NOTE: I believe that, done correctly, animation should appeal to general audiences.
1. WHAT IS INFINITY TRAIN?
Both seasons of the anthology TV series Infinity Train (IT) follow an enigmatic, interdimensional, and seemingly endless locomotive that takes aboard passengers facing a life-defining emotional struggle. Each rider must navigate the train’s cars, each of which contains its own perilous or zany dimension, with a monster-filled desert wasteland greeting those who try to flee.
In sum, the train makes a ride on Amtrak look like a day at Six Flags… followed by Jesus throwing you a surprise party.
The premise seems to take inspiration from the 2013 Bong Joon-ho film Snowpiercer, another piece of media detailing a very long train surrounded by an apocalyptic landscape. In fact, a smorgasbord of train-centric media adrift in the zeitgeist seems to have influenced IT. Still, series creator Owen claims that none of these were influences. Rather, Dennis conceived IT on a transpacific flight in 2010 after realizing how ghastly and unsettling a plane, with passengers’ eyes transfixed on televisions, would appear without context. A wildly successful 2016 pilot granted the show a dedicated fanbase, and in March 2018, Cartoon Network finally greenlit the show.
Cartoon Network marketed the show as a miniseries, a revelation which left some crestfallen. The pilot teased a serialized, long-running sci-fi mystery, a slow burn of gradual revelations and rising tensions. After all, the 2010s were a decade of increasingly long-form animated storytelling, with serials like Steven Universe enjoying critical success. Still, those disappointed by the show’s miniseries status should remember that maddening release schedules and copious filler plagued Steven Universe and shows like it. IT’s identity as a miniseries offered the promise of consistent quality and careful character development. Most importantly, the miniseries format gave IT a chance to replicate the success of Over the Garden Wall.
Before Over the Garden Wall (OTGW) aired, 2D cinematic animation lay face-down and limp in the waters after flailing its way into the 21st Century. In the early 2000s, expensive flops like Home on the Range expedited Disney’s shift to the medium of computer animation that Pixar excelled in. In 2013, Disney finally shut down their 2D studio. In November 2014, however, OTGW aired to critical acclaim. With ten eleven-minute episodes adding up to a feature length 110 minutes, the series had the taut, condensed, and consistent quality of the best cinema. In the same way that Twin Peaks: The Return was effectively an eighteen-hour movie aired on television, OTGW, with its feature-length total runtime, felt like a 2D classic of old on the small screen. Thus, IT, comfortingly enough,was not barreling out into unexplored territory. Still, OTGW left an intimidating legacy in its wake that IT would prove to have a difficult time matching. By nature of its premise alone, IT could not craft a rich, unified aesthetic a la OTGW, whose setting of the Unknown evoked autumnal, colonial Americana. Infinity Train would have to discover a way to lay down its own tracks.
2. BOOK ONE REVIEW
Book One (BO, an acronym whose putrid connotations nearly match this season’s quality) follows Tulip, a thirteen-year-old who, unable to accept her parents’ divorce, runs away and is taken onboard the train.
As viewers would learn at the end of Book One (BO), IT is an anthology series, which creates an idiosyncratic set of problems that Over the Garden Wall never had the burden of tackling. In the latter series, although marketed as a mystery (a decision which flabbergasted my eleven-year-old self), we never learn the true nature of the Unknown or how the protagonists got there. The decision was a sensible one; this permitted the show to focus its limited energies on crafting a nuanced, powerful emotional experience for the viewer. If IT were a similarly one-and-done series, the show could have left the mystery of the train open-ended. Yet, since the viewer is expected to ride the train for several more seasons, the mystery of what the train is cannot be delayed past the first season. IT devises an elegant yet simple solution to this problem: declare that the mystery does not matter. In this demystification, however, IT also abandons Tulip’s character development.
IT wisely decides to admit that the mystery does not matter, but counterintuitively sabotages Tulip’s character development in the process. In the second episode, Tulip’s glowing number decreases after she divulges information about her mother. After this, the viewer understands the train rewards emotional growth. This seems a prudent decision; by linking the number to Tulip’s emotional growth, the show can effectively coax the viewer’s focus away from the mystery to Tulip’s character. BO’s fifth episode, however, halts this propulsion of the viewer’s attention.
