Hidden depths? Try a cartoon

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The Independent Online
In jobs like this you find it difficult not to use the word "cartoon" pejoratively. This week Ain't Misbehavin' (ITV, Mon) gives you ample scope to exercise your prejudices. Made with real-life actors - and some very fine ones at that, as well as Jerome Flynn and Robson Green - it none the less has the diagrammatic plot twists and flat characterisations commonly found in Boy's Own comics. Extraordinary to think that this tale of black- marketeering in blitzkrieged London was drawn - sorry, written - by Bob Larbey, who turned in all those inch-perfect portraits of the capital's suburban front-line in The Good Life. This is more like The Wood Life.

And yet one of the great advantages of the cartoon - that it can afford to be ambitious in its set-piece scenes, because big explosions don't cost more to draw - is denied to Ain't Misbehavin'. The opening sequence finds Flynn on his first outing as a trainee fighter pilot. He has a blackout that will force his ejection into civilian life, and prangs the plane. You know he has had a prang because you see the reaction shot of all his colleagues watching. Plus there's a loud bang. There aren't so many Spitfires left (or is it Hurricanes?) that a cheap cartoon can afford to total one.

Of course, it's not as if everyone involved didn't know they were deploying the grammar of the cartoon. The coppers and the gangsters and, in a selfless performance by George Melly, one fat old jazzer, are all skillfully hammed, but it's dispiriting that with the guillotine very publicly suspended over several of ITV's current dramas, here comes a new one with even less interest in psychological depth than Bodyguards.

For genuine profundity of characterisation, you have to go to a real cartoon, rather than an ersatz one. King of the Hill (C4, Fri), set in suburban Texas, comes from Mike Beavis and Butt-head Judge and Greg "used to write The Simpsons" Daniels. It inherits B&B's economy of draughtsmanship, so that you find out very little about these characters from the way their faces move. But the scripts are as detailed and subtly attuned as anything dispatched from the suburbs by Larbey.

In the pilot episode, the battle lines are quickly drawn. Hank Hill and his coterie of good ol' good-for-nuthins are necking beer in the yard, when Boomhauer, the dimmest of them, who spouts streams of Southern semi- consciousness, describes the previous night's episode of Seinfeld as "the show 'bout nothin'". The residents of Arlen, Texas aren't such hicks that they don't watch the stuff beamed at them from the big city, but metropolitan values, as represented by the stick-thin social worker from LA who tries to get Hank's only son Bobby into custody, are not welcome here. "Twig Boy" finds himself on the coach out of town by the end of the episode, symbolically abolished from small-town life.

His meddling does yield one rich comic gain, when Hank's frowsily bespectacled wife Peggy forces her husband to tell Bobby how much he loves him. People don't do that where he comes from. Hank is the classically put-upon sitcom hero, a man's man who knows his way around the engine of his truck but can do less about the unmasculine narrowness of his urethra. It's no surprise that the staple elements of his life should already have been mined for comedy elsewhere. From Parenthood, for instance, you'll recognise the compromised relationship between the father who coaches the baseball side and the son who is conspicuously the least talented player in it. But the genius is in the detail. Cartoons are notionally thought to be for kids, but most of this is so finely wrought it would be lost on them.

When Jurassic Park was released, Channel 4 opportunistically ran a season of programmes about dinosaurs. Now that The Lost World is upon us, guess what? Here's Dinosaur Cops (C4, Thurs), another ride hitched on the palaeo- wagon. Its main message was that you shouldn't underestimate the power of cartoons. Before Jurassic Park, there was virtually no trade in dinosaur remains. Now there is, in a kind of verite extension of the merchandising operation. The plotline was virtually identical to The Lost World: the good guys try to foil those bent on commercialising the dinosaur. Unlike the story handled by Steven Spielberg, there was not a lot of drama. The dinosaur cop, and indeed the film-maker who followed him, would probably both have been grateful to borrow some of the architecture of the cartoon, where resolutions are guaranteed and the good guys always prosper by the time the credits roll.