Ballad of Renegade Angels

Yes, another anime reference. This time, it’s Cowboy Bebop. In Xavier’s case, though, I guess it would be a rambling of renegade angels.

One evening, over burgers and drinks, my friend reminded me of a show whose existence I had completely forgotten. Its name is Xavier: Renegade Angel. Having only seen a few choice scenes, my knowledge of the show was “it looks like a Will Wright creation if he had been outsourced to China” and “it looks like a Will Wright creation on a particularly bad trip.”

The show itself ran for two (two!) seasons on Adult Swim, from 2007 to 2009, and was created by Vernon Chatman and John Lee, who were the frontal lobes behind the chaotic child puppet show parody Wunder Showzen.

With little else to go off of, I started watching Xavier from Episode 1. And I watched this hirsute pangloss ramble his away across the expanses of his own psyche right up until the very end. I don’t really know why; there are funnier and more intellectually stimulating things I’m also watching at the same time. But I did it, and there’s enough mind goop sloshing around in my brain for me to write about it while waiting for my shift to end.

You can view the entire series on Adult Swim’s website here.

To get started, here’s one of the show’s more well-known… moments, for lack of a better word.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t make much more sense in context.

There’s not much to really say about the titular Xavier, but that’s because – as he would likely say – he’s meant more to be read than be said: he’s a spiritual seeker who frequently minces his metaphors, mangles his aphorisms, and indulges in his own turd-nuggets of wisdom at the expense of the ignorant hicks he initially attempts to educate. Xavier’s bizarre appearance (undoubtedly a haphazard metaphor for the character’s own scrambled insecurity and self-esteem) is occasionally brought into question, but only as a means through which to typecast him as an outsider, a threat to the hegemony of the communities inhabited by the aforementioned ignoramuses he encounters.

A typical Xavier episode begins with Xavier wandering through the desert set to the mystic tones of a windpipe called a “Shakashuri.” He delivers a meandering, go-nowhere existential monologue that vaguely relates to the episode at hand, then is awkwardly thrust into whatever calamities are thrust into his oblivious path.

The next ten minutes are filled with more spiritual rambling, close encounters with the supernatural, recursive plots, and bungled wordplay, all of which culminate in demise of whatever scenario Xavier initially sets out to resolve. In some cases, this leads to his own demise.

Chatman stated that the show is “a warning to children and adults about the dangers of spirituality.” This is plainly evident, since most of the show’s humor is foisted on parodying real-life religions, spiritual movements, and cult-like institutions in general. The rest of the show is threaded along a series of non-sequitirs and janky animations that, while seemingly incoherent, somehow manage to flow together into one 11-minute wad of brain melt.

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With all this in mind, I’m still not exactly sure why I enjoy watching Xavier: Renegade Angel. It’s not always successful in its attempts at humor; in fact, it frequently becomes too self-aware of its own absurdity, and thus shatters the quavering between the preachy and the grotesque that it employs so well at other times. Maybe it’s the way that, as The A.V. Club’s Scott Gordon put it, Xavier milks even the most mundane phrases and words “for more significance than it has.” Maybe it’s the fact that, ultimately, Xavier frequently demonstrates that he is more of a spiritual and emotional wreck than the people he attempts to mentor. Or maybe it’s just the simple joy of seeing a polygonal manbeast suavely utter “Ooh, fritatta,” as he is mercilessly curbstomped by a duo of roadside bigots.

Actually, here’s the spice: in the above article, Gordon is uncertain whether Xavier actually makes for good comedy or not. He’s willing to concede to an established comedy maxim, which states that the characters of a comedy should be relatable. Xavier, he notes, is intended to be as repelling and unrelatable as possible. And that might be why the show doesn’t evoke nearly as many laughs as its Adult Swim compatriots (or even Wunder Showzen) might have.

I disagree. Xavier is totally relatable, in a repugnant way. He represents our angsty uglinesses; the condescending, patronizing, and self-aggrandizing recesses of our nerve bundles that emerge when we’re really not sure about our own place in the world. He’s what we channel when we’re uncertain about our future and about the things we consume – much like I am doing myself by writing this blog post. He lays those imperfections bare and lets us laugh at them, which, of course, is just another form of self-indulgence. And in that way, we can come to accept ourselves for who may truly be, something Xavier himself was never able to accomplish.

And that, as Chatman and Lee note, is the danger of faux spirituality. The spiritual movements, dogmas, and belief systems that offer us self-validation often, in fact, mask us from ourselves. Xavier’s PlayStation 2-caliber graphics, its fractured narrative, and its monkeyminded pacing (which often feels like it’s going just a little too fast for its own good) further emphasize the instability of our own belief systems. Not to mention the societies founded on these belief systems.

This isn’t a new topic in the world of satire by any means. But Xavier accomplishes it in such a bizarre – and familiar – way that it might be worth a watch. Might. The one thing that truly mars Xavier, I feel, is that the show sometimes relies too much on cultural parody without offering anything of its own. The most successful episodes avoid this pitfall and are genuinely… genuine.

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Xavier: Renegade Angel isn’t a show I’d recommend to everyone. I don’t even think I’d ever watch the entire thing through again myself, save for a few episodes. But having grown up on offbeat cultural paragons like Ren and Stimpy and The Residents, Xavier never feels all that weird to me. Demented, to be sure, but not incomprehensible. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t phase me that much, and why I can sit back and enjoy a couple episodes a night as a kind of mental release.

But for most, I can imagine it being a tough pill to swallow. More accurately, Xavier: Renegade Angel’s pills of wisdom are more like a rectal suppository.

Of the mind.

I’m sure Xavier would have appreciated that one.