If you have ever felt that life is sweeping you fiercely and rapidly along to some great moment that is undeniably wonderful but most definitely not of your choosing, then you will find much with which to identify with the titular protagonist in Toon, a 2016 TV comedy from Dirk van Pelt, Beer ten Kate and Joep Vermolen.
In this often gently absurdist sitcom, in which events proceed as a heightened pace of overwhelming urgency, Toon, played with an endearing deer-in-lights lovability by Joep Vermolen, finds his life upended when a late night drunken performance of a made-up-on-the-moment song at a birthday party neither asked for or is enjoying in his own apartment, where he’s joined by the lovely and talented Nina (Amy van der Weerden), goes viral.
Netherlands-sweeping, many social media platforms storming viral.
Suddenly Toon, who is perfectly happy with his underwhelming life making up jingles and sounds for commercials at an ad agency overseen by hipster blowhard Robbie (Robbert Belij) and playing video games at night with a quiet beer or two, finds himself famous and in demand in a way which challenges just about everything with which the shy, introverted man is comfortable.
In the eyes of his older music industry-working sister Elise (Loulou Hameleers), just returned from L.A. to Amsterdam beset his personal and professional troubles of her own, Toon isn’t really fulfilling his potential, whatever that is, and so, with his and Nina’s viral video taking over the world (it isn’t of course but it feels that way) she takes it upon herself to give her brother the career she knows he really wants.
But, and this is key to the warmly affecting humanity and poignantly over-the-top comedy that sits at the heart of the eight-episode first season of Toon, it isn’t what he wants at all.
As events spiral magnificently out of his control – to be fair, Toon long ago relinquished much say over anything, patently unable to express a countervailing opinion or make a decision, even if its the kind of coffee he wants to drink at an event – Toon is left racing to keep up, and not entirely sure he even wants to do so.
If you think the idea of an uncertain, perpetually wavering protagonist might get on your nerves, think again.
Toon is a joy precisely because he is, in many ways, all of us at one point or another, unclear about what it is we do want but deep down certain that it is not what is happening to us.
Of course, much of Toon’s reluctance to stop the viral video fame juggernaut stems not from being able to stand in the way of his sister’s tsunami-level of decision-making, which goes as far as far as dismantling his loungeroom to recreate it on stage for his unwanted debut stage performance, but because he really likes Nina, and Nina, who actually wants a high-flying music career in her own sweet, unaffected way, wants their nascent dance pop duo to actually go somewhere.
So Toon sticks with it, desperately trying to be the person he wants everyone but himself to be.
One thing that this race to unnecessary, transient fame does offer, however, is a lot of opportunities for very clever, incisively observant comedy.
Toon is one big chance to skewer the hell out of a slew of things including viral fame, the modern obsession with instant notoriety, and the way in which industries as diverse as music making and advertising live and die on some very strange bases which if you look close enough, and who actually does since no one wants to admit the Emperor in fact has no clothes on, actually don’t amount to much at all.
Take the episode “Music Video” in which Toon’s laundry list of things that he’d hate to have in a vide including wanky philosophical posturing and weird, sexy outfits, is taken by those to blind to know how bizarre they are being since everyone around them is validating their absurdity, as the blueprint for the promotional vehicle.
So it is that Toin ends up dressed as a “cubist Smurf” while Nina is forced to dress in an outfit that is supposed to be sexy but which only ends up being painfully demeaning, and the video, which is supposed to convey Toon’s existential cry of pain in his made-up song, now labelled “Get out of my head”, ends up like some bad taste montage of weirdly abstract ideas.
The ideas in the song, which are an authentic articulation of Toon’s need to get everyone away from him and out of his head, are completely subsumed by an approach which sees only the potential for being noticed, even if it ultimately comes to mean nothing.
Other season one episodes such as “Deadline”, in which the record company they get signed to wants a demo song to follow up their viral hit in one day (what a creative nirvana that turns out not to be as Toon once again finds himself unable to say no) and “Condolences”, where Toon and Nina go to an “informal memorial event” for someone Toon barely knows for the PR value and naturally everything goes humourously and awkwardly wrong, play up this great chasm between substance and truth and promotional exigencies to great comedic effect.
Toon also has some other moments of pleasing weirdness, mostly courtesy of the protagonist’s new housemate Ab (Marijn Klaver) who, though he also pushes into Toon’s life unasked and won’t take no for an answer (lucky for him, none are offered) turns out to be a kindred spirit of sorts, as he leaves a strange life of deadly guerrilla card playing and strange masseur sessions.
Weird he may be, and technically completely uninvited as a housemate but Ab, far more than anyone in Toon, has his back, and he is intensely likeable because he does give a damn about Toon when so few, even his own sister, don’t.
Shamelessly and winningly parodic, and possessed of a cry for help by its lead character that isn’t listened to until the eleventh hour when all kinds of cathartic things take place, that are both funny and dramatic, and touching too, Toon is that rare comedy that manages to pivot its engaging humour on the back of finely-wrought characters, an hilariously gently absurdist point of view, and a willingness to skewer anything and everything while reminding us that it’s okay to say no if life is going a million miles away from where you want it to be.