Maybe Dave is highly gifted, but the writers of this season certainly aren’t.
Dave Alberts is an incredibly awkward high schooler. From the baseball pitch to parties to just hanging out with his friends, Dave’s terrible social skills make everyone uncomfortable. Think Family Guy meets Curb Your Enthusiasm, but served up in bite-size three-minute sketches. A cringe comedy for the modern era.
I’m going to be perfectly blunt here—I have a difficult time connecting with Highly Gifted. Perhaps the problem lies in its three-minute episode structure, which makes it difficult flesh out jokes fully and doesn’t allow audiences to feel like they know the characters well. The proportion of ads to actual content is frankly ridiculous. But then again, Hetalia never fails to keep me invested and make me laugh, and its episodes are only five minutes long. So I’m beginning to think that Highly Gifted’s problem lies not in its time constraints, but in the way it chooses to fill that time.
For starters, the show just can’t seem to figure out its tone. Some adult animation shows, like South Park, use shock humor to laugh at the serious issues plaguing our society. Other shows, like Bob’s Burgers, opt for a more slice-of-life approach, laughing at the little things that make life weird while mostly refraining from commenting on current events. Highly Gifted can’t seem to decide which way it wants to go. The episode “Do Your Part” tries to make an intelligent commentary on hypocrisy, classism, and climate change (whether or not it’s successful is another conversation entirely). But in “Police Department Witness,” serious contemporary issues like Nazism, the police, and school violence are brought up too casually; these hot-button topics serve as a mere backdrop for what we’re really supposed to be laughing at, which is just Dave’s awkwardness. Other episodes like “Truth or Liar” or “Magic Flute” ignore societal satire entirely in favor of trite, generic anecdotes about high school discomfort. If I were to explain Highly Gifted to a friend, it would be hard to describe the show’s tone or genre or intentions, because all of these things are just so inconsistent.
But my main problem with Highly Gifted season two is that it doesn’t take any risks at all. If I were so inclined, I could probably fill a book with all the weird, incredibly specific things that happened to me in high school, stuff that I’ve never seen depicted on a TV show before. I mean, there are so many shows about high school. The only real reason to make a new one is if you have an idea that no one has done. But Highly Gifted doesn’t really seem to have a premise other than “Haha, isn’t high school awkward.” Dave pretends to have a girlfriend. Dave pretends to be better at sports than he is. Dave tries to gain more Instagram followers. Dave is skinny and wants to work out. None of these plotlines are interesting. They’re so generic that, instead of being relatable to everyone, they become monotonous and overdone and relatable to no one. Occasionally individual jokes or episodes will work well—the season finale “Han Wars” stands out for its amusing dialogue—but those are exceptions rather than the norm.
The show’s premise also depends on the audience’s ability to laugh at an underdog. I’m not one of those guys who thinks nerds are systematically oppressed by the U.S. government, but at least in my high school experience, it was true that kids who were good at school, who were socially awkward, who didn’t play sports or go on a lot of dates, were bullied and picked on by the other students. The show encourages us to engage in and identify with the practice of making fun of people for being different. And in “Police Department Witness,” we learn that Dave, who is Jewish, literally lives in fear of neo-Nazis bringing knives to school. So maybe this is just because I’m a nerdy Jewish guy, but it’s difficult for me to delight in Dave’s failures. This show makes me feel bad for him, which can’t be what it’s supposed to do; after all, why would anyone watch a three-minute sketch tragedy series?
As for the production quality of this season, I do have to admit it’s reasonably well-done. Ron Funches (Jerry) and Drake Bell (Alan) have pretty good comedic timing. The animation isn’t particularly visually interesting, but the show is surprisingly progressive when it comes to showcasing a variety of body types onscreen. And often, little details in the characters’ environment, ones that you would only notice on a second watch, are funnier than the actual jokes being verbally told. But the show is made up of several short video clips strung together, and the pauses between these clips are often timed badly and take away from immersion in the scene. Also, the show relies too much on visual “gross” humor. Someone having crumbs on their face isn’t going to make the dialogue any funnier.
All in all, I don’t think Highly Gifted season two is awful. It’s deeply mediocre, which means that even hate-watching it wouldn’t be particularly fun.