In that episode, a con-artist forces Tulip to enter a projection of her own memories, trapping her in a reverie of merry, yet false, recollections. Ultimately, Tulip discerns these memories as artificial, hence recognizing the necessity of her parents’ divorce. This episode is the BO’s emotional and thematic zenith, with Tulip seeing the error in the decision that brought her to the train. Such a scene, then, surely should have been spared for the finale. Not so. Thus, there is nothing propelling the viewer’s interest for the remaining five episodes. BO clogs its first half with its thematic meat, leaving the rest barren and desiccated, not unlike the wasteland surrounding the train. Even our wacky side characters grow dull after a time.
BO’s side characters are not characters, but tiresome, one-note gags. One-One, a robot possessing two personalities, one naively gregarious and the other impossibly dour, is, pardon my facile wordplay, one-note. The character is reminiscent of Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but BO misunderstands what made that neurotic pile of gears function. In that novel, Marvin was an unabashed gag, and was thus used sparingly in accordance with comedic timing. BO, however, expects the viewer to treat its bipolar machine as a main character, all without assigning it the attributes of one – namely, some interesting purpose to serve. In yet another instance of overstuffing the first half with character development, in the second episode, Tulip feels remorse for giving away the robot for a chance at exiting the train. This is a puzzling misstep by the show, because a) One-One never explicitly objects to her decision, b) One-One being a gag character, Tulip never forms any sort of substantial bond with him, and c) the pair met each other roughly five minutes ago. Atticus, a Corgi king voiced by Ernie Hudson, is the same breed of overused gag character. BO fails to realize that a dog with a regal, dignified voice is amusing…for a time. The character has the potential to be Tulip’s mentor, but he stays a gag the entire series. Ultimately, these characters lack subtlety, and, by extension, depth.
By violating the “show, don’t tell” rule, BO robs its messages of effectiveness. If you have never heard of this (in)famous rule of storytelling, here’s a summary: do not over-explain. Over-explaining is not only an affront to the audience’s intelligence, but, through tiresome didacticism, strips character moments or themes of their power. BO has its protagonist explicitly say, “I have trouble accepting help from others” and similarly arid confessions. Consequently, BO destroys the nuance that made Over the Garden Wall so special.
BO is the sloppy execution of a brilliant concept. Being an anthology series, however, IT had the opportunity to redeem itself.
3. BOOK TWO REVIEW
Book Two (BT) follows MT (the mirror reflection of Tulip introduced in BO’s seventh episode) on her quest to escape the train and Jesse, a passenger on the train whose pliability makes him susceptible to peer pressure.
With the train’s nature revealed and the novelty of IT’s concept gone, BT can finally address the most interesting questions and concepts that the show’s premise promises. The designs of the cars themselves deliver on the spontaneous whimsy that BO severely lacks. Whether it is a dimension that resembles a map, made of paper and all, or a world full of sentient bark effigies in an amusing play on the phrase “family tree,” each car is cleverly delightful.
BT also answers a few of the philosophical questions that the mere existence of the train raises. For instance, do the people and creatures living on the train have free will? Were they manufactured by the train? MT’s crisis taps into the weightier theme of existentialism, giving the season thematic meat and granting its conclusion catharsis, two qualities absent in BO. BO’s divorce plotline, with all due respect to Mrs. Doubtfire and the like, carries a tired ‘90s kid’s film feel. Jesse’s battle against people-pleasing tendencies, while also a tired trope, works fine here, as it is BT’s secondary concern.
Alan Dracula, a shape-shifting deer, is an outrageously ridiculous gag character, but an honest one. Unlike BO’s comedic relief, BT uses the critter sparingly.
While not an issue in this season, the show’s structure risks becoming stale. Introducing the protagonist of the next season in the seventh episode and having the eighth episode serve as the emotional low point of each season is a tidy setup, but it might be poisonous if IT continues for several more seasons.
This season is the closest an animated series has come to Over the Garden Wall. Still, as the third season approaches, the show’s status in my judgmental memory remains in limbo. Will Book Three be a misfire like BO or a gem like BT? The answer will either mark BT as a happy accident or an encouraging portent of what is to come. – R.B.