"Class of 3000" is a smart, amiable, colorful new cartoon series from and starring musician-actor Andre "3000" Benjamin, best known as half of the eclectic hip-hop outfit OutKast.
Benjamin and co-creator Tom Lynch (of the Nickelodeon classic "The Secret World of Alex Mack" and more recently the young-adult series "South of Nowhere" and the 'tween comedy "Romeo!") had originally teamed on a project for the Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim franchise, something they've characterized as "darker" and "sexier" than the old-fashioned Gang o' Kids show they ultimately produced, which premieres tonight on the kid-friendly network proper.
Still, its 8 p.m. time slot implies family viewing, which is to say that, like most cartoons made for an audience older than 5, it is also fit for adults. It offers a gentle surrealism, both visual and verbal; a surprisingly vigorous critique of media and the consumer society (much like Mad magazine, another vehicle ostensibly for small fry); and the built-in appeal of Benjamin, a grown-up star in a grown-up world, whose relaxed delivery here at times suggests a cross between George Clinton (the voice of Parliament-Funkadelic) and Daws Butler (the voice of Huckleberry Hound).
Benjamin plays Sunny Bridges, a super-duperstar musician whose international success, Atlanta roots, long lines, facial hair and sartorial sense are modeled on Benjamin's own -- although we're also to see Benjamin in the character of Li'l D (voiced by Small Fire), a Sunny wannabe and student at the struggling, polycultural Westley School of Performing Arts, where the series is mainly set.
Sunny's celebrity having occluded his life and his art -- his label is releasing albums he didn't even know he'd recorded, he's surrounded by a "support staff" he doesn't recognize -- he walks offstage to get back to where he once belonged. Back in Atlanta -- in the actual funky-but-chic neighborhood of Little Five Points, in fact, this being an unusually site-specific cartoon, true even to regional architectural styles -- he pawns his saxophone for what could only be symbolic reasons, or bald plot advancement, and here he meets L'il D.
D and his friends of many colors set out to persuade Sunny to become their new music teacher -- the old one is doing time -- and eventually he relents, telling them that if they "promise to bring the fun, I will show you how to put the 'k' on it," a line born to ride a Bootsy Collins bass part. He'll teach them how to "tear down the walls of convention with the wrecking ball of creativity" and then to "rebuild the walls of innovation with the mortar of collaboration."
There is nothing radically new here, apart from the depth of Benjamin's participation -- the Jackson Five and the Osmond Brothers voiced their own cartoon series in the Far Distant Past but left the heavy lifting to others -- but the pieces have been assembled into something quite completely itself.
Neither Benjamin nor Lynch had any experience in animation, but they are backed by those who have: Head writer and co-developer Patric M. Verrone's credits include "Futurama," "Pinky and the Brain" and "The Critic"; supervising producer Joe Horne has directed for "The Boondocks" and the "Oblongs." And the voice talent includes Phil LaMarr (CN's "Samurai Jack") and Tom Kenny, who is, among many other things, SpongeBob SquarePants. They have made a charming thing.
`Class of 3000'
Where: Cartoon Network
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-Y7 (directed to older children)