The Cult Classic Comedy Central Animated Series That Didn’t Become The Next South Park

 

Comedy Central is a television network with plenty of milestones, but one of their biggest accomplishments is without a doubt how they’ve made history with South Park. The crude animated series appeared to be a novelty to many during its first year, but now over two decades, 300 episodes, and thousands of expletives later, Comedy Central’s South Park is one of the biggest and most successful animated series of all-time.

The fortune that Comedy Central experienced with South Park naturally had the network eager to create more animated hits that they could pair up with their cartoon juggernaut. Between The Daily Show, Broad City, and Kroll Show, Comedy Central has no shortage of success stories, but it’s been a lot harder for them to find winners in animation. South Park isn’t going anywhere for a while, but two other Comedy Central cartoons—Ugly Americans and Moonbeam City—were briefly poised to be the network’s next big shows. Until they weren’t.

Set in an alternate version on New York City, Ugly Americans focuses on Mark Lilly, a human social worker at the Department of Integration, in a world that’s full of all sorts of demons and supernatural entities. This inventive spin on a workplace sitcom and a “fish out of water” story detail Mark’s efforts to obtain a peaceful life and assist the helpless demons that surround him. Mark is an effective audience surrogate for this bizarre world, but each episode contains unbelievable creatures and fresh subversions for traditional monsters.

The rich world that’s present in Ugly Americans actually originated in an animated webseries that was made by Devin Clark for Comedy Central’s website called 5 On with Alan Whiter. The webseries models itself after a tabloid news program and each installment features interviews with “five of anything about everything.” The various episodes feature chats with aliens, robots, zombies, demons and more, all on frivolous topics like obscene rap, celebrity romances, or the ending of The Sopranos.

5 On with Alan Whiter doesn’t just introduce the monster- and demon-filled world of Ugly Americans, but it also introduces most of the show’s main cast (or prototype versions of them). When it came time for Devin Clark to flesh out Ugly Americans, it was a smart idea to not start over entirely from scratch, but rather to look towards some of the more popular characters that they had already experimented with. 5 On gained lots of acclaim and the episodes were even written by the likes of John Mulaney, Nick Kroll, and Pete Holmes. The success of 5 On for Comedy Central led to Devin Clark teaming up with Simpsons alum, David M. Stern, to develop Ugly Americans for Comedy Central proper. This led to an initial order of seven episodes, which was later extended. By the time of its cancellation, Ugly Americans would air 31 episodes across two seasons.

Stern’s influence was evident on the series and there are definitely moments where Ugly Americans does conjure that classic Simpsons energy, albeit in a radically different context. The show only lasted two seasons, but in that time there’s considerable growth seen within the cast and Mark goes through several changes regarding his profession as well as his love life with co-worker and succubus, Callie Maggotbone. It’d be easy for Ugly Americans to get lost in broad monster gags, but the series quickly finds an emotional core and believable character development. There’s an incredibly human story going on within this series that’s all about demons.

Ugly Americans was creative and ambitious, but the series impressively applied this level of dedication to their supplemental web content, too. In order to help promote the show’s second season, Ugly Americans produced Friends Of Ugly Americans (or FUGLY), a live-action web series where supernatural monsters talk about how the cartoon, Ugly Americans, has helped them cope through life or validate their existence. FUGLY features creatures like a zombie, merman, a succubus, and a three-headed hydra man, all of which look amazing in live-action. If Ugly Americans had become a hit, it’s entirely possible that more of Friends Of Ugly Americans could have been made or that it could have even turned into a proper spin-off. It’s still a smart idea that speaks to the versatility of Ugly Americans. Imagine if South Park would do a series of live-action shorts for promotional tools!

In spite of the series’ cult audience, Ugly Americans was able to spawn two video games before it went off the air, a point-and-click browser game called Citizen Ugly, and a more robust shoot-’em-up title for PS3 and Xbox 360 called Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon. It’s encouraging to see the level of synergy that was present and clearly there was interest to try and broaden the show’s audience, but it was all ultimately unsuccessful and couldn’t save the program.

In fact, Ugly Americans’ ratings continued to struggle and drop off during the show’s second season, but the cancellation still wasn’t an easy one for the network. The decision to ax the program actually came at the very last minute just because Comedy Central was so determined to try every method possible to keep the program afloat, including reaching out to outside financers. The series’ creator Devin Clark expressed interest in keeping Ugly Americans alive through web shorts or a graphic novel continuation, but none of these alternatives came to pass.

In 2014 several years after its cancellation, Ugly Americans surprisingly had one final hurrah in the form of an interactive storytelling app. Users were able to play their way through stories as they made limited choices for the characters. It was a nice bonus for fans of the show, but not the kind of push necessary to get the series revived. All of this at least exhibits a level of dedication to the property that certainly was not present later with Moonbeam City.

Ugly American fans were thrown an unusual life preserver when a two-hour marathon of the series was aired without commercial breaks during Memorial Day of 2019. Curiously, this celebration of the series happened on Adult Swim, not Comedy Central, which is perhaps a slim hint that the program could permanently show up on the network in a syndicated capacity. The loss of Ugly Americans was significant for Comedy Central, but it didn’t completely discourage them towards finding a new animated partner for South Park.

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Created by Scott Gairdner, Moonbeam City premiered in September of 2015 and it had more fanfare than what most Comedy Central cartoons receive. The series featured an enviable cast of voice talent that was led by Rob Lowe, Elizabeth Banks, Kate Mara, and Will Forte. That’s seriously a phenomenal cast and the guest stars that appeared in the program also featured sizable talent like Peter Serafinowicz, Kate McKinnon, and Catherine O’Hara. The neon-drenched animated series operates as a parody of the procedural cop programs of yesteryear, but what made the show stand out so much was its unique art design.

