Hit or Sh**: Cinemax’s TALES FROM THE TOUR BUS

tales from the tour bus

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Mike Judge’s animated face wastes no time telling us why he’s chosen country music stars as the subject of TALES FROM THE TOUR BUS, his first outing as a documentarian. He recalls the hip hop hysteria of the ‘90s, when N.W.A and similar artists were accused of propagating the moral decline of society at large with their rebellious rhythms and uncouth behavior. Not buying this commentary, Judge switched to the country station, where he learned about the attempted murder committed by outlaw country musician Johnny Paycheck. Judge thought to himself, “Why isn’t anybody worried about Johnny Paycheck? Why isn’t Connie Chung picking on him?”

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I just can’t image what the reason might have been!

There’s no overt discussion of how white privilege factored into these folks’ ability to repeatedly commit violent felonies without facing real consequences; the issue isn’t touched again after Judge’s intro appearance. I won’t hold it against TALES FROM THE TOUR BUS right now, but these days it’s tough to celebrate white people for crimes that everyone else gets brutally punished for. Putting that aside, the rest of the pilot felt tonally similar to BEHIND THE MUSIC, mostly consisting of interviews with former bandmates, managers, and lawyers where they fondly spin stories of the show’s subject.

Paycheck himself died in 2003, but he returns to life as a spitfire cartoon character that re-enacts Johnny’s “criminal elements.” With a rap sheet consisting of numerous automobile thefts, a wide variety of illicit substances, and at least one assault with a deadly weapon, you’d think we’d hear at least a little bit from Johnny’s victims. But the idea behind TALES is to capture the humanity and the humor of its subjects. I can’t help but yearn for just a bit of realistic context in these stories, but this is ultimately a cartoon about country music. It’s not the most accurate nor the most sensitive, but it’s the same lovingly snarky take on rural American culture that we’ve seen from Judge in countless other projects. KING OF THE HILL fans will find a lot to love in TALES.

What keeps TALES so positive is the admiration of his bandmates and managers. His backup band, the Adams brothers, and his manager, Ernie Stepp, were all frequently both victims and propagators of Johnny’s volatile behavior. Yet these men have only love for Johnny, and laugh heartily while describing his various auto thefts. The band describes spending as much time tuning as writing music due to their collective amphetamine addiction, and Stepp joyously recalls shooting a bus driver in the ear in order to get Johnny a Big Mac.

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To be fair, anyone will murder for fast food if the munchies are bad enough

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Enjoying TALES FROM THE TOUR BUS boils down to your personal appetite for hillbilly hijinx. There’s nothing inherently funny about carjacking, drug abuse or assault. But driving Patsy Kline’s stolen car around a parking lot until it runs out of gas? Using clout to buy cocaine over a truck’s HAM radio? Shooting a man because he offered you turtle soup out of his truck? Judge excels at parsing absurdist humor out of seemingly down-to-earth subjects, and TALES brings that humor into an oft-overlooked niche within popular culture. Plug your ears during the concert footage if you must, but this slightly hokey animated documentary works wonderfully.

Verdict: Hit

Dan Blomquist is a guest contributor for Crossfader and writes about important things sometimes, but mostly about television. He believes that memes are the future and that free will is an illusion.

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