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After a few weeks off due to stomach issues (who would've thought a life of watching television and eating take-out would lead to any adverse

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Raise the Red Lantern for Cartoon Network's China, IL

With quirky animator/cult internet sensation Brad Neely's China, Il and the International District's Red Lantern on this week's tray, one particular question stands tall between the presumably inaccessible properties: are they worth the trouble?

tvdinnerchinail.jpg

After a few weeks off due to stomach issues (who would've thought a life of watching television and eating take-out would lead to any adverse health effects?), TV Dinner returns with two out-of-the-way gems that seek to reward the vigilant consumer in you. With quirky animator/cult internet sensation Brad Neely's China, Il and the International District's Red Lantern on this week's tray, one particular question stands tall between the presumably inaccessible properties: are they worth the trouble?

The Cuisine: The International District is a bit of a harsh mistress when it comes to the armchair food critic. After all, the parking situation is far from ideal for take-out orders and the only places that do delivery are usually pretty dramatically far down the crappy end of the ID's notoriously wide spectrum of quality. Additionally, no small part of the oft-overlooked neighborhood's finest culinary experiences owe much to their unique atmosphere.

Red Lantern's decor is a perfect example, with frosted glass partitions and an emphasis on natural light providing a distinctly modern feel in a building that's rapidly coming up on its hundred-year anniversary. Sharp ambience combined with Red Lantern's specialty live seafood items like their prized Peppercorn Crab or Steamed Ginger Fish certainly make for an admirable couple of good reasons to not offer delivery, besides simply not wanting to take the hit on gas money or food couriers.

That said, Red Lantern reaches out to enterprising takeout hunters with a few key benefits. For example, free parking is available at the Washington Federal Savings Bank (601 S. Jackson St.) after 6 PM on weekdays and all day Saturday to ease the nearly compulsory stress of a downtown pick-up. In addition, Red Lantern is one of the extremely few non-chain restaurants I've run into who offer to-go boxes that are both resealable and microwave safe. Finally, Lantern prides itself on more conventional, unpretentious Chinese or Korean comfort food staples that appeal to the picky eater on-the-go or the overworked bachelor(ette).

Perhaps nothing on the menu embodies Red Lantern's commitment to simpler indulgences as eloquently as their Shanghai Spring Rolls. A far cry from the stringy, edible distraction of filler veggie-heavy spring rolls, Lantern keeps it basic with flaky rolls of ground beef and taro served in a respectable bed of greens to distribute as you wish. The Kung Pao Chicken keeps the delicious minimalism going, offering a glaze of spicy, well-bodied sauce that never softens the white meat's bite too offensively. Rounding it all out is a creamy Sweet Corn Egg Flower Soup, which tastes like some decadent infusion of the Chinese restaurant staple with corn chowder and chicken noodle. I can't be entirely sure how the soup's constituents work so well together, but I almost wish I'd had a cold before I was eating it, just to do it justice.

The Entertainment: When Cartoon Network announced it would be turning Brad Neely's backdoor pilot China, IL into a weekly series of 15-minute episodes, die-hard Harry Potter completionists and internet video aficionados alike rejoiced. After an excruciating, nearly three year period of relative silence from the artist after the pilot's original airdate, Neely's brand of absurdist, reflective humor had returned in its most ambitious form yet.

Neely's first, most immersive brush with internet sensation came from Wizard People, Dear Reader, a quirky, extremely low-budget reimagining of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Taking a cue from the audio/visual snark pioneers of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Wizard People was most widely disseminated as an audio file that, when synced up with any (presumably) legal copy of the first Harry Potter film, presented a hilarious alternate reality of the boy wizard as an omnipotent, mostly drunk madman prone to exceptionally awesome fits of rage.

Excepting Wizard People, most of Neely's openly shared work is as a cartoonist. He created the way-too-quotable "George Washington" song/meme featured prominently at Spike and Mike's Twisted Film Festival, had his own channel at TBS Networks' short-lived comedy video aggregate site Super Deluxe, and was even briefly brought on as a consultant for South Park's eleventh season. Amidst all that shiny accolade, he also made a lot of wickedly funny animated shorts, with some of the most memorable serving as the basis for China, Il's main characters.

With expectations higher than ever for the internet darling, one might level a concern common to all artists propelled into the spotlight after producing so much content in relative independence and austerity: what're they going to do with all that extra stuff?

To make an analogy that will now fully alienate all but a small percentage of one or two generations of the human race: putting Brad Neely's voice in a show with a fairly conventional sitcom format and buckets of animators seems like putting singer/songwriter The Blow in charge of a philharmonic orchestra. Certainly, you're almost inevitably going to get something charming and refreshingly unique, but it's really difficult to have all those resources at your beck and call while retaining the lonely, heavily introspective style that initially drew a lot of your fanbase.

Indeed, China, Il seems a lot more like its animated peers on Cartoon Network than Wizard People, Dear Reader. It borrows from the high-speed, deeply layered, over-the-top animation style of Christy Karacas's Superjail, jarringly upgraded from the creeping, slideshow quality of the characters from the rest of Neely's work. China, Il also mimics the high-concept, yet mostly non sequitur adventures of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, notably in the episode featuring its protagonists hunting down Ronald Reagan, who had naturally gone mad with power after commandeering a robotic time-travelling horse that he had made the FBI build for him. While Neely has no shortage of history with slight exaggerations of presidential history, the wistfulness of his previous cartoons can feel a little rushed through the motions of wrestling for its target demographic's attention.

Indeed, sometimes China, Il seems like it's a show that appears to fit into Adult Swim's back catalog much more snug than Brad Neely's, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hopefully, the increased exposure will introduce him to a wider audience and allow him to steadily produce more bold, original material -- whether that be more seasons of China, Il, other cartoons, or perhaps even another obscenity-laced audio commentary for the upcoming Hunger Games adaptation.

The Pairing: I strongly recommend both Red Lantern and China, Il for your lazing pleasure. China, Il is a 15-minute shot of adrenaline packed dense with visual gags and a approachable sense of its creator's unique way with morbid whimsy. Red Lantern makes a convincing case for going out of the way to satisfy your take-out itch as well as an enviable asset for International District residents and regular commuters.

 
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