I mentioned on our recent Caucus that I wasn’t turned away from the hype that Napoleon Dynamite got when it washed upon the population a few years ago. Everyone remembers the lines, the quirky characters, and the desolate Idaho setting, but what kept the movie fresh was its distinctive slow-paced humor. Since no one from the original film has had a career since its mid-00s limelight (Jim Heder continued to be Jim Heder, the married director/writer/producer Hess duo went on to produce Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos, both relative failures) it makes sense that they would roll back to stock for another run at a regular paycheck. To its credit, it almost works.
The problem with Napoleon Dynamite as a series is its peanut butter-and-jelly manufacture. Jared Hess and his wife Jerusha collaborated with TV producer Mike Scully to produce the series, of which six episodes have been produced with Fox upping the order to thirteen this past July. Scully, as you may remember, served as showrunner for The Simpsons at the tail-end of its Golden Age, driving its quality into the garbage over the late 90s. As a show, Napoleon Dynamite has to trade in its standard minute-long jokes with antithetical punchlines for snappy, machine gun zingers. Napoleon’s guardians, Grandma and Uncle Rico, have been sped up and almost don’t sound like their original versions. The entire cast returned to reprise their acts from the film, including Hilary Duff’s sister as Summer, and they all sound just like they did nearly a decade ago.
The show makes every attempt to call back to the movie, but a bunch of crappy antics were squeezed into the gaps to fill time. For every decent, down-to-earth attempt at humor comes some cringeworthy, fantastical element. For example, Uncle Rico recruits Napoleon’s practicing magician brother Kip for a ‘get rich quick’ scheme (SOUND FAMILIAR?!?!?!) based on his talent in contact juggling (okay, good start), but as soon as they hit the street corner and make money, a group of ‘street freaks’ appear from nowhere and begin to chuck chainsaws at them (…). Instead of feeling like a genuine extension of the film’s resourceful imagination, it just feels like zany Simpsons antics from that show’s crappy run under Scully with a cheap Jim Heder mask duct taped to it. There’s something magical in here, somewhere deep inside, but this isn’t it.