Moonbeam City’s psychedelic look is reminiscent of Patrick Nagel’s artwork, film noir aesthetics, and the character models from the anime, City Hunter. Instantly it looked different than anything that had ever aired on Comedy Central and it still features some of the most stunning scenery and exterior shots that have been on the network. To top all of this off, Moonbeam City contains a synth-heavy soundtrack performed by the band, Night Club, that perfectly evokes that grunge-y era of the ’80s.

Aesthetically Moonbeam City is a surreal trip, but the show works hard to establish the strange world that these characters inhabit. Nothing is normal and even something as perfunctory as character names are turned into nonsense like Dazzle, Pizzaz, Chrysalis, or Mayor Eo Jaxxon. Even the drugs that the police are trying to take off the streets have heightened names like “Glitzotrene.” The whole show is a neon fever dream that cannot be woken up from.

Episodes take unexpected turns and deal with dolphin-nappings, stunt racing, the excess of true crime reenactments, or a serial killer whose kills are all based on the bizarre “strike visualization” sequences that occur in bowling alleys. Each episode shows off a different morally bankrupt facet of Moonbeam City and while the first few episodes take some time to find their footing, the series soon reaches a confident place and understands what it is.

The storytelling may not immediately click for everyone, but Moonbeam City’s characterization is another one of its greatest assets. Everyone in this cast is beyond committed to unhinged performances. Everyone excels as they work their way through these police parodies, but Rob Lowe and Will Forte are exceptional. Lowe channels a confident bravado that only accentuates Dazzle Novak’s oblivious nature. Forte goes full man-baby with his performance as Rad Cunningham and his character ricochets between seething rage and whining, but is always entertaining.

The show also repeatedly engages in conversations about how the police are really the worst thing present in Moonbeam City and that the community would actually thrive if these inept cops were taken out of the picture. Moonbeam City wasn’t attempting to be overtly political or stir any pots, but it’s interesting to note that the show does actually have something to say about the abuses of authority and how the police can often be the cause of problems, not the solution.

Another abrasive way in which Moonbeam City tried to stand out is the way in which it embraced music and spectacle. Even if everything else in Moonbeam City turned out to be a disaster, these absurd musical numbers almost justify the whole series. Not even in Bob’s Burgers are you going to find a water-based parody song set to Toto’s “Africa.” There’s such careful attention and detail put into these numbers and with music being such a huge part of the show’s energy it seems like these songs could have become a regular feature in Moonbeam City. For sythwave fans, Night Club’s soundtrack for the show should be mandatory listening.

Moonbeam City wasn’t as well received with critics as Ugly Americans (although it did receive an Annie nomination), and many viewers were quick to dismiss the show as a lesser and more neon version of Archer. Archer and Moonbeam City may both share some DNA in the sense that they revolve around organizations of authority, but a deeper look will highlight just how different they are. Moonbeam City has a penchant for the same fast-paced, irreverent dialogue that Archer is used to spitting out, but Moonbeam City is a show that’s much more interested in elaborate pastiches. The program operates as a police procedural, but the magnitude of crimes that are covered in a mere ten episodes show more range than the entire first few seasons of Archer.

 

With rampant imagination on display in both Ugly Americans and Moonbeam City, it’s sensible that Comedy Central would slot both programs to follow South Park and hope to use the established show’s success to the newcomers’ advantage. Ugly Americans was able to make this pairing work and their first season saw over two million viewers thanks to South Park’s lead in. However, in the case of Moonbeam City, the program wasn’t even able to maintain 20% of South Park’s ratings. This level of drop-off viewership isn’t unprecedented, but what is is how Comedy Central responded to the problem. The second half of Moonbeam City’s season was quietly banished away to air at 1 AM, which was pretty much proof of an impending cancellation. Most viewers weren’t even aware of the post-midnight timeslot and it felt like Comedy Central wanted to just bury the show and pretend it never existed.

This is truly unfortunate because the final run of Moonbeam City’s episodes are some of its strongest and they even hint at the direction that a second season could have taken. Many were fine to write off Moonbeam City as a lost cause, but if this first season were to air somewhere like Adult Swim, it’s possible that it could find a new audience. It’s too late to save the series, but pairing it on Adult Swim alongside other police content like Hot Streets or Tropical Cop Tales could have worked.

It’s worth pointing out that South Park’s success doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s infinitely better than Ugly Americans or Moonbeam City, or that those shows should have tried to better resemble South Park. South Park’s legacy has so much to do with the time that it premiered and how it’s been able to grandfather itself in at Comedy Central. Even the numbers that the show brings in are still partly in response to the massive audience that the series started with. If South Park were to premiere on Comedy Central now, it’s very likely that it wouldn’t be given the time and support to become the hit that it is today. It’s difficult for any animated series to operate on South Park’s level just because it’s from an older generation. Comedy Central has to allow a show to grow and change to reach the heights of South Park, but the network may now be past that point.

South Park’s 24th season is set to premiere on Comedy Central this fall. As it stands, it’s not set to air alongside another animated comedy. It’s unclear if Comedy Central will continue to try to develop new animated winners that could potentially replace South Park, but until that happens there’s never been a better time to binge through Ugly Americans, Moonbeam City, and consider what could have been.

 

Daniel Kurland

Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, and Bloody Disgusting. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and that Hannibal is the greatest love story ever told. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.

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