Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
When Bordertown was first ordered over two years ago, with Family Guy veterans Mark Hentemann and Seth MacFarlane holding the reins, the idea of a cartoon dedicated to satirizing immigration issues along the U.S.-Mexico border seemed far from promising. After all, Family Guy has garnered a fair share of (deserved) criticism for its offensive stereotyping of minorities, and there was no reason to expect that the duo’s next small-screen effort would veer away from comparable racism and xenophobia.
So, it’s a relief to report that Bordertown, despite sometimes stooping to pick low-hanging fruit, is actually surprisingly smart and funny, an equal-opportunity offender that energetically rips into every side of the immigration debate while demonstrating enough of an absurdist streak to balance out its snark.
Arriving in the midst of a horror-show election season that has seen demagogic blowhards like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz steal center stage, its timing is both uncanny and fortunate – with that destructive duo and others still trumpeting rhetoric about border walls and mass deportations, a series specifically equipped to eviscerate their ideologies and expose ridiculous cultural attitudes across the board feels more warranted than ever.
Set in the small town of Mexifornia, a frequent crossing-over point for immigrants, the series centers on two families trying to eke out a living amidst the day-to-day tensions and terrors of their region. One’s led by father of three Bud Buckwald (Hank Azaria of Simpsons fame), a beset-upon lug with Homer Simpson’s smarts and Peter Griffin’s cultural sensitivity, who works as a particularly ineffectual border patrol guard (his eternal war with elusive smuggler El Coyote is a fun riff on the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner dynamic). At home, he contends with sour wife Janice (Alex Borstein), imbecilic son Sanford (Judah Friedlander), shrill activist daughter Becky (Borstein again) and pint-sized beauty pageant contestant toddler Gert (Missi Pyle) while nursing personal hostility about the changing demographics in his neighborhood.
Living next door is Ernesto Gonzalez (Nicholas Gonzalez), a hard-working immigrant with a successful landscaping business and an unspecified number of children including little rascal Pepito (Jacqueline Pinol) and know-it-all college grad J.C. (Gonzalez again). Though Ernesto is nothing but cordial to his neighbors, Bud resents his success and seethes when Becky and J.C. get hitched as part of their plan to shower liberal politics down across the largely conservative town.
In typical MacFarlane fashion, these two families take the good, the bad and the flat-out bizarre in stride, from the threat of invasion (or at least unpleasant probing) from actual extraterrestrials to the mutated family of in-breds across the street. But despite the presence of those kinds of random cut-away gags, as well as a host of pop-culture references, the vast majority of Bordertown‘s rapid-fire humor feels slightly more focused than Family Guy‘s.
In the premiere, Mexifornia introduces the strictest anti-immigrant policies in the country, leading to J.C.’s deportation via human cannon. And in the second episode, Bud’s financial support of a physical border wall backfires when it puts him out of a job. Immigration, and more broadly a distinctly American anxiety about border control, the job market and the state of the American Dream, is the throughline here.
Commendably, though, Hentemann and MacFarlane skewer more viewpoints than just Bud’s, which he seems to owe to a steady diet of Fox News (the show’s meta gutting of its own network is frequently hilarious, not to mention an exciting indication that MacFarlane may be royalty enough over there at this point to get away with just about anything).
To give one example, J.C. is prone to numbing outbursts of political correctness in which he excitedly protests the heteronormative patriarchy, governmental corruption and general injustice without ever seeming clued in to the intricacies of any of those societal issues. Gert eats out of a pig trough whenever she completes her nauseating pageant routines. And even Ernesto, the most likable (if disappointingly vanilla) character, falls victim to the same self-centered thought processes as the rest of them – “Why couldn’t immigration have just stopped after me?” He ruminates at one point. Immediately, a flash of light runs through him, and the writers deliver their biting rejoinder: “Hey, I just became a true American!”
Not all the punchlines connect so effectively, and many of them feel too generalized to really sting. But, in the end, it’s the aisle-traversing that suggests Bordertown could have a very promising future on Fox, should the network stick with it. Provided viewers don’t completely spurn it, the show certainly fits snugly alongside Family Guy. In an amusing turn of events that calls to mind how truth is often stranger than fiction, the show’s border-wall episode was envisioned and written well before Trump’s ascendancy, and even knowing that, it works remarkably well as a comic indictment of his stated reasons for wanting to build one.
If its writing stays as smart and cutting as some of the work done in that episode, the series could catch up to contemporary politics and reach greater levels of cultural relevance than any animated comedy outside of South Park has in years. It hasn’t crossed that threshold yet by any stretch, but Bordertown‘s first two installments indicate at least that it has a vested interest in doing so.
An equal-opportunity offender that energetically rips into multiples side of the immigration debate, with enough of an absurdist streak to balance out its snark.