Among the few television shows currently on air that talk about race in America, FOX’s new animated series “Bordertown” is one that takes the issue head on. Originally slated to appear on FOX’s animated lineup in 2013, “Bordertown” ’s setup involves two racially diverse families and tackles the “clash between cultures” concept commonly seen in TV comedies with promising but mixed results.
From the minds of “Family Guy”’s Mark Hentemann and controversial animator Seth McFarlane, “Bordertown” takes place in the fictitious Mexifornia, which sits on the U.S.-Mexico border. There, we meet the bigoted border patrol officer Bud Buckwald (Hank Azaria, “The Simpsons”), who lives next door to the amiable Ernesto Gonzalez (Nicholas Gonzalez, “Resurrection Blvd”). As established in the show’s manic opening credits, there is a subtle shift in class status, with the Buckwalds residing in a shabby, dull-colored house and the Gonzalezes living in a pleasant, brightly-colored home. In addition to Bud and Ernesto’s supportive wives and dysfunctional families, Bud’s shrill daughter Janice (Alex Borstein, “Family Guy”) and Ernesto’s stuffy, college-educated nephew J.C. (also Gonzalez) are involved in a romantic relationship and eventually become engaged, causing racial and cultural tensions to ensue between the two families.
“Bordertown” is definitely timely, using blunt, dark humor to underscore stinging sociopolitical commentary in the likes of “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “South Park.” But while the show highlights burgeoning progressive ideals in our society — interracial relationships, immigration laws, cultural assimilation — it tries so hard to replicate the insight found in the aforementioned animated sitcoms that it often misses more than it hits. Because “Bordertown” both embraces and satirizes PC culture, as well as other issues regarding modern America, it has trouble balancing between insensitive jokes and engaging social consciousness.
The plot in the show’s pilot episode, “The Engagement,” starts off with potential, but quickly dissolves into a mediocre retread of raunchy animated sitcoms. A new anti-immigration law is introduced and eventually passed, which delights Bud but leads to J.C.’s accidental deportation, despite him being a legal American citizen. With J.C. and Janice’s engagement threatened, Bud and Ernesto seek to retrieve J.C., yet their teamwork doesn’t really incite a friendship between the two.
Some bits in the pilot elicit a laugh or chuckle, though most go for the offensive and tasteless. But for all “Bordertown”’s tiresome aspects, the least developed are the characters, most of whom are (literally) drawn as caricatures of their respective stereotypes. Bud represents a familiarly flawed TV patriarch, taking from the oafishness of “Family Guy” ’s Peter Griffin and “South Park” ’s Randy Marsh, but even those characters offered some depth and humor to their shows. While Ernesto seems to be subverting many cultural stereotypes, his disposition as a family man is his only real defining characteristic.
The only character who has some redeemable qualities is J.C., who portrays a modernized, assimilated Mexican-American. But even as refreshingly honest as he can be, J.C. isn’t necessarily likable, especially in one scene where he makes an explicitly meta reference to how Mexicans are commonly depicted. After J.C. is ejected from a “deportation cannon” and lands in Mexico, he finds a throng of people gathered around a tortilla that allegedly contains the Virgin Mary (a phenomenon that apparently happens in real life). J.C. interrupts and exclaims that the scene “only reinforces a negative cultural stereotype,” to which the Virgin Mary emerges from the tortilla and chastises J.C. before returning to heaven.
It’ll be interesting to see how much farther along “Bordertown” will go in the route of spotlighting relevant matters regarding racism and immigration towards Mexican-Americans. Perhaps an episode that delves into the contradicting perceptions of Donald Trump’s racist demagoguery in the 2016 presidential race would make for some intriguing television. But for now, “Bordertown” needs to improve on how it can make its budding premise into something that is both funny and compelling.