John Callahan doesn't do cute. Razor-edged observations of human weirdness, told through an unsettlingly bizarre cartoon populace, are more his style. So it's no surprise that this much lauded, nationally syndicated cartoonist's first animated series for kids is anything but sweetness and light.
The adolescent anarchic spirit in "Pelswick," premiering tonight on Nickelodeon, is familiar territory: a gleeful skewering of authority, the educational system and political correctness. Callahan's style is a visual feast, however, and the title character is a groundbreaker: Paralyzed from the chest down, he uses a wheelchair--as does Callahan himself.
Pelswick, no victim or saint, can hold his own. He's a wry, funny, typically complicated middle-school kid--even though he has a guardian angel-advisor whom no one else can see, named Mr. Jimmy.
In the first episode, Pelswick's dad, a benign Mr. Potato Head-ish professor, refers to girls as "mustache-challenged" and boys as "the bicycle crossbar-endowed." When the school's ditsy vice principal gets mustard splattered on his suit, he blithely changes into a Sugar Plum Fairy outfit to finish out the day, complete with tutu.
Kids hurl gibes about dirty underwear and smelly feet, the hulking cafeteria worker serves spaghetti using his bare hands, and Mr. Jimmy (voiced by David Arquette) tells a dubiously instructive story about an angel with a humongous, throbbing pimple on his forehead who's trying to get a date at a celestial mixer.
Pelswick's grandmother, no groundbreaker, embodies every old-age stereotype: loose false teeth, can't hear, ankle-length granny gown, a walker, a gray bun and dementia. When Pelswick's nemesis nominates him for class president as a prank, Gram-Gram hits the campaign trail, blows up the chemistry lab, sits in a tree telling squirrels to vote and wants a strong, handsome fireman to rescue her.
That said, Gram-Gram doesn't come off much worse than the other adults in the show, which--with anarchy and gross-out bits, zany original art, loopy adults, irreverent gags and a likable hero on wheels--is a cinch to win kids' hearts.
* "Pelswick," Nickelodeon, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. TV-Y (suitable for all ages).