"Knuckleheads" is the new English language version of the French classic "Têtes à claques", which is one of those purely Canadian creations that uses unique visual technique to tell absurdist stories. The animators take a sculpted head and then superimpose a live action mouth and eyes onto the head. It's like a more refined version of the "Annoying Orange" web series.
"Knuckleheads" is a visually engaging series, but the tone of the humour appears to get a bit lost in the translation from French to English. Martin Esslin has a great description for successful absurdist storylines in his 1965 book "Absurd Drama.” He writes, "The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it."
The stumbling block for "Knuckleheads" is that it doesn't appear to really deal with the harsh facts of the human situation. It tackles difficult concepts in a fairly superficial manner. The English scripts seem to be written to be silly for the sake of silliness with only a few of the characters taking themselves seriously. This prevents the episodes from tapping into the human struggles and anxiety that could feed the show's humour. The other angle the show could take, and this is something the French version does well, is to take something very banal and have it become akin to a life or death struggle for the protagonists. In that instance the humour is found in the juxtaposition of a superficial want being equated with a serious need. The key to that is making the audience believe that the protagonists actually feel as strongly about these issues as they profess to. That’s the hard part, especially when characters don't seem to take anything very seriously.
I'd love to see this show use its platform to intelligently wrestle with ideas related to religious differences, female sexuality, racial divides, gender identity, body politics, and so on. In my eyes, that's what adult animation does best. Some of the "Knuckleheads" episodes I've seen brush up against these ideas, but only superficially. For example, in "The Legend of Badluck Bill," the police officers make fat jokes about an overweight camp councillor who called them in to find lost campers. It makes the show's creator almost appear to champion bullying as a form of comedy. There is an attempt to redress this later in the episode, but it's a bit disjointed. A similar thing happens in "The Silicone Psycho" when one of the police officers goes off on a tangent about how ugly one of his former classmate's girlfriends was (the girlfriend, now wife, is standing right there). When the friend then introduces his wife, the police officer acts awkwardly, but it doesn't really play out as genuine. "The Silicone Psycho," as a concept, had so much potential to deal with body politics and instead ended up in a grey zone where the schoolyard bully who horribly traumatized an overweight classmate is protected by the police and the bullying victim is incarcerated. Even following that premise (i.e. ignoring the gender and body politics potential) the writers could have unpacked how it's absurd that our society's laws can at times protect bullies and punish victims.
All of my criticisms of the overall story structure aside, there were some moments I found funny, like when in "The Legend of Badluck Bill" there was a brief interlude between two bears bickering about whether to deal with trespassing humans. The juxtaposition of the bears arguing like a married human couple is well done.
Although this review is critical, I'd love the English version to be as much of a success as its French counterpart. Anglophone Canadians would benefit from a discussion-provoking animated adult series, and "Knuckleheads" has promise. It has the animation down perfectly and just needs to work on English scripts that are nuanced enough to sustain a half hour show. It can do this by creatively tackling current social issues as highlighted by the interactions of people with opposing worldviews. I know that creator Michel Beaudet can do it, because he does a great job of this in "Têtes à claques" when he juxtaposes irreverent children using adult language against jaded adults who rapidly become tired of the exchange. Hopefully we'll see that type of incisive wordplay in the upcoming English language episodes.
New episodes of "Knuckleheads" begin to air Nov 12th on Teletoon at Night in Canada. Check them out and feel free to leave your thoughts on the episodes in the comments section of this post. Now that I've watched so many hours of this show, I'm rather curious to see what other people think about it.
P.S. While you're waiting for the new episodes of "Knuckleheads” to air, I have embedded a couple examples of children wearing down adults in "Têtes à claques" below.