s larger argument here. It’s hard not to notice the disclaimer that opens every episode of Wonder Showzen:
Wonder Showzen contains offensive, despicable content that is too controversial and too awesome for actual children. The stark, ugly and profound truths Wonder Showzen exposes may be soul-crushing to the weak of spirit. If you allow a child to watch this show, you are a bad parent or guardian.
Even Xavier, a show that seemed to pride itself in not having a blueprint or guide to it, came with the caveat behind its TV-MA rating, due to it being “too morbid and too incomprehensible for young viewers.” Another wink at the device, albeit much less of one. While Wonder Showzen wore this discretion on its sleeve, almost poking fun at the device, the warnings are so subliminal at this point in The Heart, She Holler, introductory text is replaced with non sequitur pirate footage from the backwoods. This is your warning. This is where we’re all heading — there’s no point in telling you to be careful, we’re just going to show you the pig monsters we all become.
It’s important to be aware that all three of these shows are a commentary on the destruction of our world, but it’s even more crucial to understand that it’s just as much about the rebirth through that destruction. Wonder Showzen’s first season finale is an episode that plays its first act, and then after realizing it made no sense, spends its entire second act re-playing the first act in reverse to undo it’s damage. You’re literally seeing something new being birthed from broken footage here. Xavier: Renegade Angel takes this theme one step further by the first season ending with an infinite regression loop of Xavier locked in battle against his double, the entire thing folding in on itself without it being any clearer towards who won or lost, the episode breaking and ending before anything’s resolved.
The series even ends with Xavier finding his long-lost mother in an insane asylum and then ultimately having sex with her. The experience causes Xavier to suddenly look “human,” with the doctor (who now resembles what Xavier used to look like) telling him that there’s nothing wrong with him, and he’s finally thinking clearly. Your series ends by essentially telling you that Xavier’s been crazy the entire time and that the version of the show you’ve been watching wasn’t even the “real” one. This ending is just as much a beginning as this new reality is settled into.
Now, we see the completion of this cycle in The Heart, She Holler, a show whose understanding of life and death has been in flux from the start, with episode titles even blurring the lines between these two dichotomies, with concepts like, the “begend” and the “endginning” while other titles push reversals like, “Death Begins at Conception.”
There’s also the much more blatant idea being held to that at the end of each season, the universe as we know it seems to be destroyed or reset, disaster awaiting the conclusion each year. But each time, an alternate reality seems to form and come together. This latest season pushes this to its apex where dialogue from alternate realities begins to invade, becoming overbearing and finishing peoples’ sentences to the point of nearly breaking the episode and making it unwatchable.
The Heart, She Holler also begins to frequently use the infinite regression loop technique (as well as scenes fading over top and into each other), just like PFFR did in Xavieras a means of signifying a new reality being born. As hundreds of images of Hurlan repeat into themselves, maybe this isn’t just a new reality being created. Maybe this has literally been going on for over hundreds of times now, with this just being another misguided, failed attempt to get it right and being doomed to repeat it.
So it’s only appropriate that the end of The Heart, She Holler culminates in the biggest example of rebirth coming from destruction yet, with characters overtly screaming about how the world is coming to an end. Time literally runs out for the universe, and then Hambrosia snorts lines of what’s left in the hourglass as she proceeds to become omnipotent and kill every single character from the show.
When “The Comening” does happen, the entire universe get swallowed and regurgitated as we see doubles intermingling as they listen to a recording of Jimmy Carter (and eventually two Jimmy Carters in tandem) talk about progress and the growth of America. It explicitly even mentions the “rebirth of the American spirit” as we essentially watch a videocassette play for the entirety of the episode. The whole universe is basically chastised and educated to become everything they weren’t. It’s like the end of The X-Files or Lost, where it’s just information being thrown at you, but here it serves the purpose of fixing everything that’s been wrong for three series now. It’s essentially a lecture for America.
Their point has finally been made. It might have been a sprawling, thorough one that took several series to do so, but it’s at last been done. With this area being so eloquently wrapped up, it’s exciting to see what themes and constants PFFR will decide to tackle in whatever they do next, assuming this is the last of The Heart, She Holler (and it certainly seems that way considering how all of this ends). Regardless, it’s going to be some unique, unparalleled brand of crazy, whether it’s something new they explore, or if they return to the same reliable well. Although at this point, they really don’t need to anymore.
You can only reset the universe so many times, after all.