Perhaps you've seen a promo for a new animated show featuring what look like Fisher-Price Little People in medieval garb, and thought. "Oh, cute! It's like The Lego Movie! That'll be fun to watch with my kids aged ten and under!" If you remember nothing else about this review, remember this: Children should not watch Hulu's Crossing Swords. If you remember two things? Most adults probably shouldn't watch it either.
Crossing Swords is the story of Patrick (voiced by Nicholas Hoult), the youngest of four siblings, much abused by his sister and brothers. While they all go into unsavory fields — Coral (Tara Strong) becomes a pirate, Ruben (Adam Ray) a bandit, and Blarney (Tony Hale) an alcoholic clown — Patrick is determined to be the noblest of knights. But when he starts from the bottom, entering King Merriman's (Luke Evans) annual squire tournament, he quickly discovers that the contest is corrupt, and that he will only be able to win by cheating. Patrick makes it into a squad of squire trainees, but he's got 21st-century values in a pre-Renaissance world, constantly immiserated by the moral compromises the job demands. And that's before a mysterious assassin starts preying on the royal family Patrick has pledged to serve despite the fact that he doesn't particularly respect or like them.
This description makes Crossing Swords sound like a thoughtful meditation on duty, skill, and power on the order of Samurai Jack, so I should mention that Patrick's bullying by his siblings includes verbal assault; Ruben calls him a "pussy" within the first two minutes of the premiere. The show comes from John Harvatine IV and Tom Root, who are also executive producers on Robot Chicken, and the common DNA is evident from the constant cursing, to the frequent moments of sex and violence, to the references to other pop culture properties. None of this is a problem in and of itself (and as a fan of BoJack Horseman, I'd be a hypocrite if I said it was). The problem comes when profanity, orgies, or cultural references are slapped into the script in place of jokes — like when Patrick figures out the only way he'll win the tournament is by using the same kinds of dirty tricks as his opponents. From offscreen, a man in the crowd calls, "Sounds like a real moral conundrum!" Adds a woman, also offscreen: "Fuckface!" ...Okay? After ceremonially being locked into an ornate chastity belt, Princess Blossom (Maya Erskine) gets a visit from her mother, Queen Tulip (Alanna Ubach), who gives her a spare key, explaining that men only think they control women's sexuality: "Also it's impossible to shit with that thing on." Later in the season, Blossom intentionally causes an avalanche to bury Patrick by screaming "Come and get me, then, you little pussy-ass bitch" at him. I'm no prude and swear freely in my daily life, so I don't know why the creators of this show seem to think I will be startled into screams of delighted laughter by these little peg dolls' potty mouths. If that approach ever worked, the shock value wore off a few years into the South Park era, so... roughly two decades ago.
Like both South Park and Robot Chicken, Crossing Swords makes a virtue of its kludgy animation style: it hopes you're charmed by its characters' limited number of facial expressions; the necessity that their weapons and wine glasses just float in the air because none of the human characters have arms; and how much their "blood" resembles strawberry jam. Occasionally, the character design is adorable: one is killed in a cursed iron maiden and returns as a classic white ghost with a sweet little face; if Hulu makes him into a toy, I will buy one. But generally it just looks cheap and jerky. (I wasn't terribly interested in Netflix's similarly themed Disenchantment, but at least it gave the impression that effort went into making the setting and characters visually interesting.)
The production is also marred by baffling choices with regard to its voice talent. As one would expect of a show set in vaguely olden, vaguely medieval times — there are knights; there are dragons — some characters have British accents, but not who you'd think. Hoult, the Briton? American accent. Ubach, the American? British accent. (And not because she's playing a queen; the king and princess sound American.) As Broth, another squire recruit, Adam Pally doesn't try to stretch into any novel dialects, bless him, but why would anyone cast the actor who played Happy Endings's Max Blum, one of TV's all-time greatest lovable dirtbags, as a standard idiot?
If you're ride-or-die for Robot Chicken, this brand extension will probably work for you. If you've been impatiently waiting for new episodes of South Park or Disenchantment, this might almost scratch that itch. If none of those statements describes you, watching ten episodes of Crossing Swords's debut season will probably be a torture on par with being slowly closed into the aforementioned iron maiden. Spare yourself.
All ten first season episodes of Crossing Swords drop on Hulu today.
Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.