The reboot continues to struggle with how to use its deep bench and find the tone for today.
First things first. Just to be very clear, Animaniacs remains a funny show. The writing staff led by showrunner Wellesley Wild is undoubtedly clever. They can turn a phrase. They can develop an idea. Likewise, the voice talents, especially the trio behind Dot (Tress MacNeille), Wakko (Jess Harnell), and Yakko (Rob Paulsen, who also provides Pinky’s voice), are quite funny and haven’t lost their gift for motormouthed gab in the years since the first series.
However, I do need to largely agree with B.L. Panther’s assessment of the first season. Animaniacs Season 2 still seems to be struggling to find its place in today’s landscape. Is it aiming for the first incarnation’s audience, namely people my age? Is it trying to appeal to middle-grade kids? Does it even know?
To be fair, Animaniacs has always been a backward-looking show. In the mid-90s, it was repeatedly referencing film noir and gangster films released before my parents were born. So when the show utilizes a reference that was current 20 years ago, it isn’t that different. Or perhaps it shouldn’t be. But by pulling from pop culture that its first incarnation unfolded alongside, it feels less like the show is drawing on evergreen references and more like it is rehashing its own heyday.
When diving into the current zeitgeist, as in a Pinky and the Brain feature that involves YouTube prominently, it feels similarly adrift. The references make sense, but the jokes feel a little aged. They’re more like the kind of cracks a Millennial would make about a Gen Zer’s viewing habits than something a Gen Z kid would observe about themselves. For a show that once seemed like it very much understood its audience, the distance is noticeable.
If all the reboot struggled with was how to pitch itself as both a nostalgia vehicle for the me-set and a show worthy of contemporary attention, though, there would still be plenty positive to say. Unfortunately, time and again, Animaniacs seems to be mismanaging its resources.
The series has a deep bench of characters and scenarios to draw on. Sure, the Warner Brothers and their Warner Sister Dot were always the headliners. Still, they typically played like gracious hosts. They showed up, stirred up hilarious trouble, and then yielded the floor to their talented “colleagues.” Now the show plays like The Warners & Pinky and the Brain Half-Hour Hullaballoo.
[Watching Animaniacs Season 2 is]…more like listening to a Greatest Hits album with a couple new tracks.
In fact, several episodes are literally only a Warners feature and a Pinky and the Brain feature. Others feature a Warners feature followed by a Pink and the Brain feature followed by a Wakko short. Or half a Warners feature (with Pinky and the Brain playing a part) bisected by a Pinky and the Brain feature followed by the second half of the Warners feature. It’s galling. My kingdom for Buttons and Mindy.
The season also has the misfortune of opening on perhaps the least welcome feature of all the episodes screened for critics. In it, the Warners find themselves in Roman times dealing with the mad Emperor Caligula. Except Caligula tends to speak in the cadence and catchphrases of a certain recent one-term President. There are good gags to be had—the pedantic nerd who keeps pointing out anachronisms may be a trope, but it works—but overall the whole thing feels unwelcome and underbaked. Maybe we should all just accept certain people are beyond satire?
To end where we began, almost none of this undercuts the central reality that Animaniacs Season 2 is still funny. It’s just more like listening to a Greatest Hits album with a couple new tracks. The band can still play, but for the first time, they’re chasing the now, not leading the way.
Animaniacs bursts free of their water tower prison once again to land on Hulu on November 5th.