Mission Hill: The Complete Series (DVD)

Who does this guy think he is, Reviewy McReviewenheimer?

Originally created for the still-growing WB Network in 1999, the animated Mission Hill didn’t last long before its cancellation. It then got a second chance during the early days of the Cartoon Network’s infamous Adult Swim block. The series now arrives on DVD, so you can enjoy all 13 episodes in a row while waiting for the next unemployment check to arrive.

Andy French lives in an apartment among the endless high-rise buildings of Mission Hill with his roommates Jim and Posey. It’s a somewhat ideal life for someone in his early 20s. Sure, his job at the waterbed store is going nowhere, but he’s got big dreams of becoming a cartoonist. In the meantime, his life is a constant stream of drinking, partying, and generally being a lazy bum.

But Andy’s glory days of gluttony and sloth are about to end. His high school-age little brother Kevin has just moved in with him. Kevin wears a T-shirt with his SAT scores on them, watches Babylon 5 with a passion, and he’ll do anything to get into Yale. His naïve personality clashes with Andy’s, not to mention the urban nightmare of the big city.

Andy and Kevin’s various adventures have them facing off with pimps, starring on reality TV shows, sneaking onto army bases, burning down convenience stores, trashing sci-fi conventions, and, you know, just hanging out.

Although I enjoyed Mission Hill during its Adult Swim run in 2002, I was hesitant to revisit the series. Although it’s only been a few years, I was concerned that it would already be dated. Sure enough, the show is a product of its time, but in a good way. Hidden behind all the laughs and the craziness are themes of change and growing up, and that includes the kind of growing up we all must do even in our 20s. In Mission Hill, Andy learns that the slacker mentality—represented here by the simple joy of spending all day lounging around on the couch—is not necessarily the road to happiness. Kevin is not safe from this phenomenon, either. He learns that there’s more to life than the geek mentality, and that the answers to life’s problems might be found somewhere other than an online computer game or a B5 episode.

Although Mission Hill celebrates the slacker/geek life, the show also picks it apart. One episode concludes with a 20-somethinger and his friends bemoaning the demise of a popular nightclub as “one of the touchstones of our generation.” Hearing this, Andy just laughs at them and walks away. Another episode exposes the artificiality of MTV’s The Real World, while others examine the pluses (sleeping in) and minuses (no insurance) of unemployment.

Has “geek humor” been played out by now? Kevin’s love all things sci-fi lends itself to numerous references Star Wars, Star Trek, and the above-mentioned Babylon 5. One episode has the brothers attending a convention, with genre references galore. This is another example of the series capturing the feel of the time. Sci-fi on TV was huge around 1998-1999, and Mission Hill runs with it. What was of the time then will only be seen as more and more absurd as time goes on.

Of course, Kevin and Andy are only one part of the series. The two other roommates make out the rest of the main cast. Jim is the quiet type, who doesn’t offer a lot of information about himself. But that’s not to say Jim is secretive. Instead, he doesn’t hide anything about who he is. Whether hanging out with his friends or talking to Andy’s parents on the phone, Jim is who he is, and he’s comfortable with that. By not caring what anyone else thinks, Jim also gets away with some of the show’s funniest lines. Posey is at first a “new age” type, reading others’ auras and seeking enlightenment while in a trance. But as we get to know her, she too has her dark side. She’s not afraid to dish out a little violence from time to time, for the right reasons of course.

There are a slew of other characters running around as well. Like many animated series of recent years, there is an enormous supporting cast. The creators had a lot of fun with Gus and Wally, the unconventional gay couple living next door. Natalie, Carlos and their nameless baby get less screen time, but they are just as unconventional as well. Kevin’s nerdy buddies Toby and George serve an interesting purpose in that they look to Kevin for guidance and leadership, giving him some confidence.

The voice acting here is top-notch, notably Wallace Langham’s excellent comedic timing as Andy, Brian Poshein’s laid back attitude as Jim, and Vicki Lewis’s space cadet musings as Poesy. Many viewers have criticized Scott Menville’s performance as Kevin as too annoying, saying the nasally voice has them reaching for the “mute” button on their remotes. First off, the character is meant to be annoying. Secondly, during those moments when Kevin’s enthusiastic naiveté dies down as he reveals his more human side, the voice tones down to a more realistic level. This shows that Menville knows just what he’s doing with the character, and that he’s able to hold back on the silliness when he needs to. Notable guest stars include Tom Kenny of Spongebob Squarepants fame, who gives one character a voice very similar to everyone’s favorite phylum Porifera, and Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Gos, who provides the spunk for Gwen, Andy’s on-again off-again girlfriend.

A running joke in the series has the nerdy Kevin chanting “Bling-blong, bling-blong,” which helps him concentrate while unintentionally annoying everyone else around him. The creators swear up and down that this was before “bling” became an actual word, accepted by today’s pop culture consciousness. Still, whenever Kevin goes off on another of his “bling-blong” rants, it’s more distracting than it is funny.

The overall look of the series is meant to capture the feel of the mid-1990s independent comics boom, especially slice of life comics such as Peter Bagge’s Hate or Joe Matt’s Peepshow. Some characters appear very realistic while others are more stylized or cartoony. Colors, meanwhile, are all over the place. Depending on the scene, characters’ faces or hair might be way off in their colors, turning blue or green. This happens when they go out at night, or enter a strange new environment. It’s a daring choice made by the creators, but it helps give the series a look different from other animated sitcoms out there.

Similarly, the picture quality on this two-disc set is great, especially considering Mission Hill was one of the last entirely hand-painted animation projects ever made, created without any help from computers. Sound is also good, with no distortion or other flaws. Four commentaries are included, featuring executive producers and veteran comedy writers Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley, joined by directors, designers and voice actors. They state their goal for the commentaries is to provide information and anecdotes about the series not already found online, which is considerate of them. The commentaries mostly focus on ideas behind the series’ origins, as well as the creators’ 10-year (!) plan for where it would have gone. The other extra here is the “interactive map of Mission Hill.” This is misleading, as it’s actually an in-depth look at the design work that went into the show, including early drawings of the characters and hidden gags in background signs and billboards.

Mission Hill is a time capsule of the late ’90s that also savagely satirizes the late ’90s. Any viewers who have had that moment when they realize they’ve got to get off that couch and start earning money—even if it’s just to pay for beer—will find a series they can relate to here.

The Verdict

Not guilty, d-bag.

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