The following contains spoilers for the premiere of Ultra City Smiths: S1E1, “She Don’t Care,” and S1E2, “The King of the Night”
From the opening of Episode 1, “She Don’t Care,” Ultra City Smiths throws us into its world. Yes, there is a narrator (Tom Waits), but he doesn’t so much provide narrative framing and signposting as feed into the overall vibe of the show, with comments that are often elliptical or make oblique reference to things we have yet to learn. And this continues with Episode 2, “The King of the Night,” which ends by introducing us to a man who’s been released from prison, whom the narrator refers to as “the most dangerous man in the world”—clearly he knows more than we do, and more than he’s telling us, as he waxes philosophical about suits and wishes this nameless ex-con good luck.
Indeed, the first two episodes of Ultra City Smiths do more to set the tone of the series than anything else. The story has gotten going by the end of Episode 2, but it’s barely begun at the end of Episode 1—there is a good reason for these to be released (and watched) together.
On the one hand, the vibe of Ultra City is fairly straightforward—this is a dingy not-New York of an unspecified era, as if one took all of the worn cliches and tropes that have characterized stories set in the city over the years and rolled them into one. And this of course becomes hyperbolic in a way Ultra City Smiths leans into with its gangs composed of children and the running line about how Carpenter K. Smith (Kurtwood Smith) was the last hope to make Ultra City a kinder, gentler, all-around better place, while in contrast the current mayor’s reelection billboards feature him raising a middle finger. We don’t get to know a lot about Mayor Kevin De Maximum (Tim Heidecker) as Ultra City Smiths gets going, just that he’s dirty, which is befitting for this dirty, dirty city where the cops once failed to notice a baby left at their station for days. And of course our hero, Detective David Mills (Jimmi Simpson) is an outsider, discovering all of this grime and opening us up to it.
On the other hand, the vibe of Ultra City Smiths is quite bizarre, as this is a stop-animation show featuring stylized baby dolls. The mystery is thus shot through with a level of absurdity from the get-go, with the action presented in a style that is somewhat reminiscent of Robot Chicken (for obvious reasons).
But this is fitting for the humor of Ultra City Smiths, and the effect of putting this visual style together with an overblown version of urban decay works quite well to create an uncanniness that pervades the series. The plot gets dark fast, with Little Grace (Alia Shawkat) being assaulted and robbed, landing her in hot water with Rodrigo (Luis Guzman), Street Hustler Boy (Damon Herriman) struggling to afford both pants and a place to sleep, and of course the murder of the city’s last great hope, Carpenter K. Smith, but the darkness is all mitigated in its effect through the absurdity of the events and people in this town.
Carpenter K. Smith went missing after he went out for a pack of cigarettes (playing, of course, on a very old trope), but Donovan Smith aka The King of the Night (John C. Reilly) informs Mills and Gail (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) that Carpenter did not smoke. And then there’s the fact that his death involved a gun strung from a balloon…
Mills is a recovering alcoholic, but we’re diverted to his purported addiction to limes. Gail’s son Trevor is caught up in a gang, but we’re led to focus on the ridiculous fact that they wear Nixon masks. Everywhere Ultra City Smiths takes bleakness and pushes it into comedy not by pulling back from it but by taking it over the top, and the stop-motion animation somehow feeds into this effect.
This culminates in the reveal at the end of Episode 2, as the title of the show is explained and we learn that various characters we’ve met along the way all have or had the last name Smith: Andrea the Giant (Bebe Neuwirth), Donella Pecker (Kristen Bell), Sister Mary Margaret (Melissa Villaseñor), Trish McSapphire (Debra Winger), the aforementioned Street Hustler Boy, Detective Gail Johnson, Sissy Smith, and Donovan Smith (though there was nothing hidden about it with regard to those last two). Further, Mills reveals that he’s found DNA links between all of these Smiths and the deceased Carpenter K., along with evidence of each speaking to him in his final hours, thus setting up the mystery of the show moving forward.
There are almost too many characters in Ultra City Smiths to keep track of, particularly when most have been given so little screentime through the first two episodes. Yet what we do see manages to make them feel lived in quickly, whether it is the very fact of Trish McSapphire’s attempt to go incognito or Andrea the Giant being forced to take a dive in her match, Sister Mary Margaret joking about Congressman Chris Pecker (Dax Shepard) being involved in another scandal involving a picture of his…pecker, or The Most Dangerous Man in the World (Julian Barratt) slinking down the street in a suit that’s too large for him. We’ve only had brief scenes with Captain Krieger (Terry O’Quinn) and the Mayor, but we have something of a sense of them as well.
Putting it all together, on reflection, the two-episode premiere of Ultra City Smiths has given us quite a lot to work with and feel invested in. There are felt stakes in Little Grace’s trouble with Rodrigo, which implicate Andrea the Giant as well. Street Hustler Boy is immediately sympathetic, even if it kind of feels like he shouldn’t be from a moral point of view. Donella won me over immediately by leaving his husband during a press conference. And then of course there is the case of Carpenter K. Smith, along with the lingering thread of the police station baby, and the balloon…
Also, there have been two rather hilarious songs.
One can only hope that this all comes together over the course of the season into a story that coherently weaves these threads together. I expect that it will, and that it will be sublimely absurd at the same time.
Who killed Carpenter K. Smith, and how, and why? Coming upon the scene, Mills wondered if it might have been suicide, and I don’t think we should rule out the possibility.
Why did he go out for a pack of cigarettes when he did not smoke?
And how does The Most Dangerous Man in the World factor in to all of this?