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High-Tech MTV : 'Liquid Television' shows what visual wizards can do with animation and pop culture


There are those who watch MTV for the videos. Then there are those who prefer MTV's between-video graphics. No longer will the second group have to sift through Paula Abdul and R.E.M. to enjoy the animated, off-the-wall tidbits that help define the MTV attitude.

"Liquid Television," which premiered last week and airs Sunday nights, showcases state-of-the-art animation with all the spirit of MTV's promos and not a music video in sight.

Before venturing into the bizarre territory of "Liquid Television," remember this: The show can't be described in traditional TV terms--it was deliberately crafted to be unlike anything else television has to offer. A lightning-paced mix of underground animation and graphics, the show lacks a narrator, main characters, a specific focus, and sometimes, it may seem, even a point--except to keep viewers on their toes. According to creative director/co-executive producer Japhet Asher, "We're not interested in boring TV."

Those who share Asher's programming sensibility and skewed humor should find "Liquid Television" anything but dull. With approximately 15 snippets in one half-hour, it seems ideal for an MTV-weaned audience accustomed to short, visually stimulating music videos. "It's zap-free TV," Asher says. "If you're not liking something you're watching, wait two minutes and you'll see something else."

A typical show--if there is such a thing--might include any of the following: "Cut Up Camera," a spoof on "Candid Camera" ("Lost your head in a freak propeller accident? Smile, you're on Cut Up Camera!"); "Ms. Lidia's Makeover," which in the first episode used a computer to change singer Sinead O'Connor's look, and "Stick Figure Theater," where animated stick figures re-enact scenes from famous motion pictures ("It's like one classic meets another," says Asher. "Wait till you see Madonna doing 'Express Yourself.' ") The pieces, of which about 75% were commissioned for the show and 25% were acquired already finished, are alike only in that each is animated.

But move over, Mickey Mouse: Modern animation takes many different forms. "Soap Opera," for example, uses stop-motion animation to make bars of soap move. A process called cut-out animation gives a "comic strip" look to "Invisible Hands," a serial based on the work of underground artist Richard Sala. "Art School Girls of Doom" uses real actors against an animated background.

"(The show is) a melting pot of neat stuff," says Abby Terkuhle vice president of creative and on-air promotions at MTV. "Animation is such a creative medium--you can express an idea or thought in animation that you couldn't do in live action. It has what I call a wow factor, as in 'Wow, how did they do that?' "

Advanced technology accounts for a lot of the "wow factor," says Asher.

"There's been a huge resurgence in animation, no doubt about it, but it's huge resurgence in a certain kind of animation. Technology has made a difference. Things look really revolutionary. It's such eye candy it's hard to resist."

Both Asher and Terkuhle predict that some of the ongoing pieces, through content or form, will eventually develop cult followings. But audiences may have to become more familiar with the "Liquid Television" style--a challenge that neither finds insurmountable.

"I think MTV has really defined and created a new language--a less linear television language, with shorter forms that don't follow the conventional narrative thread," Terkhule says. "I think people have become more sophisticated because of it."

Asher agrees: "In a way, each week we're piloting 15 new ideas," he says. "I think as people watch the show they'll start to discover there is a structure."

At the same time, Asher plans to never let "Liquid Television" become too predictable or comfortable.

"While eventually people will feel there's an ongoing attitude in the show," he says, "I hope they'll continue to feel discombobulated."

"Liquid Television" airs Sundays at 7:30 p.m.

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