Like the other leading streamers, Hulu‘s attempting to get serious with its animated original offerings geared toward adults. There’s the promising-looking Solar Opposites from Rick and Morty co-creator and voice wizard Justin Roiland, and then there’s Crossing Swords, created by Robot Chicken producers John Harvatine IV and Tom Root. The show pulls out the visual stops with some of the finest stop-motion animation techniques, at times popping off the small screen almost as beautifully as Laika’s Coraline or Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
Sadly, that’s where the charm exhausts itself, because for every dash of gorgeous, cotton-candy-like burst of dragon fire, there’s an overly plentiful supply of penis jokes. Not that penis jokes are bad, but these start to feel like profanity for the sake of profanity.
I suppose that’s not too much of a surprise for a show named after a sexual euphemism, but it would be sweet to have a dash of depth in addition to what feels like reaching for low-hanging fruit. Any substance atop the show’s crudeness would help justify its clear investment in visuals. Instead, the shock factor is favored over characters who are worth following, beyond wondering who shall get decapitated (yes, it’s also a gore fest). This sort-of vulgarity was once startling, back in South Park‘s early days — bless Trey Parker and Matt Stone — and even later in the duo’s Team America: World Police. Yet as Parker and Stone realized, one simply must inject context into the equation. Mature audiences enjoy a sprinkling of wit, too!
Crossing Swords does not hit that mark. Instead, it sprints out of the gate with context-free lowbrow jokes and nudity, both visually and verbally rendered, and never takes its foot off the pedal. Further, the gore is gratuitous in every sense of the word. It’s a strangely discombobulating affair, unless one wishes to place the ten episodes on mute and let them play in the background as mind-numbing escapism. This tactic wouldn’t be so bad, really, if not for a semi-serialized format. And that’s where this project grows more confounding. With Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, the sketch-comedy approach worked with the drop-gross-jokes-and-split approach. Here, wonders exactly what this show’s themes might be, and why we should care about these players.
The set-up is super simple: The show does not shy away from Game Of Thrones fantasy vibes, a decision that might not be wise in retrospect, given that every hot take about the HBO show’s final season has already been run into the ground. Still, it’s happening here with a kingdom full of largely unlikable royal characters, who often resort to well-aimed crotch shots and MF-bombs to one-up each other. The protagonist, a peasant named Patrick (voiced by Nicholas Hoult), holds grand dreams to be the king’s squire. However, he enters the pleasure-seeking court proceedings aghast, much more than the show’s audience, and he remains that way until season’s end.
Any seasoned audience member will find it difficult to feel sorry for Patrick’s plight because TV viewers have already endured much of what he witnesses, and the show amps up bawdiness without providing incentives for viewers to stick around. This series doesn’t go anywhere, although a few events happen throughout this season. Episodic flourishes (like a Beast Feast musical festival and a Kraken Week) appear within the serialized structure, and a soap-operatic assassin mystery goes down as a protracted joke. Again, if you simply want chaotic filler-noise that looks pretty (and pretty gross), this might be up your alley. But don’t expect world-building, which presents doubt for future seasons with voice talent from Tony Hale, Luke Evans, Adam Pally, Alanna Ubach, Tara Strong, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Felicia Day
The most frustrating aspect of Crossing Swords, overall, is its refusal to attempt humor beyond profanity — something that not only South Park has recognized a need for, but that Netflix’s Big Mouth, Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, FX’s Archer, and so many other adult-focused animated TV series have conquered. Crossing Swords fails to reach the existing standard and doesn’t offer much beyond meticulously crafted visuals, with every chip of paint looking on-point, even as the characters ride on toy horses and manage to wield swords despite having no arms. Pulling off these visual touches was no minor feat, but that attention to detail comes across as unsettling without acting in service to something greater.
Hulu’s ‘Crossing Swords’ streams on June 12.