One of the best things about Adult Swim is its penchant for experimentation. While not every show is as innovative as Too Many Cooks or The Shivering Truth, they’re not afraid to fund some really weird stuff. Turns out those still-successful Family Guy reruns are actually good for something if they’re helping to pay for stuff like Jack Stauber’s Shop: A Pop Opera, a glitchy, mixed-media look at the internal drama of getting groceries.
Split over six episodes themed around the items on the main character’s shopping list, each episode of Shop: A Pop Opera follows a simple format. Our main character checks his list, sees what he needs to get next and is initially waylaid by a bizarre character. The other character weirds at him a while and goes away, but spurs a different emotion about the product in question, leading into an introspective song. It’s an amazing melding of strange visuals and legitimately hooky songcraft coming together to make something rare and amazing.
Visually, it looks like a nth-generation VHS, with glitched-out Flash-esque limited animation. The art is deceptively simple — one of my favorite styles. But Shop: A Pop Opera shines when the songs come in. The animation changes to semi-grotesque clay animation with simple text superimposed over the images. I’ve legitimately had nightmares with this aesthetic, yet I love it.
The songs give off a definite Sparks vibe, and stand on their own in terms of quality — despite being about milk, bread or cheese, at least ostensibly. They’re more about the emotions, though — “Milk” leads to the protagonist thinking about spoiled milk, which makes him think about the brevity of life in general. “Oatmeal” is about the comfort found in routine at the cost of excitement. It all culminates in “Cheese,” where the protagonist goes through the five stages of grief as applies to choosing from a truly absurd number of varieties of cheese.
Though the glitchy visuals make the viewer uneasy, Shop: A Pop Opera is ultimately and surprisingly uplifting. The protagonist learns to trust himself and his choices. The ultimate meaning is perhaps a little inscrutable, but the best art is never easy. It feels like, ultimately, trying to deal with the demands capitalism places on the consumer and juggling the different desires thrown at us, along with several cautionary tales of letting them take control. Or maybe it’s just about a dude who decides against eating oatmeal for every meal, every day of his life.
Either way, I love it.