“Stressed Eric” is being billed as NBC’s first primetime animated series since “The Flintstones,” but Bedrock was never like this. The show’s antihero is so unfathomably pathetic that he makes Homer Simpson look like Bill Gates. The show has things that earlier cartoons couldn’t have imagined: vomit jokes, booze jokes, self-absorbed twit jokes — even jokes about the sex life of doctors. It’s what nighttime cartoons have become in the age of “South Park.”
This is not to say that “Stressed Eric” is just another doltish product of the adult cartoon trend. Quite the contrary.
For one thing, the show is wry and smart. For another, it was born in England, airing originally on Britain’s BBC2. In fact, the pair of episodes supplied for screening are the British version rather than the Americanized edition featuring “Simpsons” vet Hank Azaria as lead voice and co-producer.
What it means is that this review isn’t based entirely on what viewers will be watching this week. The version meant for American ears was being edited right up until airtime, though an NBC spokeswoman insisted that it is pretty much the same script and show minus the pesky British accent of the lead character.
Evidently, NBC believes that folks on this side of the Atlantic could have some problems deciphering English as spoken in the country of its birth. “Stressed Eric” may, then, be the first English-language TV series ever to be redubbed into English.
Anyway, if the Americanized edition of “Stressed Eric” is half as inspired as what Brits and a few U.S. TV critics have seen, then audiences are in for a midsummer night’s treat with this short-run summertime cartoon about a Type-A worker drone and father traveling perilously close to the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Eric Feeble (voiced by Azaria in the unpreviewed American version) belongs in the Stress Hall of Fame. As the first episode opens, he’s late for work, his pants are drying in the microwave, his hyper-allergic daughter has just eaten cereal that’s grotesquely swollen her tongue, his mute son is dressed like a sheep, the au pair is hungover after a night of pub crawling and his self-centered ex-wife is off getting her body waxed and prodded. (She: “I’m going for a swim in the lake of me.”)
The premiere from scribes Carl Gorham and Michael Hatt is pretty much one stress-producing disaster after another for lovable loser Eric, complete with humiliation from an abusive boss and neighbors who are so cloyingly perfect that even their surname is Perfect.
A second seg has Eric getting slammed by every indignity that can possibly occur in a hospital. It’s more than a little bit sadistic, yet wickedly funny at the same time.
What sends “Stressed Eric” beyond the bounds of mere sick toon is its deftly inserted social commentary. In the second episode, Eric is appalled to find every doctor, nurse, surgeon and orderly rushing off to attend to a privately insured patient sporting a cracked fingernail. And we see that his daughter Claire Feeble is playing with a doll labeled “Non-Allergic Desecration Dolly — All of the Cuddles With None of the Rash!”
Whether “Stressed Eric” is too twisted to find anything approaching a mass audience is more or less a moot point, given its low-expectation August launch. If it shows any signs of Nielsen life at all, however, it should inspire NBC to be more open to bolder comedy material to snare the beloved 18-49 demo.
Of course, this is all contingent on the American English version being anything like the British English version. Perhaps subtitles would have served as a sound compromise.