Rarely have I seen a show that mixes the macabre with the hilariously insane in such a delectable way. The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, which aired on Cartoon Network between 2001 and 2008 (unusually long for the network) and was created by one Maxwell Atoms, I liked quite a bit when I was young and eventually grew up to outright loving – in spite of the lessons it may teach about how love is for the weak-minded and how forced happiness can cause an irreversible rip in the space-time continuum.
The show originated as a segment on the Grim & Evil series, the other segment being Evil con Carne, which is another story for another time. The two segments eventually spun off into their own shows, with Billy and Mandy being the most successful one by far.
The premise is that the Grim Reaper himself (voiced beautifully by Greg Eagles) ascends to the Earth to retrieve the soul of a hamster. However, he loses big-time in a magical game of limbo that, instead of allowing him to return to the Underworld with the harvested soul, forces him to be best friends forever with two young children: the hamster’s owner Billy, who annoys all and is possibly the most incessantly crazy and unintelligent character TV has ever produced, and Mandy, a manipulative and intimidating queen of darkness who never cracks a smile. The once fearsome Grim becomes real pathetic real fast, albeit a funnier character because of it. The two kids are voiced by Richard Steven Horvitz and Grey DeLisle, both of them terrific.
Episodes usually involve Grim, when he’s not busy devising plans to get rid of his new slavers, using his powers to follow through on their requests – be it Billy’s phenomenally stupid wishes or Mandy simply bossing him around for her own gain – which results in all manners of absurd and morbid escapades. Of course they encounter a rich variety of side-characters along the way.
This cast includes Billy’s nerdy best friend Irwin, who crushes on Mandy something fierce; a school bully named Sperg (Eagles again); a spoiled alpha female named Mindy (Rachael MacFarlane); a pitiful ginger boy named Pud’n; a demonic entity with powerful tentacles and a nice tux named Nergal (David Warner); the abominable child of Nergal and Billy’s aunt Sis; Billy’s almost equally dumb father Harold; his psychotic mother Gladys (Jennifer Hale); a goddess of chaos named Eris (MacFarlane again); a brawny bounty hunter with a metallic hand plus an eyepatch named Hoss Delgado (Diedrich Bader); a version of Dracula that’s more akin to Blackula (Phil LaMarr); a group of Harry Potter parodies (including a spoof of the Sorting Hat voiced by “Weird Al” Yankovic); Billy’s son who is also a giant spider, and General Skarr – a character carried over from the Evil con Carne series. There’s also Fred Fredburger but we do not speak of him.
In a way, the show combines the best parts of Cow and Chicken and Courage the Cowardly Dog. The former show was also enjoyably deranged, as well as vulgar in ways that eluded the Cartoon Network censors, and the latter show also found a lot of beauty in the horrific. Although, whereas Courage took its time to be deeply emotional (especially by kid’s shows standards) and frequently gave us happy endings, Billy and Mandy is completely comical in its approach and isn’t scared to give us episodes that end with the entire cast getting killed off or erased from existence with the moral of the story being that everything we just saw was meaningless. Basically, both of the creepy shows are wonderful, but for very different reasons.
It isn’t just the rapid-fire nuttiness that makes the show work, however. It has a great deal to do with the central cast and how they work off each other. Some would argue that Billy is singularly the most annoying cartoon character ever conceived, and even if I agreed and didn’t find him genuinely amusing in his over-the-top stupidity, the reason he works is that you can sympathize with the people who fall victim to his ways. Mandy might be pure evil and Grim might be Death itself, and yet they still seem very human whenever they react to whatever nonsense they’re subjected to “this week”. One wonders why Mandy even agrees to hang out with someone like Billy. Is it because he’s so easy to take advantage of, in spite of his destructive tendencies, or is he per chance the only person she cares about?
In whichever case, every character is at least entertaining in their own right. My favorite is probably Mandy but the one that’s the most sympathetic is in all likelihood General Skarr. Irwin and Pud’n can be pretty miserable too but their pain is played-for-laughs in a way that works, so never mind.
The show is stylistically appealing and the characters are animated with energy and detail; often more so than usual in so-called Gross-Up Close-Ups, which were made popular by Ren & Stimpy and then ruined when SpongeBob started overusing them and essentially desensitized fans to their comedic effect. Either way, Billy and Mandy was always funny to look at, even when I was too young to appreciate all the sneaky adult humor and the movie references.
Whether you prefer the earlier episodes for their dark and sadistic nature, or the later ones for their unrestrained insanity where the Kafka comedy wasn’t as rampant (but thankfully still a key factor to the show’s greatness), the fact remains that this was one of Cartoon Network’s last truly great shows. At least for a while. I don’t know many people who cared for the Johnny Test (at least un-ironically), Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends or the utterly worthless My Gym Partner’s A Monkey, but I’ve heard some really promising things about more recent shows like Adventure Time and The Amazing World of Gumball.
The point is that an era that some would say ended with Ed, Edd n Eddy and Samurai Jack ended, to me, with Billy and Mandy. It is a disgustingly tasty brew of pessimistic black comedy, unrelentingly wacky surrealism, mostly well-executed gross-out jokes, unforgettable characters, creative designs, stellar animation, cynical commentary, great music (I needn’t mention the songs by Voltaire) and several other things that I love. Because of a somewhat weak final season, I can’t go so far as to give it my highest rating, but that doesn’t make it any less of a favorite to put on during a marathon night. It never got the seasonal rot that Dexter’s Laboratory suffered, so I’m good.