“Crossing Swords,” Hulu’s new adult animated series from John Harvatine IV and Tom Root of “Robot Chicken,” feels as though it was flung forward from a distant past. That’s not because of its story, which follows a young would-be do-gooder as he begins a career as a squire in a corrupt royal court. Nor is it solely thanks to its style of animation, a striking visual language that immediately evokes the holiday television specials of Rankin Bass and vintage wooden toys. No, what makes “Crossing Swords” feel like such a throwback is its streak of self-satisfied cynicism, delivered at a shout. It’s reasonably funny sometimes—a relief, that, as ‘profane’ and ‘funny’ are its only obvious goals—but hearkens back to a time when shows like “South Park” and “Family Guy” felt consistently new and fresh.
There’s no rule that says that a streak of sardonic smugness can’t be appealing anymore. Nor would this writer ever dare suggest that there’s no art to a well-delivered expletive (“Veep” and “Succession” are but two recent masters of the form). But “Crossing Swords” doesn’t just give the impression of being something of a relic. It’s also a lazy one.
It’s a shame, because there’s a hell of a voice cast throwing their all into this stew of dick jokes and ironic detachment. Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) wants one thing in life, and it’s something he sees both as his destiny and his only opportunity for penance: to win a place as squire in the court of King Merriman (Luke Evans), Queen Tulip (Alanna Ubach), and Princess Blossom (Maya Erskine). His impulse to make amends is a reasonable one, stemming from a series-opening childhood incident that involved destroying a nest of endangered dragon eggs, burning down a pretty significant chunk of the town, and killing a whole bunch of cats. In Patrick’s defense, however, that’s mostly on his nightmarish siblings: Blarney (Tony Hale), a drunk birthday clown and middling con artist; Coral (Tara Strong), a pirate queen who loves a nutshot; and Ruben (Adam Ray), a Robin Hood-type with all of the self-aggrandizement and none of the generosity. When an unexpected victory finally gets him his heart’s desire, he discovers that the royal family just might be even more screwed up and selfish than his own. Also, he has a friend named Broth (Adam Pally), who’s entered the squire tournament many, many times (“Eighth time’s the charm, as the saying goes.”)
Broth’s name is absolutely the best thing about him, if not the only good thing. (It is, in fact, one of the best things about the series—“Best part of any soup, also as the saying goes.”) Despite his 900:1 odds of winning the tournament, he winds up squiring alongside Patrick, because he’s a “diversity hire.” He’s a blue-eyed, blonde-haired viking. That’s the joke. He gets hired even though he’s inept because vikings need more representation. That’s emblematic of a not-insignificant portion of the punchlines in “Crossing Swords”; it’s somehow topped in “My Super Sweet Period Party,” an episode in which Princess Blossom gets her first period and realizes she’ll soon have to wear a royal chastity belt. It’s locked with a “patriar-key,” and if you think that little zinger cancels out the many, many jokes about how gross menstruation is, perhaps you’re not thinking too clearly; you must be on your period. As for the diversity hire gag, it, at least, isn’t made worse by the empty platitudes that conclude “My Super Sweet Period Party”—though it also doesn’t benefit from Erskine’s deft performance, which manages to occasionally sound some emotional resonance amidst all the edgy clanging.
Surprisingly, while the series does actually improve as it progresses through its first two episodes, its successes often have little to do with the more deliberate attempts at comedy. When a circumcision, diarrhea, or semen joke goes nowhere, a piece of actual storytelling can sometimes rise to fill the void. That’s especially true of the late-arriving “The Snow Job” and “The A-mooo0-sing Race.” The former gets a huge lift from a terrific Natasha Lyonne vocal performance and a relatively simple story about knowing what you want and helping yourself to get it; the latter is far more complicated, sending nearly all the show’s main characters into the lair of a dramatic Minotaur, a highlight both from a plotting standpoint and for the show’s visual flair. It ends with a somewhat inspired reference to one of the great films of the last decade, and while the jokes that precede that final sequence could generously be called tired, that last bit makes it all worthwhile.
That’s in part because it’s a great use of animation. For all its other flaws, “Crossing Swords” succeeds in building a specific language of texture and viscosity, specifically when it comes to bodily fluids and, more broadly, violence. The blood always looks like jam, and it’s far more repulsive for it; that’s true of nearly all liquids. There’s a lot of peg-person carnage on this show, so there’s plenty of jam to go around, and it’s to the show’s credit that it does not shy away from the brutality, which allows the reality of life under King Merriman to become just that much more immediate. Just wait until they first travel to a foreign land; the carnage is both upsetting and very funny.
It’s not the only instance in which “Crossing Swords” manages to land a punchline with a point, but such moments are sadly rare. By the time the season reaches its final hour, Harvatine, Root, and company have established a simple and reasonably engaging little adventure yarn with some interesting moral wrinkles, but it takes a long time to get there. The soup isn’t always done on the first try. Sometimes it isn’t even done on the second. Let’s hope that should “Crossing Swords” get another opportunity to give this world a whirl, it manages to freshen things up a bit. They’re unlikely to find out if the eighth time really is the charm.
Whole season screened for review.