Steven Conrad is no stranger to weird shows. He’s the creator of “Patriot” and “Perpetual Grace, LTD,” both of which are cult classics despite their quick cancellations. His new show, “Ultra City Smiths,” is the weirdest of all. That being said, it’s the best stop-motion animated neo-noir musical I’ve ever seen.
Ultra City Smiths follows a sprawling cast of claymation characters who go about their lives in Ultra City, which is reminiscent of New York or Chicago. But one day, Mayor Carpenter K. Smith (Kurtwood Smith) is murdered. The catch: he talked to eight people on the night of his death, and they all had the last name, Smith.
The voice cast is one of the most star-studded casts you’ll ever see: Luis Guzman, Terry O’Quinn, Kristin Bell, Dax Sheperd, Tim Meadows, Tim Heidecker, Jason Mantzoukas, Caleb McLaughlin, Debra Winger, John C. Reilly, Melissa Villasenor, Alia Shawkat, Bebe Neuwirth, and even Tom Waits as the narrator. Ultra City Smiths is clearly about its characters. But that’s the problem: there’s way too many.
In the show’s six episodes, each spanning 20 minutes, each character is given barely any time to develop, and some of the suspects only show up once or twice. Conrad tries to give each character a moment in the spotlight, but most of them fail to pack a punch (although a few characters induce emotions).
The main character is probably Detective David Mills (Jimmi Simpson). He investigates the murder, and as a new transfer to the police department, he aids us in learning the lore of the city as we see through the city through his eyes. Here’s the thing: he has an addiction. To limes. Eating limes, looking at limes, anything with limes. Not taking itself too seriously is one of the show’s biggest strengths.
For example, a character, who unlike the claymation characters in the show, is a large baby doll. Tom Waits’ narrator then says the man’s name: The Most Dangerous Man in the World (Julian Barratt). The character Street Hustler Boy (Damon Herriman) is living such a sad life that he has to rent pants. Detective Jaya Mukherjee (Sunita Mani) is pregnant…in her fourth trimester. Detective Mills squares off with Donovan Smith (John C. Reilly), aka The King of The Knight, in an epic dance-off. The narrator says the word “moidah” a lot. And then there are the songs.
In each episode, there is a musical number, with lyrics on the bottom of the screen and backup dancers. There is no explanation; they just do it. The song titles include “The Rookie Song,” “Waiting for a Second Chance in Newspaper Pants,” and “Donella Smith for Mayor.” They come out of nowhere, but they are pretty catchy. Some are better than others, but as a whole, they become a thing to look forward to each episode.
However, one character stands out above all others: Street Hustler Boy. His partner, 34th Street Chuck (Jim Becker), is seriously ill, so Street Hustler Boy has turned to selling back scratches on the street for $11. He always has a redeeming sense of self-deprecation, even though his circumstances are always extremely rough. When he finds out that the only way to cure Chuck is an expensive operation, he decides to rob a bank using “river guns” (a massive amount of guns that were dropped at the bottom of the river). His honesty and humanity is probably the best part of the show.
You don’t see a stop-motion animated neo-noir musical dramedy too often, but without a doubt, Ultra City Smiths is my favorite. There is a startling overabundance of characters and a startling underabundance of time to develop them, but the quirky tone, the musical numbers, and the standout characters make the show a solid watch, although you should be sure that you know what you’re in for before starting it.