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Ultra City Smiths Review 2021 Tv Show Series Season Cast Crew Online
Creator: Steve Conrad
Neither of Steve Conrad’s quirky television genre exercises — Amazon’s Patriot and Epix’s Perpetual Grace, LTD — was a blockbuster, but both shows have dedicated fan bases inspired by the writer-director-producer’s artfully convoluted dialogue, off-kilter eye and eccentric casting choices.
It might have been possible to predict that Conrad would follow those dramas with a noir musical-mystery populated by stop-motion baby dolls, but only if you previously watched the leaked pilot for Timms Valley, an earlier stop-motion comic-thriller that IFC, a network prone to programming for audiences in the tens of thousands, still deemed too odd to go to series back in in 2014. It’s doubtful that Conrad’s latest baby doll series, Ultra City Smiths, will find a huge audience, but in a fragmented TV landscape, there’s apparently value for AMC+ in giving this bizarre little series a six-episode home. And if people can find it, it’s guaranteed to find a cult following.
It’s hard to call a series that resembles Robot Chicken by way of Team America: World Police by way of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa wholly original, nor after three episodes do I know if the insidious hard-boiled narrative is going to come together as anything other than a whimsically warped amusement, but the blending of elements has already resulted in a series that doesn’t feel like anything else on TV.
Our story is set in Ultra City, which resembles a 1970s version of New York City: a bit the actual Gotham of decaying infrastructure, rising corruption and vibrant districts of ill repute; somewhat a takeoff on fictionalized versions of that period, including marauding street gangs that would feel at home in Walter Hill’s The Warriors; and just a few hints of the contemporary city, as in the congressman with the unfortunate name who can’t stop taking inappropriate pictures of his genitals (Dax Shepard voicing Chris Pecker, with Kristen Bell as his too-patient wife, Donella Pecker).
Ultra City is facing a pivotal election for mayor, pitting Trumpian incumbent Kevin de Maximum (Tim Heidecker) against Carpenter K. Smith (Kurtwood Smith), a Brillo-haired real estate mogul running on the slogan “Our last bright hope for a Gentler Ultra City. Dear Lord Please.” Unfortunately, Smith goes missing and the case falls to newly arrived small-town transplant Detective David Mills (Jimmi Simpson) and his partner, Gail (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
Smith’s disappearance brings together an ensemble of variably desperate urban baby doll denizens, among them Oscar-winning actress Trish McSapphire (Debra Winger), local crime lord Rodrigo Smalls (Luis Guzmán), gargantuan wrestling champion Lady Andrea the Giant (Bebe Neuwirth), Andrea’s less gargantuan daughter Little Grace (Alia Shawkat) and the tragically unsuccessful male prostitute known appropriately as Street Hustler Boy (Damon Herriman). Will David and Gail be able to fight off their own demons and solve the case before the truth is revealed by Tim the TMZ Reporter (Jason Mantzoukas)? Only our narrator (Tom Waits at his most guttural) knows for sure.
This is somehow the weirdest thing that the Stoopid Buddy Stoodios team has put their stop-motion muscles to work on, and their last series was Hulu’s plenty-weird brain-in-a-box supervillain series Marvel’s MODOC. It took me the better part of the 24-minute Ultra City Smiths pilot to settle into the show’s tone and aesthetic, probably right up to the moment that Detective Mills, flanked by gang members and Central Park gigolos, broke into a song explaining his upbringing and his unique addictions, complete with elaborate dance breaks.
Each episode features one original song co-written by Conrad and Brad Jones, and the songs may tiptoe into a variety of genres, but they share a vein of absurdity and melancholy that defines the series. It’s a combination that runs through Conrad’s films and other TV shows as well, but somehow it’s harder to process when you’re fixating on animated baby dolls and why one has decorative stubble, another is styled after Bella Abzug and still another looks like he aspires to be Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy. Sometimes they’re cute. Sometimes they’re disturbingly dead-eyed, but usually in a way that can be explained by the toll that living in Ultra City takes on all its inhabitants. As the narrator explains it simply, “No one’s dreams come true in Ultra City.”
Mining terrain covered in countless pulp novels, Ultra City Smiths takes itself seriously as a mystery, and the construction of the setting is beautiful and full of surprising details, whether it’s the marquee titles of the red-light district’s movie theaters, graffiti in various grungy bathrooms, or the impeccably lit harbors, warehouses and subway cars where action is staged. There are disappearances and murders and looming threats, and you want to acknowledge their gravity even if it’s a world in which characters can wander around with their plastic arms in comically unnatural positions after an unfortunate accident.
At the same time, because Ultra City Smiths takes itself extremely seriously, it’s extremely funny. That’s true whether it’s staging a crime syndicate meeting at a club called Studio 254, with stripping dolls in thongs in the background, or introducing one of the few dolls that actually still resembles an oversize baby doll as The Most Dangerous Man in the World. Yet nobody in this world knows that “Addison Square Garden” and “Andrea the Giant” are puns, and the series is without cheap jokes because nothing in Ultra City comes cheap. Even when the songs want you to chuckle at the wordplay or at the inherent silliness of baby dolls in Run-DMC tracksuits turning tricks in an AstroTurf park, there’s real sadness and pain embedded.
More grounding comes from the vocal talent, many of whom are veterans of previous Conrad productions, giving them a sense of how to handle his wordy dialogue. It’s a star-studded cast, but one that’s never really about stunt voicing, even when it’s somebody like Waits or Guzmán or Mantzoukas or Terry O’Quinn, all instantly recognizable. You might know Neuwirth’s voice, but it’s the downhearted wisdom that she brings to Lady Andrea that makes the character resonate, not just the novelty of hearing Lilith’s voice coming from a huge female wrestler. Herriman, Simpson and Randolph are standouts, bringing different layers of vulnerability to this hardscrabble world.
The animation, which features precise cinematic framing and atmosphere to burn, is ambitious, and the third episode sent to critics was in a fascinatingly rough cut. So I can’t say if Ultra City Smiths ultimately lives up to its complex tone and becomes a nuanced mystery and character study or if it settles for being a misfit oddity. Even if it’s the latter, with each episode coming in at less than 25 minutes thus far, the strangeness is indulgent without excess.