Michael After Midnight: The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy
Ah, October, a month where the internet becomes obsessed with ghosts and goblins in preparation for Halloween. And really, can I fault the people for that? The dark, macabre, and spooky make for great entertainment! Plenty of great scary movies out there for the adults to enjoy to get into the spirit, but what about kids? Well, there’s Goosebumps and all those other shows like it, but what about a dark, macabre cartoon filled with spooky shit?
Enter The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, one of the best Cartoon Network cartoons ever made. Released in August of 2001, it came just in time for that year’s Halloween, and lasted six years, with seven seasons under its belt. During that time, the show endeared itself to audiences with its combination of dark comedy, grossout humor, and just plain weird situations…though weirdness is par for the course when you’re pals with the Grim Reaper, I suppose.
So what is the plot of this cartoon? Well, one day a hamster owned by a stupid boy named Billy was about to die, and the Grim Reaper came to take him. Billy’s cunning, evil best friend Mandy decided to make a bet with the Grim Reaper; they have a game of limbo, and if he wins he gets the hamster… but if THEY win, he has too be their best friend forever. Of course, he loses, and then he becomes the put-upon pal of these two kids as they boss him around and force him to entertain them. Much hilarity (and chaos) ensues.
This show’s greatest asset was its variety. With Grim onboard, any sort of plot could be possible, from sci-fi stories where the gang fought aliens or mutant chickens to more horrifying stores where they fought demons, monsters, and other denizens of the underworld. And sometimes they would do something really weird, like the episode-long dream sequence in which Billy imagines he’s in the Wild West confronting the cowboy Tooth Fairy. This helps most of the episodes feel fresh, because going in you don’t know if you’re gonna get a story about a killer tricycle or an episode-long reference to Suspiria. Speaking of which, the show is pretty clever in its references, slipping in TONS of content for adult fans, from numerous dirty jokes that will fly over kid’s heads to references to movies no kid would see, such as the aforementioned Suspiria or Hellraiser. As there’s not much continuity here, this show is super easy to jump into at any episode and just watch and have a good experience, which is another plus; sometimes it’s nice to have a simple show driven only by its desire to tell jokes rather than tell an overarching story. And thankfully, the jokes here are mostly good, and have as much variety as the episodes themselves. One memorable episode is just an episode-long series of fart jokes, while another episode gets its laughs from giant mutant chickens and cannibalism. It’s THAT kind of show.
Now, none of these situations would be quite as good if the protagonists weren’t entertaining, so how are they? Let’s start with the guy whose name comes first in the title (technically speaking): Grim. Grim, the personification of Death with an inexplicable Jamaican accent, is bizarrely the straight man in this show… well, usually. When he has to deal with Billy, he plays the role with ease, but with Mandy, Grim can sometimes get a bit silly, though rarely to Billy’s level. As he is typically what allows the strange and supernatural hijinks of the show to occur, be it on purpose or inadvertently, he’s easily the coolest main character, and due to his put-upon nature and how sympathetic he ends up being due to the shit Billy and Mandy put him through, he’s also the most likable.
Billy is up next, and he is the stereotypical idiot comic relief character cranked up to 11. He’s stupid to the point it is stated by his principal in one episode that a shovel and two candy bracelets actually scored higher on an IQ test than he did (they got a positive 17; he got -5). Think Ed from fellow Cartoon Network cartoon Ed, Edd n Eddy, only with a bigger nose and voiced by Richard Steven Horvitz of Invader Zim and Psychonauts fame. Unlike Ed, though, the dangerous and supernatural experiences they faced combined with an occasional lack of empathy and his tendency to be a jerk can make Billy a bit of a divisive character; I tend to enjoy him quite a bit, but there are a few episodes where even he tried my patience. Still, overall he’s an enjoyable dope.
Then we have… Mandy. I’m just gonna say it: by the time the show came to an end, Mandy was easily the worst main character, maybe even the worst character on the show period. She’s typically portrayed as the Ultimate Evil, this epic child chess master who always comes out on top and never faces any sort of consequence for what she does. It’s a rare episode that sees her punished for her actions. However, in episodes where she’s not trying to pull off some evil scheme and is just reacting to the madness around her, she’s a solid character. The fact she’s voiced by Grey DeLisle does help things a bit.
