Do you like truth? And stop-motion animation? And mind-melting, nightmare-fueling, deviant philosophical insanity? Well lucky for you, The Shivering Truth is here to satisfy your soul’s every surreal, sinister need.
Premiering on Sunday, Dec. 9 as the newest member of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim line-up, The Shivering Truth seems born from the deepest recesses of a slumbering psyche, where hopes, fears and freakish thoughts about societal and cultural issues all swim about, commingling in ways that are at once haphazard and lucid. It operates according to the rules of the subconscious, flowing fast and freely from one vignette to the next. Body horror, social commentary, film criticism and droll absurdity are some of the many modes in which it operates, although trying to categorize this most Dadaist of series in straightforward terms is a near-impossible endeavor—and one the show itself is determined to thwart at every out-there turn.
I understand that such a description threatens to make The Shivering Truth sound like a daunting viewing experience, so let me be clear—Adult Swim’s latest is a thrilling and unnerving entry in the burgeoning adult-animation field. Moreover, it’s easily identifiable as the brainchild of Vernon Chatman, whose PFFR production company has previously been responsible for the cult-classic lunacy of Wonder Showzen (a delirious riff on Sesame Street-style children’s entertainment) and Xavier: Renegade Angel (a crudely CGI’d spiritual-adventure series). Addressing ideas about love, acceptance, insecurity and identity via a lens that’s bonkers and unsettling (to say the least), Chatman’s current offering is perfectly designed to keep one awake long after the conclusion of its six episodes, which air each Sunday, in back-to-back fashion, at midnight.
Reminiscent of Xavier: Renegade Angel’s fondness for wackadoo dialogue, The Shivering Truth is guided by narration from Chatman himself, who kicks off the season premiere, “The Nurple Rainbow,” by proclaiming—over the image of a globular mass floating through space—“Our best minds have determined that the whole universe is the dream of one ant.” Whether that’s accurate or not isn’t of great concern to the ensuing tale, which finds a man waking from a nightmare and, after gasping for air, pulling a snakeskin-ish thing out of his ear. A bald acquaintance enters his bedroom and immediately says that he didn’t put anything in the guy’s ear. Shortly thereafter, the bald gent tells the first man that he has “such nice pretty ears,” and then proceeds to open up the top of his head, pull out a giant hot dog (“It’s huge!”), and slice its tip, so ants can crawl out of it.
“Be careful. He has guns taped to his muscle,” warns an ant. At which point you’ll be forgiven for wondering what the hell is going on, and what you’ve gotten yourself into at such a late hour.
Such batshit craziness sets the tone for the subsequent action, which is only sometimes related to the material that has immediately preceded it. A young girl is so good at playing peekaboo, her parents lose their collective minds trying to find her when she covers her eyes, resulting in a schoolyard suicide bombing and spontaneous self-combustion. An Islamic terrorist begins to make a beheading video, only to discover that the severed head is still alive (and talkative!) thanks to chicken blood—thus motivating him to embark on a stand-up comedy tour with the chatty noggin. And a boss discovers that his cubicle-worker employee is unable to type random numbers on a computer (per his job) because he has a hole in his head that’s home to a creature protecting its about-to-hatch eggs.
In these shorts, Chatman (who serves as writer as well as co-director alongside Cat Solen) warps familiar scenarios to weirdo degrees, and his eerie Claymation aesthetics heighten the overall mood of frightening unreality. In one regard, the entire point of The Shivering Truth is for there to be no sane point at all; the dream logic that guides these proceedings is itself an end goal, and one that Chatman and company expertly realize. It’s hard to think of another show that feels so in tune with the way our minds work when we’re sleeping, taking bits and pieces of things we’ve been thinking about and feeling, and jumbling them up into narratives that don’t make any rational sense if recounted aloud, but feel logical, in some strange, powerful underlying-connective-tissue manner.
At its finest, though, The Shivering Truth’s flights of phantasmagoric fantasy are connected to some larger concern. Take, for example, the closing segment of the premiere, in which the man who initially pulled the whatsit out of his ears returns home to have sex with himself in the mirror—literally—as Chatman narrates, “Doug got to experience every man’s fantasy: A two-way with himself.” Concluding with the birth of a shiny reflective baby that he places on a mantle like a trophy (dubbed “Utmost”), that sequence is a bizarro critique of male anxieties and vanity, its message couched in eye-opening outlandishness.
Even better is a scene from the show’s second episode, “The Magmafying Past,” in which a Full Metal Jacket-style drill sergeant winds up being psychically seduced by a private, and then repeatedly chewed up and spit out by a callous war machine. It’s a scalpel-sharp censure of military attitudes toward masculinity and homosexuality, as well as the army’s mistreatment of its serving men and women. And the fact that Chatman marries it to a related tale about a lonely girl in a department store that sells self-bleeding, self-reproducing panties—and whose vapid employee touts each creepy new undergarment product with comments like “Ooh, that looks hot on you!”—is a small marvel of scathing multiple-target storytelling.
As in Chatman’s prior work, birth, blood, severed limbs, cyborgs and snot (often licked up by others) are regular components of his eccentric fantasia, as are pronouncements such as “If you spend your life praying for the light of love, you magnify it in your head until it can caress the stuff between your atoms. That gunk in there that makes them all stick together as one whole.” The Shivering Truth is also that gunk, unifying universal notions about life and death, desire and terror, in a gooey stew of memorable sounds and images. Stick with its stop-motion madness, and revelatory ridiculousness awaits.