Strange Planet strands viewers on a domain devoid of laughs

Strange Planet

The popular webcomic gets turned into a TV show that proves some ideas can’t sustain half-hour programs.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

In February 2019, cartoonist Nathan W. Pyle launched a webcomic by the name of Strange Planet. Each comic, typically told in four panels, saw blue aliens engaging in a familiar Earthbound activity (like crying or drinking aged wine) while speaking in very obtuse and explanatory jargon. For instance, these creatures would urge a member of their species to blow out birthday candles by shouting “Extinguish!” repeatedly. Many of the gags lacked originality, but some of the illustrations were very cute and it’s easy to see why these cartoons took off in the world of social media. They’re just the kind of easily digestible chuckle-generating material that thrives in the realm of newsfeeds.

More than four years after Strange Planet began, it’s now been turned into an animated TV program for Apple TV+. Pyle is still around to help guide the show and write scripts, though one of the creative figureheads behind this incarnation of the property is Dan Harmon. There’s no doubt various Apple executives were salivating over the idea of this particular program having even an ounce of the success of Rick & Morty, Harmon’s last sci-fi animated TV production. In execution, though, the small-screen version of Strange Planet just reminds viewers that not every viral sensation needs to be brought to television.

The first three episodes of Strange Planet establish that the show’s storytelling approach is to dedicate each installment to standalone storylines that explore different aspects of the titular orb. Various blue aliens (who are never given names) navigate everyday problems in relatable settings and social scenarios. The inaugural episode, for instance, concerns fractured friend dynamics and what airplanes are like in this other world. Next up is an entry focusing heavily on otherworldly yet familiar animals, while the third yarn fixates on a precariously located restaurant named Careful Now.

Across these three scripts, Strange Planet focuses on a slew of different aliens ranging from forlorn band members to a lovestruck man with a noticeable allergy to cats. However, they all share one common trait: a very distinctive style of speaking. Much like its source material, the blue beings at the heart of this TV show engage in a vernacular somewhat similar to recognizable Earth speech patterns but with more convoluted wording. For instance, if someone is expressing woes with their teeth, they’ll refer to them as “mouth stones” while the expression baby steps is translated to “infant strides.”

Strange Planet
Strange Planet (Apple TV+)

What’s cute in a disposable webcomic you can read in just seconds becomes grating when you have to hear flesh-and-blood people say these phrases for 20-25 consecutive minutes. Everyone in Strange Planet sounds the same, whether they’re a youngster, an elderly couple celebrating their anniversary, or a stressed-out server. Very quickly the rhythm of typical dialogue-based gags becomes aggravatingly apparent. Worse, the scripts seem to think schmaltzy morals and ham-fisted philosophizing will be forgiven if they’re delivered with slightly unorthodox wording. Instead, this approach to pathos reflects that Strange Planet is frantically trying to gussy up familiar trappings in “quirky” packaging. 

Too much of the show focuses on low-key conversations and unengaging characters, with even basic gags often being sparse. Oddly dated pieces of social commentary, like jokes about the small portions of food on airplanes or the wall decorations in restaurants like T.G.I. Friday’s, are the biggest swings at humor in Strange Planet and they largely miss. The only substantial giggles come in a pair of commercials for in-universe products (like an equivalent to toothpaste). Juxtaposing the polished nature of promotional materials an assortment of booming narrator voices engaging in more honest and flawed line deliveries proves enduringly amusing.

Worst of all, for an animated television show, the visuals here are inert. Only an extended single take of an employee navigating a busy night at Careful Now in the second episode demonstrates any real creativity. Otherwise, the default aesthetic of the program is boring staging and generic character designs that waste the endless possibilities of animation as a medium.

It’s a shame that Strange Planet turned into a tedious boondoggle given the undeniably talented cast and crew assembled for the project. Most notably, gifted voice actors like Demi Adejuyigbe deliver amusing line deliveries whenever they can. Unfortunately, their gifts are never fully realized thanks to this show’s subpar writing. It’s just one of the many ways Strange Planet leaves a lot of potential for even basic laughs on the table. To paraphrase a Stephen King book: “sometimes, webcomics are better.”

Strange Planet premieres on Apple TV+ August 9th.

Strange Planet Trailer:

Lisa Laman

Lisa Laman (she/her) is a life-long movie fan whose byline has appeared in outlets like Polygon, Consequence, ScarleTeen, Collider, Fangoria, Looper, and, of course, The Spool. Residing both on the Autism spectrum and in Texas, Lisa adores pugs, showtunes, the Wes Anderson movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, and any songs by Carly Rae Jepsen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *