Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
Background & Conception
As we enter the new millennium, Time Warner and Warner Bros. Animation bought the Hanna-Barbera properties, and its Cartoon Network division started developing into its own studio. During that transition, new animators pitched pilots for potential series for the network's summer marathon. Among those animators was Mo Willems. Willems started his career as a stage comedian, but he also wanted to be an artist. After graduating from New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Willems made short films for Sesame Street and later a short-lived series called The Off-Beats on Nickelodeon. When his pilot for Sheep in the Big City premiered, it was succesful with ratings and got greenlit by the network.
Chapter One: Com-Bleat-ly Meta
So...try to comprehend this plot: A sheep named Sheep starts a new life in the big city because he is on the run by a secret military organization. The reason is that the military plans to capture Sheep and use him to power up their "Sheep-Powered Ray Gun." Hearing that synopsis alone makes the premise sound stupid and ridiculous. But, here's the catch: the show itself KNOWS it's stupid and ridiculous, and that makes it funny.
While some may believe Cow & Chicken and Ed, Edd, n Eddy would be the first Cartoon Network shows to be self-aware, Sheep in the Big City took its meta-humor and format to a new level. Each episode is divided into chapters with titles that are sheep puns. Speaking of puns, there are tons of literal and rhetoric humor throughout the series and each gives out huge laughs. Breaking the fourth wall really helps embrace the show's style of comedy. The writing is so clever that it deserves a lot more credit than it did. In-between each chapter, the show would feature fake commercials and short sketches. In fact, this show is heavily inspired by The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, which also heavily relied on wordplay and segments.
Speaking of the commercials and segments, they have a variety with random results. The most recurring commercials are the Oxymoron products where an obnoxious salesman offers said products to customers that are either scared or confused by his presence. Other commercials involve Shrimpola Cola, Penelope's Baskets, and even one that actually connects to the plot about Sheep becoming a model for dishwashing soap. Certain segments would center on two over-dramatic actors, a complimentary ham sandwich that literally compliments, the Flying Sombrero Brothers, and other parodies. But, in almost every episode, the show would end with a segment with a character called the Ranting Swede before the credits would roll.
Sometimes, they would change up the format with a couple of episodes. For example, almost the entire cast got sick, so the episode was presented as a silent film instead. Another episode was holiday-themed called where the characters celebrate "Clearance Day" complete with its own history and traditions. But, the memorable and interesting episodes of the series are the respective season finales. The first season's, without giving away, involves a chain of dreams from each certain character and it progressively confuses the narrator. If you thought the meta tone was enough, the series finale reveals the characters' lives behind the scenes. Whether they are on camera or not, they still act like themselves. In fact, have you ever seen a show where an episode begins with the end credits and ends with the show's intro? This show did.
So, now we know about what makes this ridiculous yet humorous show tick, how does the animation fare up? Find out in the next capsule in Chapter Two: Willems' Signa-Sheer Art! Hey, if the show could use puns, why should I?
Chapter Two: Willems' Signa-Sheer Art
As mentioned before, Mo Willems previously worked for Nickelodeon with a series of The Offbeats shorts. His flat, dry-colored character designs were heavily inspired by the UPA and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. That signature style is carried over to Sheep in the Big City where the character designs are more influenced by the works of Pablo Picasso. In fact, some background characters do like Picasso's paintings coming to life. A few of the main and recurring characters visually stand out in terms of their designs. My personal favorites are General Specific where he looks like his jaw is wired shut yet talks normally and the Ranting Swede for his wild and energetic animations. Speaking of character animation, it is the standard television quality but does occasionally elevate whenever the characters emote or strike an exaggerated pose. Even so, the limited animation does fit into what Rocky and Bullwinkle did during its prime.
While the background animation like the city itself or the farm where Sheep was born may look angular and generic, the show's meta tone really helps make the environments visually funny. For example, there is an episode where Sheep wants to get a kiss from Swanky. He comes across a sign that literally tells him to get a nose job from a plastic surgery kiosk. And on top of that, that sign was read aloud by a random old man that appears out of nowhere next to him, who apparently likes reading. During that same episode, it is also humorous to see the secret military base itself trying to disguise itself as a bakery with the narrator thought the name change was a typo. You get where I am coming from, right?
