Warning: This feature contains spoilers for the fourth season of ‘Mr. Pickles’ and the more recent seasons of ‘Archer’
Dedicated fans of Adult Swim’s Mr. Pickles quarter-hour animated series eagerly waited over a year and a half after the conclusion of the show’s third season for new episodes. Much like in the previous season finales of the series, Mr. Pickles’ third season ended on a seismic cliffhanger that ran the risk of turning the entire premise of the series on its ear. Past seasons of Mr. Pickles have found clever ways to weasel their way out of these seemingly dead ends. Viewers have almost come to expect that the Satanic Mr. Pickles will pull one over on them and Tommy’s Grandpa as everything returns to status quo. It’s for that reason that the fourth season premiere of Mr. Pickles comes as such a shock.
The fourth season premiere, “The Tree of Flesh,” plays out like so many other season premieres, but in its final moments the good guys finally get the upper hand on Mr. Pickles. The dog is viciously killed and even though a new female puppy spawn—a Ms. Pickles—gets born in the episode’s final moments, this seems to be the end of this villainous canine’s story. When the following episode begins, not only are Mr. Pickles and the Goodman family now largely afterthoughts, but the show is re-branded as something new entirely, Momma Named Me Sheriff.
In this respect, Mr. Pickles’ season four premiere also doubles as its series finale as the cartoon pivots over to the exploits of Sheriff. This is a controversial move that upset much of the Mr. Pickles fandom, but it marks an interesting shift that has been happening in the animation community. When creators formerly got bored with their series, they would simply end that show and start something new. It’s entirely possible that Will Carsola and Dave Stewart were tired with Mr. Pickles and interested in ending the series after its third season. However, the opportunity to turn the show into a showcase for Sheriff is what persuaded them to continue production. In this sense, a Mr. Pickles “spin-off” that still exists in the same universe may still be more appealing to fans than no Mr. Pickles related content at all. Or worse yet, a version of Mr. Pickles that continues, but with none of the passion that brought it to life in the first place.
Momma Named Me Sheriff also feels like a natural progression of where Mr. Pickles’ storytelling has been heading. The series’ second and third season featured an increasing amount of episodes that focused on the show’s supporting characters (like Sheriff) rather than Mr. Pickles and the Goodman family. Episodes like “A.D.D.” and “Tommy’s Cartoon” basically operate as backdoor pilots for entirely different shows that hint at a degree of boredom with the core concept of their series. The fourth season of Mr. Pickles could have just as easily morphed into Astronaut Dolphin Detective due to the experimental groundwork of the show’s past episodes. There have been brief glimpses of the Goodman family and “Ms. Pickles” in Momma Named Me Sheriff, but time will tell if this change is permanent or just a season-long diversion.
Carsola and Stewart’s shift towards Momma Named Me Sheriff is a big risk, but it’s one that feels increasingly possible due to the ambitious direction that certain long-running cartoons have taken. South Park is now in its 23rd and has experimented with its storytelling in the past, but this year marks one of their biggest shifts yet. Right down to the show’s opening theme song, South Park has turned into Tegridy Farms, a Randy Marsh-centric spin-off that exists within the same series. Tegridy Farms has dominated the first half of this season, while the remainder of episodes continue to provide commentary on the spin-off structure. Each new installment is ostensibly a new potential South Park spin-off that centers around a new batch of supporting characters (PC Babies, One For the Ladies). It’s a wildly inventive way for the series to stay fresh, while also parodying the medium of television itself. What Mr. Pickles has done this year is no different.
This strategy also allows the supporting characters of Mr. Pickles’ universe to get examined in fulfilling new ways that perhaps wouldn’t be possible within the original series. This means that if Momma Named Me Sheriff ever does revert back to Mr. Pickles, the characters around Tommy and the titular dog will now have new context and a greater significance. As much as Momma Named Me Sheriff or South Park’s Tegridy Farms run are reboots, they don’t abandon the series’ main universe; they just explore it through a different perspective.
It’s also worth addressing that live-action series are also no stranger to attempting “backdoor pilots” or drastically changing their premise mid-way through the show’s run. While this practice has been happening for decades, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon for animated series. Furthermore, it’s an idea that’s easier for cartoons to embrace on a more substantial level. It’s significantly easier to draw new characters and environments rather than building new sets and scouting additional locations. There’s a level of freedom here that’s unique to animation and series are finally starting to fully take advantage of this.
It’s taken South Park over two decades to turn to this creative avenue of storytelling to keep the show fresh, but the popular animated series Archer has been ambitiously pulling this stunt since their fifth season. Archer: Vice famously featured the cast of characters shift their talents from spy work to drug running. It was a major change for the series, but one that Executive Producer Matt Thompson explained to Uproxx as being essential for the series’ survival:
“He [Adam Reed] is the sole writer of the show and he felt like he was spinning his wheels at some point…We decided to change everything because we were bored and because we just want to make the show that makes us interested and happy in the end.”
As big of a change as Archer: Vice was, it turned out to merely be the tip of the iceberg for the series. Now about to enter their tenth season, each year of Archer has radically reinvented itself, whether it’s turned itself into a film noir (Archer: Dreamland), a spoof of jungle adventure serials (Archer: Danger Island), or even sending the characters into space (Archer: 1999). Archer has turned into the crowning example of how a series should be allowed to reboot itself as many times as it wants, as long as it stays true to the series’ characters. Even back on Adam Reed and Matt Thompson’s former series, Frisky Dingo, they drastically mixed things up for the show’s second season. Frisky Dingo shifted into a political documentary that turned its superhero and villain into Presidential candidates.
Even before series like Archer were playing around with rebooting their premise, smaller productions like Aqua Teen Hunger Force were also quietly playing around with the idea. The show’s eighth season rebranded itself as Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1 and placed a new plot on the series where the cast goes to the future and become crime fighters. The show’s premise basically resets after that season, but every year moving forward changes its name and theme song to something different that pokes fun at the series’ longevity (such as Aqua Something You Know Whatever).
The commonality between all of these shows is that these reboots came at times when the series felt creatively out of steam. Not only did these reboots allow these series to stay afloat, but it also reinvigorated them in new ways and allowed them to gain an exciting fresh perspective on their original premise. In spite of how cartoons like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Archer, and South Park all abandoned their original ideas, they’ve also all returned back to them after enough experimentation was allowed. So while Mr. Pickles’ shift to Momma Named Me Sheriff may still be abrasive and unappealing to some, it may still be too soon to tell where this new direction is fully headed (or if it will continue to transform). Then again, a year away from telling stories about a murderous dog may be all that this series needs to rediscover its bliss. As this spin-off reboot approach becomes more normalized, series like The Simpsons or Family Guy may also even turn down this route in an effort to keep things fresh.
We may only be a few seasons away from Momma Named Me Wiggum or Family Guy: Vice.