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HBO created the first adult animated series in 1997, but Spicy City, a dark cyberpunk anthology from Ralph Bakshi, has become a lost relic.

Animation is one of the most versatile mediums of storytelling and over the past decade it’s been able to shake the restricting baggage that animated content is purely for younger audiences. Animated series for adults are among some of the best dramas and comedies on television, especially those that lean into the limitlessness of the medium. Animated series like Primal, Castlevania, and Love, Death + Robots have been groundbreaking horror series that show what’s truly possible in animation. The abundance of streaming services means that ancient programs have been unearthed to “complete” certain streaming libraries and it’s always exciting when new audiences can experience older content, even those that are products of their time. 

HBO Max has the majority of HBO’s original series since the cable network’s inception, but there are still a handful of series–Tales From the Crypt among them–that are unable to stream. A lesser-known HBO original is Spicy City, a six-episode science fiction/cyberpunk anthology series that was masterminded by animation savant Ralph Bakshi, is also unavailable to stream on HBO Max (although it can be watched on archive.org). There is surely less outcry to add Spicy City to HBO Max’s library, but the dark show holds a special place in history as the first animated series that’s specifically for adults. Spicy City is a fascinating anomaly that’s even more interesting to examine 25 years later.

The 1990s were a revolutionary period for animation that definitively marked the public’s acceptance of “cartoons” as a medium that can entertain adults. Disney animated films were still viewed as the norm, but a small ripple that would eventually turn into a tidal wave started to form when a video Christmas card–of all things–started to gain traction. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Jesus vs. Santa crude video short made its way through film and television executives’ mailboxes and this unconventional approach to seasons’ greetings would become the impetus for Comedy Central’s South Park. Comedy Central’s development on an adult-animated series caused a serious stir in the television industry. 

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One of the stranger chain reactions of South Park’s development is that HBO would rush into production their own animated series, Spicy City, just so they could technically claim the credit for having the “first animated series targeted specifically towards adults.” Spicy City technically accomplished this goal and aired one month before South Park, on July 11, 1997. That being said, the fates of these two series could not be more different and the irony on the matter is rich enough that Spicy City’s bittersweet and short-lived “victory” could be the karmic resolution for one of its own episodes. Spicy City “wins” the war, but it comes and goes in a single season of six episodes whereas South Park is still on the air 25 years later. It comes across as quite amateurish in the larger pantheon of science fiction and cyberpunk anthology series, animated or otherwise.

The only other comparable animated series on television during the 1990s was MTV’s Liquid Television, which actually feels quite in sync with many of the ideas explored in Spicy City, especially its cyberpunk noir story, “Tears of a Clone.” There’s also Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, which curiously started its three-season run on HBO in May of 1997, predating Spicy City. However, Spawn’s comic book roots and teen demographic seem to preclude it from fitting into the “adult animation” category, despite its clearly mature language and brutal subject matter. HBO considers Spicy City to hold this honor instead of Spawn, but their production of both of these series in the ’90s speaks to their desire to push animation to new places.

Each episode of Spicy City is introduced by Raven, a buxom nightclub hostess who’s able to distill these macabre tales of science fiction into tidy lessons. Spicy City doesn’t always work, but it continually feels like an animated series for adults, for both better and for worse. Ultra-sexed DDD-breasted heroines fill up the frame and Spicy City showcases sex a lot more than it does violence, but there’s still gratuitous gore that the series doesn’t avoid. More often than not the series’ animation looks like a Saturday morning cartoon version of sexy science fiction stories, which pulls Spicy City in two directions. It’s clearly geared for adults, but so often the character designs and action sequences feel like they pull staples from kids’ cartoons.

It’s telling that Spicy City had a brief syndication window in 2002 on Canada’s Teletoon late-night animation block, which was geared towards teens, not adults. In fact, the overseas animation for Spicy City was handled by Koko Enterprises (then Ko Ko Entertainment), who worked on Batman: The Animated SeriesBatman Beyond, and Justice League, as well as kid-centric animated programming like Freakazoid!, Animaniacs, and Histeria!

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Spicy City’s first episode, “Love is a Download,” is a VR love story that feels like the type of tale that one would find in Black Mirror. This premiere actually tells a rather prescient story about getting too attached to a VR world and those who spend more time in a simulation than reality and increasingly lose their grip, more than a decade earlier than Ready Player One. The animation in the virtual reality world leaves a lot to be desired and it’s quite jarring to see Flash-level visuals catering to adult audiences on HBO, no less. It’s so counterintuitive to how the medium now works. It’s possible that Spicy City also thought that aesthetics weren’t the most important element to draw in audiences because of South Park’s ability to turn its rudimentary visuals into its secret weapon. The problem is that South Park still has subversive writing and original ideas behind the crude animation and humor. Spicy City, on the other hand, only has the semblance of science fiction and genre storytelling to lean back on, which often isn’t enough to keep audiences engaged throughout these six episodes.

