Before I review this show, I have to tell you a bit about my history with the character and the movies.
Once, long ago, Lady Steed and I checked out a Final Cut VHS tape from the Orem Public Library that featured the BYU student film, Peluca, that later appeared at Slamdance and from which we can draw a direct line to Napoleon Dynamite. Same character (though he was named Seth at the time) and some of the same brilliant moments later colorized for the film-film.
We and our friends the Dugans used to show Peluca to people just to see how they would react. Us, we loved it devotedly. We watched it dozens of times. And showing it to someone new was a pretty foolproof way to predict the future of our friendship.
Napoleon Dynamite premiered at Sundance just after the birth of our first child so, even though we were in Utah and had attended Sundance the year before, we did not even bother looking at the listings. When Napoleon became the breakout hit I was heartbroken that we had missed it and would not be able to see it until wide release.
The day of wide release, we took the baby and went to the first Provo show.
And from the opening second when Jon Heder stares out and sighs, I began laughing. I’ve been laughing ever since. We saw it in theaters I think eight times. I’m relatively certain our son will never see any other movie more times in theaters than he saw Napoleon the first year of his life.
For the record, it was also the first thing we let him watch on a tv screen. It was his favorite movie as a toddler and among his first words are Napoleon quotes.
On to the tv show.
Given our history with the films, we are primed to be either the television program’s greatest boosters or greatest enemies. Lady Steed watched parts of the first two episodes with me and declared it dumb and hasn’t watched it since.
A filmmaker friend of mine watched those same two episodes and also didn’t care for them, despite admitting the occasional LOL. “The Hess crew has gone into the bizarre non-sequitor world of Family Guy and (sadly) the later Simpsons,” he says. “I wish they had held to the level [of] bizarreness of the film, and kept it based a little more in reality like (my all time favorite long running cartoon) King of the Hill.”
I agree with this assessment. Mostly. And perhaps it’s telling that, at present, the most egregious examples of this bizarreness are not offered as clips on Hulu. You’ll have to watch the episodes to find them.
It may be useful to think of the Napoleon Dynamite tv show like the scifi clips from Gentleman Broncos; the film, in this simile, is like the real-life moments of that film. Bizarre, but not impossible. King of the Hill, not Family Guy.
That should help you get past the weirdness of a Mad Max gladiator silo hidden in a Preston corn field. And on to the good stuff.
I laughed more at the third episode than I did at the first two together (though the Gentleman Broncos comparisons will be impossible to avoid in this one), and more still at the fourth episode. Which, except for a lapse at the end, is entirely grounded in the sort of real-world comedy the movies provided us with. Yes, heightened to a cartoon level, but this is the Preston we know from the movie.
Part of what makes the Hesses’ Preston so fresh in the world of modern entertainment is its decided lack of irony. Napoleon may lie about wolverines in Alaska, but he is never ironic. His relationship with truth—and his feelings—is pure. When he tells you to follow your heart, he means it. Like the episode-four line I quoted for the title of this post, he’s no detached hipster too cool to care about his friends. The only ironic characters in Napoleon Dynamite are Summer and Don—the bad guys.
Because the fourth episode is the most like the films (the fifth may be online by the time this posts, but is not part of my survey), it’s easy to hope that the show will grow closer to what made the films great, and also to see what’s getting in the way of the show matching the film’s grandeur.
For instance, the tv show is paced too quickly. This prevents the long pauses and awkward joys that help make Napoleon Dynamite the particular brand of awesome it is. In a rather terrific montage (still talking about the fourth episode, here), they find a way around this problem by returning to a scene of Napoleon playing chess with himself more than once. Still. The chess would have been funnier if he could have just sat, breathing, unmoving, for a little too long before the cut. Alas. I blame the network and the 22-minute slot and remote controls.
I suspect some of the show’s jokes work better for fans of the film. (But I don’t have a control group to test this for me.) (And, considering how Twitter lights up every time the film’s on Comedy Central, maybe we don’t need to care if nonfans don’t get it.)
In a more obvious example, the fourth episode even features a dance scene à la the film (which I think may have just been rotoscoped film footage?!). At first first this seems like a desperate ploy to make us remember how much we love the film. Then, to deflate that sensation, they throw us a rather obvious twist. Then, a brilliant twist. Just brilliant. Though you still need to have seen the movie first.
I’ll tell you this: episode four was enough to make me certain I’ll be watching the show. It’s not just funny, I’ve discovered. It’s Napoleon Dynamite.