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The show would provide some creative moments whether it is the military's weapons that would capture Sheep or the series finale where Sheep would change his appearance in different art styles during the final confrontation with General Specific. It may look simple and abstract, but the execution does show us that Mo Willems has talent. That leads us to one more topic: the characters. Do they match up with the quality of the writing and animation? Find out in the thrilling conclusion in Chapter Three: Wild and Wooly Characters!
Chapter Three: Wild and Wooly Characters
When it comes to a ridiculous premise about a sheep living in the big city, it is hard to imagine how this concept would apply to its cast of characters. Though some are basic, there are strange yet entertaining and hilarious characters that would help make this show memorable.
Starting with our protagonist Sheep, he seems to be an average sheep who used to live a gentle and normal life on the farm. But, once he is on the lam from the military and decides to live in the Big City, Sheep is an independent and sometimes witty individual who surprisingly knows how to survive life, such as renting an apartment and getting various jobs. Bonus points where he never speaks and only communicates with bleating. His pantomiming does help establish his personality. His love interest is a poodle named Swanky who would sometimes help get Sheep out of a sticky situation. One interesting character is X Agent, a sheep sent by General Specific to kidnap Sheep but later becoming his best friend.
Of course, Sheep would have to deal with many adversaries that want him for either humorous, devious, or somewhat stupid reasons. The show's main antagonist is General Specific. He is a cold-blooded yet ignorant military leader who is determined to capture Sheep for his "Sheep-Powered" raygun. Along his side are the loyal and logical second-in-command Private Public and the irritable inventor Angry Scientist, who constantly gets angry for anyone calling him a "mad scientist". The latter is my favorite character, thanks to an over-the-top performance by Mo Willems himself.
On a side note, the voice acting is also genuine. While there are a couple of recognizable names, like Stephanie D'Abruzzo and the late Muppet puppeteer Jerry Nelson, the rest of the actors do a solid job portraying their characters. Kevin Seal is intriguing when voices both the protagonist and the antagonist and how contrasting their personalities are.
Back to the enemies, we also have Sheep's former owner Farmer John. While he is calmer and cares for his farm animals, Farmer John is obliviously boring to others around him whenever he makes pseudo-psychological sessions. In the city side, there is Swanky's owner Lady Richington. As her name implies, she is the city's wealthiest woman. However, Lady is a bonafide sheep-hater and would constantly attack Sheep with her steel wig. Infrequently, Sheep also tends to avoid Lisa Rental, a spoiled, little girl who mistakes him for a dog.
Once we get to the segment and recurring characters, that's where the comedy begins to bloom. The show's narrator Ben Plotz is considered a straight person and would often criticize the show's writing to a humorous extent. Victor is the Oxymoron spokesperson who annoys customers with said products whether they wanted it or not. The Ranting Swede is a Swedish man who rants about almost anything at the end of every episode. There are even characters named after puns and phrases like the robotic Plot Device and a Scotsman named Great Scott.
These characters alone are an example of a show not to be taken seriously and will definitely leave out laughs afterward.
Conclusion & Legacy
Overall, Sheep in the Big City is an overlooked Cartoon Network series that deserved a lot more attention than it deserved. While the premise may sound silly and the animation and characters would look simple, the execution makes up for it with high self-aware and clever humor, stylized character designs, and a cast of weird yet enjoyable characters that would leave a memorable impression. If you enjoy Rocky & Bullwinkle or just looking for a laugh, this show is a solid recommendation.
Though the show ended, Mo Willems would continue to work with Tom Warburton on another Cartoon Network show, which I'll get to soon, till he decided to move on as a children's book illustrator. Sheep in the Big City would be lost in the network's history. The only recent appearance Sheep made was a cameo in the O.K. K.O.! Let's Be Heroes! episode "Crossover Nexus."
As for home media, the first season was available on iTunes, but got removed for unknown reasons. To date this article, all the episodes are available to watch on YouTube. Unfortunately, they are uploaded from Boomerang's UK with PAL audio. Nonetheless, the episodes are worth watching and downloading before getting a copyright strike.