When looking back on my productivity over the last week, my usual habit of starting strong only to slowly fizzle out was thrown off by the Presidential election. I did not do anything notable between Sunday and Monday and pretty much spent Wednesday through Friday in a funk, determined to hesitate until the world once again started making sense. This procrastination naturally lead to Youtube, which somehow brought me to clips of Disney's Lab Rats.
If you've never seen Lab Rats, I'm not recommending it. It's a brightly-colored ham-fisted sitcom with a cringingly audible laugh track. It stars a scenery chewing kid named Leo (played by Tyrel Jackson Williams) who discovers that his new billionaire stepdad has three bionic teenagers living in his basement laboratory. It was broadcast on something called Disney XD, which I can only assume is a channel or programming block dedicated to more male-centered pre-teen content. Understandably, the undertone of the lives of these cybernetic teens is grossly glossed over as the more you think about it the darker it becomes. But needless to say, Leo and his new step-sibling surrogates are all very well adjusted and get along just great.
I began with one Youtube clip and then another... and another. I was sort of against watching such a stupid show aimed a demographic so different than my own, but the guilty pleasure comfort of Youtube randomness was a much needed preferred reality. So many questions flowed through my head as I proceeded to click: "Is this what Hal Sparks did after QAF?", "Are the supporting characters always this terrible?" , "What is Telma Hopkins doing in this?" , "What sort of adult person builds bionic children??"
What then distracted me was the character of Adam (Spencer Boldman), the oldest of the bionic siblings. The strongest of the three, Adam is exactly what you expect; dumb as a stone and always missing the obvious, but also an obnoxious big brother who mostly uses his great strength and laser vision to torment his younger brother, Chase (Billy Unger, aka William Brent).
The character of Adam and his relationship with the other characters sort of reminded me of my NSFW comic 12-Inch Roommate except... y'know... it's not that at all. There is absolutely nothing sexual about this show, in fact, in what I can only assume is some pre-teens entertainment-thing, the characters are never sexualized. While dating is mentioned (mostly Adam reminding Chase that he is too nerdy to ever have a girlfriend), Adam himself never shows any interest in any female characters. However, my only concern is that Adam is larger than the rest of the cast, has superhuman strength, occasionally asserts dominance over the other characters around him, so my twisted mind immediately draws a parallel to my own hyper-sexualized sitcom worlds.
Frustrated with the selection of footage of Lab Rats on Youtube, I took to Netflix where it is streaming. I am still 100% against actually watching the show, so I begin scrubbing the episodes on Netflix for more footage of Adam, not really sure what I am looking for or what I will do with it once I find something, I take screen grabs. Download footage. Maybe I am saving it for reference, except I'm not exact sure what I plan on referencing.
During this process I realize very quickly that Lab Rats sort of has everything while at the same time, has nothing at all. It has action adventure, teenage angst, sci-fi jargon, high school bullies, family dynamics, and villains that run the gamut from cartoonish tropes to evil monsters, yet it is incapable of inciting even the slightest bit of an emotional reaction. Stone faced and immovable I went through all four seasons by slowly dragging the time bar along, stopping intermittently for footage of Adam while simultaneously hating every other character on the show. (Especially Williams).
Adam officially hit "muse" status when I began to pay attention to his facial expressions. He has a face like an anime character - but not authentic Japanese anime, more like Americanized anime. Like Sym-Bionic Titan or something... A cartoonish chin, tiny nose and ears and expressive eyes that (with his eyebrows) are more horizontal than the rest of his face. From my initial bouncing around on Youtube I could see that in earlier seasons (in season 1 the character is 18 and the actor is 20) he's using a gentler voice and is so boyish looking, his eyes and lips look almost feminine, while 2 or 3 years later, Adam has gruffer, deeper voice, is physically broader and is more of a brutish big brother. This is all in contrast with Unger, who is so generic "young brunet actor" that I kept thinking a different person might have been playing him between a couple of the earlier seasons.
Once the shrill-ness of Lab Rats lessened, I committed to actually watching the episodes through from beginning to end. This turned into a lot of sketching as I tried to capture Adam's furrowed brows and dopey-eyes, and how compact his facial features become when he talks. I started watching him with the same analysis as I did when I was a young animator preparing for a scene. His mouth juts to different directions when he speaks, his brow is determined to go as low as possible but is repeatedly pushed back by timely round-eyed expressions with "O" shaped mouths. The squash and stretch is strong in this one.
I began to apply these sketches to an existing character design using Adam as inspiration. This started making more sense. Make this into a project (as if I didn't already have enough of those). I started pulling more and more video footage sans audio so that could slowly progress through his performances frame-by-frame, doodling his mouth and eyes. "Is his forehead high or low?", "Is his chin square or short?"
Days have passed and I have done practically nothing but watch Lab Rats. Any obligations I had - going to work, an A-list gay magazine party, a birthday get together at a mid-town bar - were dutifully followed through but the moment I returned home, I went right back to the show. Or clips of the show that I had downloaded or a line of Adam's dialogue that I had isolated to use in a future animation test. As I rearrange memorable scenes in Premiere and render little videos for myself (that I'll probably never watch again) I keep telling myself I had other more important things that I should be doing. But I just keep going.
At one point, addressing a mild curiosity about Boldman I checked out his Instagram feed. Mostly vacation pics in exotic locations and a lot more opportunities to see his six pack than the show ever provides. At 1M, he has twice as many followers as Unger but a half a million less than Kelli Berglund who plays the boring sister character, Bree. (The bionic kids first initials are A, B and C.) Seeing him do something other than "dumb face" helps with my caricatures, but I determine that, which the exception of Boldman being able to go unshaved, Adam is a far more interesting subject.
I go to bed at 2am on Saturday and I must have reached my absolute fill of Lab Rats consumption, having scrubbed through every episode, having watched the first 2.5 seasons in their entirety, having seen Adam casually give Chase and Leo the bums rush toss like 50 times. Knowing there is only one time in the entire run that Adam will ever remove his shirt. Knowing that categorically this show will never suddenly get an edge, but instead jump all of the sharks in the last season by moving the cast to a "bionic island". Having sketched Boldman's face so many times I now have a fairly decent cartoonish caricature of Adam. Having the knowledge that Adam's alpha-ness all culminates in a third season episode called "Brother Battle" where Chase, fed up with being objectified/tortured as a piece of his brother's exercise equipment, attempts to stand up for himself.
Having known and done and determined all of this and that I cannot possibly get anything else out of this stupid show, I get up on Sunday morning, get a cup of coffee and a muffin from my coffee shop, save a couple dozen images of Boldman to a folder in my reference file, close my sketchbook, clean my apartment and begin to take stock of everything around me and start to plan for the next week. Just like normal.