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"Downtown" on MTV

By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 23, 1999:  I'm not sure what it takes to be hip these days. Once upon a time, it was hip to be hip. Jumping on the latest trends, wearing the coolest clothes and striving for popularity worked just fine from the conformity-crazed '50s up through the Reaganized '80s. But then that whole grunge thing came along, got accepted into the mainstream and suddenly it was hip to be as unhip as possible. Movies went indie. Unpolished garage bands started getting big dollar record contracts. Fashion models started adopting the "heroin chic" look. Before long, everybody was a walking billboard for the tattooed, pierced, anti-trend, anti-establishment, anti-everything generation -- which, of course, meant that all the aggressively unhip people suddenly had hipness thrust back upon them. But has unhipness finally become passé? Now that all the geeks, loners and death metal aficionados are shooting up high schools, will they go back to being the fringe-dwelling social outcasts they used to be? I'm so confused.

The point I'm getting at -- in a rather roundabout way -- is that MTV's newest animated series "Downtown" treads a fine line between the tragically hip and the tragically unhip. I'm not sure which it is ... but I dig it.

"Downtown" focuses on the adventures of a gang of young, shiftless denizens of New York's grubby (yet paradoxically trendy) SoHo area. Call it the anti-"Friends" if you like. Alex is the main character in this ensemble stew. He's a toy-loving geek who works at a low-rent copy shop and worries whether or not his purchase of a mint condition Mr. T doll will turn off the cute goth chick who works at the comic book store. Among the other decidedly MTV-style denizens of this alterna-toon are Jen (Alex's sexually non-threatening best friend), Goat (scary-looking metalhead), Chaka (aggressive cute chick), Mecca (passive cute chick), Fruity (token cool black guy) and Matt (token Shaggy look-alike). Comic books, copy shops, coffeehouses, 'zines, struggling alternative bands -- it's all so 1993!

So why in the heck is "Downtown" so addictively entertaining? Maybe because the show ignores all the "what's cool and what's not" quandaries and rushes ahead with a disarming realism. Most of the dialogue in "Downtown" is improvised. The conversations have the spontaneous and unrehearsed spark of real human speech and not the predictable cadence of rote sitcom dialogue. The characters are amusing in their human foibles (Alex is so similar to my pal Scott it creeped me out). The situations (moving into a new apartment, for example) are effectively real life.

"Downtown" -- with its visual flights of everyday fancy and its "captured on the street" dialogue -- owes a big debt to feature film animator Ralph Bakshi, whose early work (especially Heavy Traffic) seems like a prime precursor to this gritty, witty toon.

So just ignore the fact that it's on MTV. And that it probably follows the painfully contrived "Real World." And that adult toons are really trendy right now. Catch "Downtown" because it's cool (or not).

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