Revisiting ‘Xavier: Renegade Angel,’ a 21st Century Traumedy
November marked the ten-year anniversary of Adult Swim’s broadcast of Xavier: Renegade Angel, a show that spanned two ten-episode seasons and for a small, rabid viewership still represents the crowning achievement of irreverent art collective PFFR. Known for working on the sidelines to help realize misfit comedy shows like truTV’s At Home with Amy Sedaris, PFFR unleashes its full creative writing/directing power for projects on the fringes of cable television: MTV2’s Wonder Showzen (2005-2006), Adult Swim’s The Heart, She Holler (2011-2014) and, of course, Xavier. And while Wonder Showzen is recognizable as sketch comedy and The Heart, She Holler as a satirical soap, Xavier: Renegade Angel stands out as a puzzlement of form with its Second Life graphical environs and sphinxlike protagonist.
Each episode of Xavier starts with an unapologetic onslaught of philosophical diatribes and pun-filled verbiage issuing from a goat-legged snake-armed bird-beaked bear-haired dudebrah-voiced humanoid, who wanders like an awkward shaman in a computer-generated desert of dunes, buttes, and canyons. In a roughly serialized formula, the narcissistic Xavier unleashes his abusive presence on an unassuming town located somewhere along the nether regions of this abstract arid biome, usually causing a town-wide (or civilization-wide) catastrophe.
Even in the context of PFFR’s twisted endeavors, the show’s blend of form and content is a brilliant anomaly. Compare the following two clips from Wonder Showzen and The Heart, She Holler:
In each, the heavily scripted and heady style of PFFR is on full display. Nonetheless, neither of the first two shows delve as wholeheartedly into the soup of garbled, nonsensical sense that Xavier effortlessly swims through. The show embodies a magical and rather ineffable marriage of concept and execution. (I may try to get a conspiracy going by planting the seed that Cinematico, the animation studio behind Xavier, was concurrently working on Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie Game during the show’s production.)
To say the least, Xavier is a blink-and-you-miss it psychotropic ride, and the rare viewer who stuck with the show for its two-season run had a lot to chew on. Many, such as the vlogger behind the Malmrose Projects, have relished dissecting the show’s bundle of syncretized symbols, with conclusions along the lines of “Xavier represents the culmination of everything wrong with pluralistic, liberal Western culture.” However, this article isn’t about analyzing symbols and references, but instead revisiting the experience of PFFR-ian traumatic comedy — “traumedy,” if you will — ten years on. The abrasive and unselfconscious animal man named Xavier delivers rapid, whirlwind soliloquies layered with triple entendres and regressive sex jokes. The frenetic computerized camera movements and cuts, as well as the metamorphosing of the characters and scenery, are in cahoots with Xavier’s firehose of lines, which compound into a sensory battering ram. Xavier is on one level a comedy-by-assault, an explosion of wordplay, and a ridiculousness of images that the average viewer can only take in piecemeal. (Just try to recall the finer points of an episode’s plotline directly after viewing it.)
Another level of the show’s trauma is the abundance of more-than-politically-incorrect, mentally jarring images, disturbing bodily contortions, and psychological abuses: in one episode Xavier draws blackface on a demonic child (in crayon) to cure a bereaving black couple; in another he steals and wears the skin of a deceased husband to blend in with a suburban family; in yet another he gets stuck in an upside-down, ass-to-mouth Heimlich maneuver position with an ethnically multifarious mob boss. The frequent violence and depravity of the show’s content works as a mirror of the violence and depravity wrought every day in the name of neo-liberal (white) culture, but still registers as violence nonetheless. Rewatching the series ten years later, as each transpiring plot unearths its forgotten grotesqueries, is not unlike a virtual reality immersion therapy session.
And it’s only in coming to terms with the repression-worthy details of Xavier that one can begin to take heed of the larger patterns across episodes. The first season’s main thread is Xavier’s search for his father’s killer, and the second season’s is his search for his mother’s whereabouts. To say that PFFR brings both of these throughlines to their Oedipal conclusions undercuts the elegance by which Xavier’s writers (Vernon Chatman, John Lee, Alyson Levy, Jim Tozzi) marry a post-9/11 retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy with the story of a belligerently self-ignorant gadfly’s Freudian awakening. In other words, Xavier kills his father and sleeps with his mother.
In the muck of cultural amnesia that is television, where a restaging of a Greek tragedy is already rare, it is a strange wonder that Xavier’s repeated episodic premises draw heavily from the early television serials Cheyenne (1955-1963) and Kung Fu (1972-1975). Cheyenne’s plot follows a lone, American West-wandering, parentless character raised by Native Americans (Xavier is shown in flashbacks to be begrudgingly mentored by a Native American sage) who visits a new town with a new cast of characters in each episode; Kung Fu follows a lone, American West-wandering, Shaolin-trained David Carradine, whose desert treks and Shaolin Master’s teachings Xavier is explicitly drawing from in its introductory sequences and flashbacks. Add to these roots that episodes routinely reap the dregs of dopey television tropes (Bosom Buddies and generic Christmas specials in the case of “Going Normal”), and Xavier begins to look like a not-so-subtle satire of the entire medium. PFFR ends one episode with a “shattered” screen and a line from Xavier: “Your television just shat…turd” — a dual sendup of television and Xavier.
Xavier’s self-assurance in its own historical context stands starkly opposed to the fog of television’s history. For a show whose narrative arc develops and resolves squarely in twenty brief episodes, the decision to draw heavily on the structure of never-ending serials could be read as a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of the serialized spectacle, an illustration of the meaninglessness of a show that will always crap out a new episode to distract us each week. Nonetheless, the junky, repeated form of “Xavier comes to another town and chaos ensues” keeps viewers returning while a deeper, Oedipal plot lurks in the shallows. Therein lies the snickering paradox of PFFR’s fraught relationship with TV as a mass medium and their fitting place on the Adult Swim roster, whose tagline from the start might well have been “A Midnight Metacritique of Mass Culture.”
So what does all this reconciling with the hidden crannies of Xavier teach us? Easy. Don’t kill your dad and don’t sleep with your mother — a snappy blast-from-the-ancient-past reminder for all those would-be-Weinsteins out there in whose hands lay the future of our declining civilization. (Or maybe it’s not so easy, in the way that an ill-willed missive against the genocidal follies of white liberal American imperialist culture is not easy. How many people are open to swallowing pills that big?)
Oh, and Xavier says you should turn off your television when you get the chance… (in 2017-speak that means your phoneputerdome)…
…okay, so basically you should just take a look at Xavier, or a second look…it’s free, you dingï.
Max Carpenter is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, writer and crossword constructor. His online presence is limited to Twitter and email. You can have his Twitter and if you’re really lucky you might get his email.