In an oversaturated TV era, the first barrier to entry for even the best shows is “where is it streaming?” When you have almost endless choice, much of which is decent (or at least given a pass because of convenience), it’s hard to be convinced to sign up for yet another service. In almost all of our recent television reviews for series airing on smaller streamers, part of the review is whether or not it’s worth a subscription. Because at this point, we’re not just recommending a show itself, but its place on an entire platform. (The concept of “a la carte television” is both a myth and a curse). That’s a lot for any show to overcome.
So enters Ultra City Smiths, a half-hour stop-motion doll noir from writer Steven Conrad (Patriot, Perpetual Grace LTD) and Stoopid Buddy Stoodios (Robot Chicken, M.O.D.O.K). With all due respect, these two elements are also barriers in their own way. Conrad’s writing is soulful but strange; it’s not for everyone, yet if it resonates with you, you will become a devotee. Then there’s the puppetry aspect, which is another very quirky hat on a quirky hat here. Even if you are willing to journey forth with these caveats, the show is only available on AMC+, the premium subscription streamer for AMC the cable network. That is all a lot for even the most adventurous viewer to overcome.
And Ultra City Smiths doesn’t quite make the case for it. The story revolves around a rookie detective, David Mills (Jimmi Simpson), who arrives in the town just before its most prominent citizen, Carpenter K. Smith (Kurtwood Smith), goes missing. Ultra City is something of a vintage, ratty New York City by way of Gotham—always night, always full of crime—and it’s also heavily populated with Smiths, many of whom become leading suspects in the crime.
Like Conrad’s other work, Ultra City Smiths is hugely ambitious from a narrative perspective. It introduces a ton of disparate characters and storylines in way that can feel chaotic, even though the emotional core is sound. The voice cast is excellent, especially Simpson, Damon Herriman, and Bebe Neuwirth, not to mention Tom Waits as the show’s narrator. But the narration is partly exposition and mostly philosophical musings, which matches the show’s use of magical realism, including occasional short original songs that are both funny and poignant.
Ultra City Smiths itself is not so much funny as slyly mirthful. A character tries to rent pants (going rate is $2 for 45 minutes), and also muses, “my name is Street Hustler Boy. I’m 42 now. I don’t make sense….” Our hero detective likes to “dance down him demons,” and occasionally gets very deep into limes. (Yes, limes.) The dialogue is often earnest, but it’s also sprinkled with the profane; there are strip clubs and gangsters and a lot of talk about dicks. Sometimes the puppetry works to take the edge off vulgarities, sometimes it works its own humor when used for the fantastical.
But for the most part, I found myself wishing either that Ultra City Smiths was live-action to better serve the script, or had a more kinetic script that would better match the puppetry potential. The combination here, instead, makes even these short episodes drag. The camera lingering on a motionless puppet’s face might occasionally serve as a punctuation, but more often it feels like dead space. The pacing, like the off-beat syncopation in the opening credits, has yet to find its groove. It’s strange but sleepy, and the dolls’ smooth faces and dead eyes do little to engage us with the story further—a story that, as of the first three episodes, already feels like it’s stalling out despite a few charming idiosyncrasies.
Ultra City Smiths is different, at least, but it doesn’t yet come together in a way that makes for essential viewing. It asks a lot of its audience, acting more as a challenge than an invitation. If you have AMC+, it’s worth giving it a shot (beyond the first episode, which is a rough start), but for even the mildly curious the better bet is to wait until it airs on AMC’s cable channel this fall.
The first two episodes of Ultra City Smiths premiere Thursday, July 22 on AMC+.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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