Why you should definitely, definitely watch the new hard-boiled stop-motion mystery musical about societal corruption starring sad dolls who sing funny songs
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Ultra City Smiths
'Ultra City Smiths'
| Credit: Elephant Pictures/Stoopid Buddies Stoodios/AMC

You think you've got problems? Street Hustler Boy is so broke he has to rent pants. The Midnight Cowboy–looking streetwalker offers back-alley back scratches for $11 a pop. On a lean night, he hocks his jeans to pay for a flophouse bed. Then he needs more money to rent pants so he can make more money for tomorrow's flop.

Ain't that capitalism? As voiced by Damon Herriman, Justified's sweetest lunatic, the pants-less striver is troubled in a lovable way. "I know no one's buyin' what I'm sellin' anymore," he says. "My street name's Street Hustler Boy. I'm 42 now. I make no sense." A homeless back-itching hooker in a cowboy hat — and, like all the characters on Ultra City Smiths, Street Hustler Boy is also a repurposed baby doll brought to life via stop-motion.

Ultra City Smiths
'Ultra City Smiths'
| Credit: Elephant Pictures/Stoopid Buddies Stoodios/AMC

All these words are crazy, but the wonderful AMC+ original comes from Steve Conrad. He's the best TV creator you've never heard of, unless you're a lucky soul who experienced Amazon's brilliant-but-short-lived Patriot or Epix's brilliant-but-shorter-lived Perpetual Grace, LTD. Now working with animation and a wild cast, Conrad turns Smiths into the ultra version of his uniquely soulful absurdity. And the dolls sing!

Ultra City is a dream of retro New York sleaze: corrupt politicians, plucky criminals, hard- and soft-boiled cops, pro wrestlers, a disco called Studio 254, matchy-matchy youth gangs. (The Nixons all wear Nixon masks, while the Baseball Bowies rock Aladdin Sane makeup and carry bats for non-sport pummeling.) Conrad co-directs every episode with David H. Brooks, and they're working with Stoopid Buddy Studios, the outfit behind Robot Chicken and M.O.D.O.K.

Any stop-motion project is a miracle for animation nuts, and Ultra puts its own distinctive spin on the format, with oddly expressive characters in dreamlike settings. The whole world looks busy yet desolate: the precise mood of a lonely subway ride. It's beautiful in a jagged-edge way, evoking multiple eras of urban arcana. The characters' stutter-y movements can be funny, moving, or mind-bending.

The six-part season starts when Det. Gail Johnson (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) pairs up with rookie David Mills (Jimmi Simpson). She's the seen-it-all cynic. He's the newbie from upstate who's been taking dance lessons since he was 7. They're searching for Carpenter K. Smith (Kurtwood Smith), a disappeared tycoon who was running for mayor. Everyone is a suspect, and there's a lot of everyone. Typical plot thread: Lady Andrea the Giant (Bebe Neuwirth) worries her daughter Little Grace (Alia Shawkat) is in deep with crime lord Rodrigo (Luis Guzmán), who's allied with crooked mayor Kevin de Maximum (Tim Heidecker), who's in cahoots with a police captain (Terry O'Quinn). Did one, some, or all of them kill Carpenter K. Smith?

You read that right: Lady Andrea the Giant, a wrestling champ the size of a Manhattan junior one-bedroom, is voiced by Broadway's Bebe Neuwirth. I submit to the jury that you simply haven't lived until you've heard Neuwirth's voice say, "I have to start wrestling in underground lady fights to make some money."

Ultra City Smiths
'Ultra City Smiths'
| Credit: Elephant Pictures/Stoopid Buddies Stoodios/AMC

But Smiths is much more than an eccentric goof. The second episode establishes that all the main characters are closely linked, by blood or decade-old lies. There's a subplot about a malicious TMZ reporter (Jason Mantzoukas), another subplot about a disgraced politician, another subplot about a character named "The Most Dangerous Man in the World." Those are just a few bites of the narrative pretzel. Visual gags and outlandish songs whirl into an enigmatic family saga.

What I'm describing sounds high-concept past the stratosphere: Sin City plus Labyrinth starring Serpico directed by Jacques Demy — but with toys. Yet as with all Conrad's work, the spacey oddities are grounded by low-key humane sweetness and genially tossed-off humor.

Street Hustler Boy's ludicrous travails become poignant when you discover he's caring for his ailing boyfriend, 34th Street Chuck (Jim Becker). Chuck needs $107,000 for a lifesaving neck reduction surgery, so Street Hustler Boy needs to rob a bank, fast. On the way to the heist, he asks his criminal crew: "Everyone have Bank Robbery Getaway bus fare?" The sad joke is that they don't. Bus fare is too expensive.

There are 22 stars listed in the opening credits, including Tom Waits, whose raspy narration runs throughout. His lines can be ridiculous ("This is the greatest story ever told!") and endearing (the Narrator misses a few scenes because he's working two jobs "to get those ends to meet"). In brisk 22-ish-minute episodes, Waits' character introductions are worth a thousand origin hours ("Detective Nico Onasis: SENSUALIST!").

Simpson was so good in Perpetual Grace, and he stuns here as a wannabe hero who croons through his anxieties. Randolph's maternal exhaustion breaks your heart. It often sounds like they're whispering their lines into their microphones. Some of the other actors go much bigger. There's one musical number per episode, and I won't choose a favorite, but pure perfection is John C. Reilly's Donovan Smith singing a disco-ready ditty about his vast riches: "I can use my wealth to go to Home Depot," he intones gravely, "and pay those guys out front to find Bigfoot."

The finale arrives next Thursday, and then Smiths will air on AMC proper in September. Don't wait. Spring for AMC+ now. It's a service best known for letting Walking Dead diehards watch episodes a week early, but Smiths proves the non-Netflix streaming tier has a lot to offer adventurous viewers. You can get a seven-day free trial, and a subscription runs $8.99. It's a modest fee, really — less than the cost of a back scratch. A


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