As I said, there is very little continuity between episodes, but there is some, mostly in the form of reoccurring characters. In a show like this, the ensemble cast as well as one-shot characters really need to be on point, and boy oh boy are they ever in this show! This show may have one of the best and most enjoyable ensemble casts in a cartoon ever. The big standouts are Hoss Delgado, the buff monster hunter who is basically a combination of Ash Williams and Snake Plissken, with all that badassery that implies; Eris, the sexy and tricky goddess of chaos; Jeff, a gigantic spider (voiced by Maxwell Atoms, the show’s creator) who is Billy’s ‘son’ and just wants his spider-hating father’s love; General Skarr, a character from Evil Con Carne who is a cunning evil man who wants to usurp power and rule the world… or he used to be, now he just wants to tend his garden in peace; and, last but definitely not least, motherfuckin’ Dracula, voiced by Phil LaMarr and based visually on Blackula, who is basically a nonstop fountain of hilarity. Each of these characters is fantastic, funny, and able to fit into a variety of weird situations the show pops out. And this brilliance and hilarity extends to one-shot characters as well, such as the much-loved singing evil meteor and Jack O’Lantern, characters who had one appearance each but easily endeared themselves with fans. If there’s a weak link in any of the ensemble cast, it would probably be Fred Fredburger; while he’s not devoid of funny moments, his schtick was really overplayed and he ended up becoming an unofficial mascot for the series in the ads, which led to overexposure. It leads people to think he had a bigger part in the show than he did, when he had a few episodes and then appeared in a few of the specials.
Interestingly, Billy & Mandy is probably one of the few shows that really benefited from getting wackier as the show went on. The first season, when the show was Grim & Evil, is, for lack of a better word, a bit grim. The episodes still have comedy, but a lot of them just aren’t as funny as later episodes, and not many of the series mainstays pop up here, aside from Nergal, Eris, and Hoss. That’s not to say there’s nothing memorable here – “Little Rock of Horrors”is in the first season, after all – but the first season just doesn’t stack up quite as well to later ones. Season 2 introduces Jeff and Nigel Planter and has the legendary Halloween special, while season 3 has classics like “Here Thar Be Dwarves”and brings in Grim’s school bully Boogie. They only get better from here, save for season 7, which is easily the least memorable season of them all (though it does have its exceptions, particularly “Wrath of the Spider Queen").
Now, normally this is where I would wrap up, but first, I want to do something a little different. I’m going to list the 25 episodes I think are essential viewing for the best Billy & Mandy experience. I’m not going to review each episode or even detail them, because it would basically be me explaining jokes and how they’re funny. These are just the episodes I think anyone getting in should see. So without further ado…
25. Attack of the Clowns
24. One Crazy Summoner
23. The Loser from the Earth’s Core
22. Toadblatt’s School of Sorcery
21. Wrath of the Spider Queen
20. Home of the Ancients
19. Nursery Crimes
18. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
17. Giant Billy and Mandy All-Out Attack
16. Nigel Planter and the Chamber Pot of Secrets
15. Modern Primitives
14. Prank Call of Cthulhu
12. The Secret Snake Club
11. Jeffy’s Web
10. Fear and Loathing in Endsville
9. Here Thar Be Dwarves
8. Goodbling and the Hip-hop-opotamus
7. Billy and Mandy Moon the Moon
6. My Fair Mandy
5. Keeper of the Reaper
4. Little Rock of Horrors
2. Billy and Mandy’s Jacked-Up Halloween
1. Billy and Mandy Save Christmas
Now this is by no means a definitive list (though I certainly believe the Halloween and Christmas episode are the two best episodes of the show), but I do certainly think that these are some of the funniest, most memorable, and most enjoyable episodes the series produced.
This show is unarguably a classic. Funny, dark, witty, and filled with jokes for people of any ages to enjoy, this is the sort of cartoon that helped Cartoon Network be truly great in the early to mid-2000s, prior to their descent into madness with live action shows. It actually spawned a pretty solid TV movie, an incredibly bizarre crossover with Codename: Kids Next Door, and a failed spinoff movie called Underfist; I’d go into more detail, but honestly, that stuff is worthy of their own reviews, so I’ll save it.
Needless to say though, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy is one of the best cartoons of the 2000s, a real gem and definitely worth watching, especially its holiday specials which are among the best holiday specials, if not THE best (that Christmas episode is a strong contender). I kinda wish this show would get a revival of some kind, because even with the glut of comedy shows we have these days, as long as Maxwell Atoms is at the helm, I can’t see this show failing to stand out in the crowd… no show with such ballsy dark comedy and radar-dodging innuendos could ever be unwelcome.