The most poignant moment in “Magical Pet,” the hour-long third season finale for Adult Swim series China, IL, is sung by Cat Power (Chan Marshall), the acclaimed indie artist. In the episode, she plays Kiko, a gorilla caged inside the “F**king with Animals Department” run by the villainous Dean of the fictional university, and the character sheds a tear before uttering the line “I wish I were not self-aware” through a talking machine.
Executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld refers to the song as “the reason we make cartoons.” China, IL creator Brad Neely knew that Cat Power was on board when he set out to write the songs for this episode and conceived the number that introduces her character to the audience with the singer in mind. “I wanted to make it easy for her,” he says, “so I wrote something that I thought would get our working relationship going faster.”
There’s more to this moment than Cat Power’s emotional vocal presence. It’s that proclamation that self-awareness can be something of a burden that makes the themes of this episode, and perhaps the whole series, apparent. On its surface, China, IL is about a dysfunctional college campus filled with people who consistently do the wrong thing. In the midst of the chaos, though, the team is handling some pretty heavy issues, like cruelty against animals. “I think it’s a hard task to comment on any facet of the 21st century without landing on something that breaks your heart,” says Neely. “The truth is that our reality is pretty awful to people and animals and the planet. If you’re going to talk about just driving a car to work, there’s a chain of misery that went into that.”
He adds, “In my opinion, what are you going to do? We’re going to talk about this horrible thing and we’re going to talk about this horrible thing and we’re just going to try to laugh at it.”
Weidenfeld chimes in, “And it doesn’t hurt when you have Hulk Hogan saying the craziest stuff ever.”
It’s true, Hogan’s burly voice adds a level of ridiculousness to every horrible thing that comes out of the Dean’s mouth.
In an hour filled with songs, Neely and his team delve deeper into the lives of the misguided characters who inhabit this world. They didn’t intend on making an extra-long finale, but their usual time slot swelled while making a standard, 22-minute episode. “We always make our episodes too long and have to cut it down,” says Neely. This time, though, they had so much footage beyond what was necessary that it simply made sense to flesh it out further.
“The way it was leaning, we could do this not as a musical and just do it in a straightforward 22-minute story, or we could make it an hour with the music,” says Weidenfeld. “It was going to be all or nothing.” Fortunately, the network was on board with the idea.
They landed some cool guest stars in addition to Mashall as well. Evan Peters (American Horror Story, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Rosa Salazar (Insurgent) voice love interests for Pony and Steve. More precisely, they are pawns in a game between Pony and Steve, who are trying to prove that they aren’t shallow by dating people who they don’t consider attractive. The characters aren’t actually ugly, they’re just mythological creatures. “We didn’t really want to make fun of any kind of quote-unquote ugliness,” says Neely. “There’s no one out there who is really going to get their feelings hurt, it’s just an abstraction of that idea that we all know.”
Neely, who wrote the songs for the episode, said that he conceptualized the moments that would include music while working with the writers on the basic script of the episode. After that, he started working on the songs. “Once I did get into the music for this, I realized that I had given myself a lot of big challenges,” he says. “One way to keep it just straight was to pick styles of music for each story.” Jazz duets were the inspiration for Pony and Steve’s interactions.
For Frank, who is making a desperate attempt to woo his next door neighbor, the sound is more eclectic and goes with the emotional range of his storyline. Hence, he gets a disco jam called “Hot and Sexy Bachelor”—which Weidenfeld says was inspired by the Bee-Gee’s video for “Stayin’ Alive”—and a show tune ballad, “What’s Wrong With Me?” The latter manages to provoke a little sympathy for a character who really shouldn’t get much of that. “I have a feeling that the saddest, most pathetic stories are those of people who act the worst,” says Neely. But, Neely points out that this isn’t some big life-change for Frank.
Meanwhile, Baby Cakes longs for a “magical pet,” like the ones in Disney movies. That reference inspires the character’s big number, and it also leads to the introduction of Kiko’s pivotal role in the episode. Overall, Neely says that the story lines for this episode feed into a central theme, which he describes as one of “friendship, or how we value people, things in life and what’s important or what’s worth living for.”
In “Magical Pets,” the music strengthens the theme, and heightens the comedy, but the songwriting hasn’t stopped with the competition of this episode. Right now, Neely is working on a new series for Adult Swim called TV Sucks. He explains that the show could fit into the China, IL universe, but it’s comprised of short segments, some only a few seconds in length. Weidenfeld describes it as a “return to form” for Neely, whose web-based shorts “The Professor Brothers” and “Baby Cakes” spawned China, IL. Music will be a big part of TV Sucks as well. Neely says that he’s currently working on a batch of 75 songs that will figure their way into the series.
Liz Ohanesian writes about pop culture from her base in Los Angeles. For updates, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.