It’s a real misfire that the least visually appealing episode is what kicks off the series. It’s entirely possible that it gave audiences the wrong idea of what the typical episode of Spicy City would look like. This pilot is also directed by John Kafka, who has a reputation in anime, but not on the adult side of things. Kafka cut his teeth in the animation department for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and directed disposable children’s series like Dino Babies and Danger Rangers. Arguably, the animator’s greatest claim to fame was directing the direct-to-video Cinderella sequel, Cinderella II: Dreams Come True. It doesn’t seem as if Kafka quite rises to the challenge in Spicy City.

“Mano’s Hands” finds a premise that’s actually interesting and effectively highlights the dangers of obsession and how it can take over people’s lives. The episode creates genuine pathos for a disembodied hand and there’s a very Baby’s Day Out slapstick quality, but with hands. If nothing else, there are no other anthology series that tell this story. “Manos’ Hands” also predates Idle Hands, the premier evil hand movie, by several years. 

“Tears of a Clone” tells a film noir detective story about a man’s missing “daughter,” which suddenly takes on more sinister developments. The episode gets into questions of identity and the difference between an original and a replica, if any, as it comments upon the expendable nature of organic bodies and humanity’s need to evolve beyond their natural forms. This episode also includes the series’ strongest protagonist and if Spicy City had continued it’s not hard to picture future detective stories that return to this hard-boiled character. “Tears of a Clone” includes some gorgeous visuals of Spicy City’s sprawling futuristic world and the series’ art design is a consistent highlight throughout the series even when the writing falls flat. There’s also a gonzo laser beam death massacre, which doesn’t disappoint.

“An Eye For An Eye” broaches similar ideas, but touches on the corrupted nature of the judicial system and police force, and how they can so easily be gamed. It’s encouraging to see this episode attempt to include some LGBTQ+ storytelling all the way back in 1997, but it’s also largely played for titillation. There’s shallow depth given to these characters’ relationships. At times this feels like a deranged Batman: The Animated Series episode that doesn’t feature the Dark Knight. It includes one of the series’ strongest conclusions where its twisted femme fatale has her skin stolen and donated to others in some Brazil-level cosmetic carnage.

Most of Spicy City’s episodes are cautionary tales where an over-reliance on technology leads to mankind’s increased laziness where machines surpass them as the dominant breed. “Sex Drive” explores this concept through romance and whether it’s possible for a man to truly love a machine or if it’s an inherently artificial construct. It’s some really deep material, even if it’s not perfectly executed. Like most of Spicy City’s episodes, the central idea is way ahead of the curve, which in this case is the unconventional romance, Her. “Sex Drive” repeatedly compares, contrasts, and overlaps human and machine until they’re left as one “humanchine” portmanteau. Spicy City’s final episode, “Raven’s Revenge,” attempts to flesh out the series’ sultry host so that she’s more than just a bookend to episodes. In doing so, this finale digs into body modifications and genetic mutations that reflect “alterna-ceuticals,” which attempt to “cure” and “imperfect society.”

Spicy City faced an uphill battle and didn’t leave much of a cultural impact during its short run, but HBO did actually try to foster the series and help it grow into something with legs. HBO’s main condition regarding season two’s development is that Bakshi would need to replace season one’s writing team (which included his son, Preston) with professional screenwriters. Bakshi wouldn’t budge on this area of compromise, which led to Spicy City’s season two renewal being rescinded and the program being reduced to the footnote that it is today. HBO would continue to pursue genre anthology series, but animation was no longer near the top of their agenda.

Spicy City’s six episodes are broad in their execution, but several installments conclude with some genuinely disturbing acts of horror that reiterate the dangers of experimental technology. Some entries allow for a peaceful coda. However, by and large there’s a nihilism that courses through the series that’s reminiscent of HBO’s other big genre anthology series, Tales from the Crypt. Overall, nothing in Spicy City amounts to must-see genre storytelling, but it still makes for an entertaining distraction for a few hours. Spicy City isn’t necessarily worse than some of the other sci-fi and horror anthology series that exist. More than anything it succeeds as a fascinating time capsule of the late 1990s and a promising premise that could have possibly evolved into something more substantial and memorable if Bakshi and the show’s production got out of their own way. 

So many sci-fi anthology series proudly adapt stories from the genre’s greats and Spicy City might have made more of an impact if it decided to riff on the works of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, or even Clive Barker for even just one of its episodes. A longer season could have also featured a healthy mix of original stories and classic adaptations. However, it’s likely for the best that Spicy City attempted to forge its own path even if it’s one that not many people were interested in. Science fiction needs to learn from its mistakes in order for it to evolve and Spicy City has no shortage of lessons to learn. The obscure series has new value during a time when anthology series and cyberpunk stories are at an all-time high. 

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