'Bordertown': TV Review
Mark Hentemann and Seth MacFarlane's animated Fox comedy is a wishy-washy take on immigration.
During this already seemingly never-ending election cycle, there has been a strange sense among some outraged folks that Donald Trump invented the concept of a border wall with Mexico, rather than just being the latest, loudest, most bloviating proponent of something that has been discussed for years and even already exists to some ramshackle degree. Those newly irritated folks are likely to feel that the new Fox animated comedy Bordertown has a hilarious prescience, rather than just staking out a generic middle ground on the ongoing immigration debate and going for both-sides-are-hypocrites blandness instead of anything truly funny.
Bordertown isn't the racist, xenophobic mess you might fear from Family Guy veterans Mark Hentemann and Seth MacFarlane, but it suffers from exactly the sort of blurry perspective you'd expect from a show that was originally ordered over two years ago — the kind of tonal and storytelling unevenness you'd expect from a still-settling new comedy and a lack of appealing characters that makes it hard to want to return to see how the show evolves.
Created by Hentemann, Bordertown is the story of two families living in the desert of Mexifornia, which is either a state, a city or a state of mind. Bud Buckwald (Hank Azaria) is a border patrol agent living with forgettable wife Janice (Alex Borstein) and forgettable kids Becky, Sanford and Gert. Actually, Gert (Missi Pyle) is less forgettable, because she's a Honey Boo-Boo style 5-year-old beauty queen and she has a pig. Next door is the Gonzalez family, fronted by landscaper Ernesto (Nicholas Gonzalez), and featuring some number of children including troublemaker Pepito (Jacqueline Pinol) and college educated J.C. There's the natural friction between the two families, enhanced by the engagement between Becky and J.C.
Bud is supposed to be one of those backward, anti-PC lugs whom you can't help but love, in the vein of Archie Bunker if you're being generous (or a distorted copy-of-a-copy of Peter Griffin if you're not). He gets all of his information from a pseudo-Fox News, spews various slurs and stereotypes and laments, "I just don't know where a guy like me fits in anymore." It's one of the fundamental flaws of the show that it wants to treat Bud as a relic, when an actual Bud Buckwald would never need to lament where a guy like him fits in anymore — he'd just need to turn on his TV and he'd get a comfortable sense of belonging. Depicting racists on the American side of the border as out-of-touch dinosaurs negates how virulent and active his mindset is, and marginalizes how many people patrolling the borders share Bud's thoughts or worse.
It's another of the fundament flaws of the show that the writers haven't cracked the "lovable" part of Bud's DNA. The show amply lampoons Bud, but in such meaningless "buffoon" terms that he never seems sentient enough for growth. Archie Bunker was sentient enough for growth. Peter Griffin is not. Azaria, usually remarkably versatile, has done the character no favors by choosing a voice I'd describe as Simpsons Fanboy Imitates Comic Book Guy. Worst. Vocal Decision. Ever.
As bracingly awful as Bud is, Ernesto has been sketched out as forgetably amiable counterpoint. He works hard. He loves his family. He embraces the American Dream. And he's a bore. Even in the second episode in which Mexifornia builds a wall that has the opposite of the intended effect and Ernesto briefly turns on the influx of illegal immigrants, his reactions are placid, tentative and not funny. The actual one-dimensional parallel to Bud is J.C., whose empty recitation of academic jargon like "heteronormative" and "post-racial" makes him as unlikable as Bud, but also as mirthless.
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Since Bordertown has no angle on the immigration debate of 2015, it gets much of its humor from predictable doses of extended lowbrow gags like Bud eating a spicy pepper and expelling fire from his ass or randomness like recurring alien abductions or the friendly mutant down the street. The potshots at pop cultural targets could have been picked out of the discard pile at any MacFarlane show, including jokes about Chelsea Handler and, still in questionable taste, Philip Seymour Hoffman's death. There's also a "humblebrag" joke that isn't necessarily related to the late comedy writer Harris Wittels but, in context here, really should have been reconsidered.
There are pieces of Bordertown that work a bit better. Bud's absurd war with a human smuggler named El Coyote is a successful and outlandish inversion of the classic Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner Looney Tunes dynamic. I also can't help but be supportive of a show employing so many Latino writers and actors, though the two episodes made available for critics could use significantly more specificity of culture and language.
More than anything, the early episodes of Bordertown feel like the launch of MacFarlane's American Dad!, which premiered as a Family Guy clone with an already dated and never adequately utilized post-9/11 twist. It took a couple seasons for American Dad! to develop into its own occasionally wildly imaginative series and it's not unreasonable to imagine Bordertown could do the same, especially once the turnaround from script-to-air becomes tighter. At the moment, though, I can't review that future Bordertown, but feel free to skip this Sunday's (Jan. 3) premiere and check back in in two years if it survives.