The influence of ‘The Simpsons’ on adult animation is undeniable in terms of tone, format and appearance. Today, shows like ‘Family Guy’, ‘Rick and Morty’, ‘BoJack Horseman’ and others carry on the traditions of Matt Groening’s magnum opus, propelling the medium of animation forward by looking back at what happened Before. In recent years, anime has also gained a foothold in the Western animation industry, influencing an increased focus on serialized storytelling, smooth action, and a cinematic approach to visuals. But when it comes to Max’s new animated series “Fired on Mars,” his influences go back to a different era, when Mike Judge was making cartoons and grounded realism was paramount.
“Fired on Mars” is based on a 2016 short film of the same name about Jeff Cooper, a graphic designer who works for a brash start-up located on Mars. Things get complicated when he is unceremoniously fired after moving to the Red Planet. Like Mike Judge’s best shows, it’s a poignant exploration of corporate life and late-stage capitalism, showing the reality and absurdity of working for a company that doesn’t care about you and bosses who care more than play golfing using drones what is happening under their control. “We both had corporate jobs most of our lives and there was a lot to be said for that,” Sherman explained. “We also came of age in the ’90s, when a lot of the media was focused on anti-work stories, and that’s part of our sensibility, but it’s also become more relevant than ever.”
“Our characters should look like real people,” co-creator Nick Vokey told IndieWire. “We watched ‘King of the Hill’, but also a lot of 90s anime like ‘Memories’, especially when you get into the backgrounds and these amazing places you can go.” The anime anthology film ‘Memories’, especially its segments ‘Magnetic Rose’ (written by Satoshi Kon) and ‘Stink Bomb’, masterfully blend science fiction stories with grounded and realistic imagery that lent gravitas to the stories being told. Ghibli has had a big influence on the backgrounds, which have a washed out, painted look. To make it, the art team looked at animation background paintings from the 80s and 90s and limited the color palette. It was a look that co-creator Nate Sherman said he needed to avoid looking like a cartoon but add weight, achieving “a synthesis of West and East.”
At first glance, the premise of “Fired on Mars” could easily become a lively workplace sitcom about Jeff desperately trying to get employment again, even if it means literally being frozen in a box for some vague experiment. “It was hard to find the tone, to avoid being a joke one minute,” Vokey said. “There aren’t really any characters telling jokes or witticisms, it’s all character or situation driven.”
In fact, while this show isn’t an animated “The Office,” it still has plenty of humor, a lot of which comes out of the absurd situations Jeff finds himself in — like a job that literally involves being frozen in a box. Wes Anderson’s early films, as well as the work of the Coen brothers and Spike Jonze, helped inspire the tone of “Fired on Mars.” According to Sherman, “All those movies have good and weird histories with this dry comedy that’s woven into everything, and so that was something I think we were aspiring to too.”
“Fired on Mars” expands on the original short to include a larger cast of characters, from rogue colonists to disgruntled employees to ambitious scientists. “We wanted to take the essence of the short and expand it to the max,” Vokey explained. “We liked the idea of this world getting bigger and bigger.” For this, serialization was key, as Sherman and Vokey wanted to evoke a cinematic experience, a “big story that could open up for multiple seasons.”
Still, “Fired on Mars” retains something rare in many streaming-era shows: standalone episodes. Each episode is a separate problem to solve, still integrating into the next chapter of the story. “We needed the episodes and the season to be satisfying even on their own terms,” Sherman added. As the credits roll on the Season 1 finale, Jeff’s story has reached a major milestone that feels complete and satisfying, making “Fired on Mars” all the more enjoyable.