‘Strange Planet’ Review: Apple Animated Comedy Is Amusing But Shallow

There’s a jargon to “Strange Planet,” the new animated series on Apple TV+. Kissing is “mouth pushing.” Tongues are “flavor muscles.” A bus is a “group roll machine.” Horses are “hard footed run monsters.” Coffee is “jitter liquid.” Toothpaste is “mouth stone goo.”

Such language, much of it borrowed from the web comic of the same name by cartoonist Nathan W. Pyle, is designed to call attention to the inherent absurdity of existence. The “beings” of “Strange Planet” — smooth, genderless stick figures who go by they/them pronouns — are not human. But they do navigate situations viewers will find universal: becoming parents (“life givers”); caring for pets (“creatures”); watching sports (“orb kicking activity”). “Strange Planet” simply raises these experiences to the level of abstraction, then evaluates them from an amused distance. The approach is similar to anthropologist Horace Miner’s famous paper “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” but with pointed satire swapped out for gentle ribbing.

Pyle launched “Strange Planet” in 2019, and has since expanded the concept to include two print volumes and a card game. For the TV series, Pyle partnered and shares creator credit with veteran showrunner Dan Harmon — fitting, since the beings of “Strange Planet” bear a passing resemblance to Mr. Meeseeks of “Rick and Morty.” Harmon’s series tend to have a more cynical edge, but this adaptation is faithful to Pyle’s sensibility. “Strange Planet” is not part of the adult animation wave that’s taken hold in recent years, with shows like “BoJack Horseman” and the recent “Praise Petey” injecting darkness and emotional nuance into a 2-D landscape. This series is sweet and family-friendly; like its animation style, “Strange Planets” sticks to broad outlines.

In expanding and translating “Strange Planet,” Pyle and his team have new tools with which to execute their vision. Musical numbers are scattered throughout; a theme song proclaims: “Here’s our planet slightly leaning / Orbiting a star / We find ways to give life meaning / Some might seem bizarre.” And over ten half-hour episodes, “Strange Planet” starts to introduce longer-term story lines — though perhaps not enough to keep audiences fully engaged.

The voice cast of “Strange Planet” includes musician Tunde Adebimpe, “Orange Is the New Black” alum Lori Tan Chinn and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe. But for the most part, these performers don’t voice single characters who recur throughout the season; there are dozens, if not hundreds, of beings we encounter throughout “Strange Planet,” rendered deliberately indistinct by the streamlined visual style. Most stories are bite-sized, stand-alone vignettes grouped together by a shared theme. A flight attendant (“air comfort supervisor”) is worried a promotion will isolate her from her former peers while a couple frets over the breakup of a band that brought them together; a child tries to adopt a raccoon (“trash bear”) while a man babysits a cat for his crush.

After a few episodes, “Strange Planet” does start to cultivate a running thread centered on the manager of a cliffside restaurant called Careful Now, voiced by Hannah Einbinder of “Hacks.” Even then, the character is simply known as The Manager, and her potential love interest (Danny Pudi) is left even more indistinct. Rather than develop these figures into full-fledged protagonists, “Strange Planet” keeps itself a blank slate — a stylistic choice that allows drop-in cameos from the likes of Pudi’s former “Community” castmate Yvette Nicole Brown, but also blocks the show from cultivating some depth.

“Strange Planet” is undeniably clever and an easy, amusing watch. But its current iteration lacks much deeper resonance beyond its acute yet surface-level observations about the quirks and paradoxes of modern life. The idea that our society is inherently absurd could pack more punch if explored through a larger narrative or tied to a more specific lead character, as full-fledged TV seasons usually afford the chance to do. Instead, “Strange Planet” is content to showcase a distinctive style on a larger stage.

The first three episodes of “Strange Planet” are available to stream on Apple TV+, with new episodes airing weekly on Wednesdays.