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The best thing about Netflix’s Agent Elvis, which posits Elvis Presley as a spy within a covert government program, isn’t Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey voicing the rock ‘n’ roll icon. He just sounds like himself, which is funny enough and saves him the trouble of Austin Butler-esque permanent burn-in.
The highlight isn’t the animation, though the Sony Pictures Animation and Titmouse team deliver ample comic book-flavored pizzazz.
Cast: Matthew McConaughy, Kaitlin Olson, Johnny Knoxville, Niecy Nash, Don Cheadle, Priscilla Presley
Creators: Priscilla Presley and John Eddie
It will surprise regular readers that my favorite thing in Agent Elvis isn’t even that Elvis is accompanied by a debauched, sociopathic chimpanzee sidekick — not that I’m complaining that a debauched, sociopathic chimpanzee plays a major role in Agent Elvis.
No, the best thing about Netflix’s Agent Elvis is that no matter how outlandish and ridiculous it is, it’s all true. OK, fine. It isn’t ALL true. Probably most of it isn’t true, but enough of the best details in Agent Elvis have a basis in reality that I was laughing at the audacity of its real-life inspirations much more than at its attempted punchlines. The show, in general, is fine — long stretches pass with very few laughs and multiple characters are still duds after the full 10-episode season — but it’s the rare series that actually gets better when you google it for accuracy.
Presumably, some of that weird authenticity comes from having Priscilla Presley and musician John Eddie as series creators, while a lot of the tone comes from Archer veteran Mike Arnold as showrunner.
The series begins with Elvis (McConaughey) rehearsing for his 1968 comeback special, one of several things in the series that will offer extra amusement for the many viewers who recently watched Baz Luhrmann’s film. Frustrated by the unruly changing society around him, Elvis has been moonlighting as a crime-fighting vigilante with the help of Scatter (Tom Kenny, the aforementioned chimpanzee), his jack-of-all-trades pal Bobby Ray (Johnny Knoxville) and longtime personal assistant/housekeeper/maternal figure Bertie (Niecy Nash).
After a failed attempt on his life, Elvis is recruited to work for a mysterious government agency run by Don Cheadle’s Commander, under the watchful eye of CeCe Ryder (Kaitlin Olson), a fellow agent with the temerity to not like Elvis’ music. Can Elvis save the world and still make it home at night to Priscilla? Having Priscilla Presley voice herself adds just a touch of poignancy to the show — especially the first episode in which she’s cradling baby Lisa Marie, just minutes before the dedication to the real Lisa Marie.
You’re probably not watching Agent Elvis for poignancy, mind you, nor for the cartoon version of certain rough parts of his life. This Elvis has no addictions, no penchant for womanizing and, despite a first season that stretches all the way through his Hawaiian special, he doesn’t put on a single pound.
It’s easy enough to watch the 10-episode first season of Agent Elvis concentrating exclusively on the entertaining ridiculousness. There’s a masturbating monkey (chimps aren’t monkeys, but “masturbating chimp” isn’t alliterative). There’s Jason Mantzoukas voicing a version of Howard Hughes who has more of a resemblance to Jason Mantzoukas than to Leonardo DiCaprio. There are jet packs and gold-plated pistols and a secret lair that can only be opened using Commander’s penis as a key. The action leaps around the world from Hollywood to Las Vegas to Vietnam to Washington, while Elvis encounters everybody from Robert Goulet to Richard Nixon to George Clinton to Charles Manson. There’s high-flying fighting, R-rated carnage and insinuations of a chimpanzee having sex with human groupies. Whee!
Agent Elvis has a season-long arc involving a terrifying sonic ray that turns listeners into feral zombies and that plays out nicely, though individual episodes tend to usually have B and C storylines that go limp because too many of the supporting characters, including Bobby Ray and Bertie, simply haven’t been given any humorous characteristics to play. It’s a reasonable supposition that Nash is talented enough to read the phone book and make it funny, but Agent Elvis ponders: “What if she were given a character even less entertaining than a phone book?”
Even when the show lags, though, it can always count on two things: First, the soundtrack is terrific, from the Elvis material to other period-specific hits to the James Bond-adjacent score by Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams.
Then there’s the actual history, because at least half the time when something crazy goes down in Agent Elvis, if you wonder, “Wait, did that actually happen?” the answer is a resounding “Kinda!” Did Elvis actually adopt a chimpanzee named Scatter and did Scatter have a drinking problem? Mostly! Did Elvis and Robert Goulet have a rivalry? Of some sort! Did the Black Panthers actually have an embassy in Algeria and did they give asylum to Timothy Leary? Darned right they did! Was Elvis’ famous picture with Richard Nixon part of an elaborate spy mission to break into the White House? Who’s to say it wasn’t?
Whether it’s the specific plot details of the Elvis cinematic classic Change of Habit or the article in Jet in which Elvis specifically addressed racial appropriation in his music, Agent Elvis is admirably attuned to enough actual music and historical footnotes to instigate some diverting research on the part of interested viewers. You’ll also quickly discover that the character’s costumes, designed and cartoon-refined by John Varvatos, match amazingly well with real outfits Elvis wore, presumably not while fighting off international supervillains.
Elvis may have had a bad Oscar night on Sunday, falling victim to the Everything Everywhere All at Once onslaught, but you can’t keep the King down for long. And does Agent Elvis even have a fun nod to the movie? Well, keep your eyes and ears open.
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