Vermin (2016 mini-series) review…

A not-so ‘mice’ follow-up to Transylvania TV… After the break…

Vermin (2016 mini-series) review…

“Vermin” is the name of a 4-part puppet series on YouTube. Despite the nefarious and edgy implications of the name, the series is intended for the general audience. The series is comedic in nature, following the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Ralph Raight, a lab rat employed by “Placeholder Laboratories” to be a lab assistant to supervise other lab rats.

All of the other lab rats have some sort of quirk in their personality, likely due to the extreme amounts of testing. Amongst this motley crew of rats is Roz, who is obsessive about running around a maze to find cheese. Stu, a larger rat, eats obsessively. Oscar (a male rat), is constantly wearing cosmetic facial make-up. Gene is always getting his DNA spliced, resulting in all sorts of physical mutations.

In the show, there is a human cast of characters although the only one with any notable screen time is Trace Beaulieu (of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame), who is the lead scientist at the lab. He sits behind a desk eating bagels and is typical of the “stuffed suit” boss who does little & accomplishes even less, resulting in Ralph having to corral the rats and keep them (vaguely) in line.

It is difficult to fairly critique a genre that you have a significant bias in. I have always had an affinity towards puppetry; In this day and age of CGI animation, puppetry is quickly becoming a “lost art” and the general impression is that it is either for very small children or it is intended to be shockingly obscene to appeal to the teenagers and young adults who remember puppets as cute and adorable. I guess the joke with shockingly obscene puppets are that they are sort of like the “clowns at midnight” where they pretend to be nice as sort of their “day job” but are really jaded & cynical once they take off their make-up.

Yet even with a fairly strong bias towards puppetry, especially one that aims for a general crowd, “Vermin” comes up surprisingly short in many areas.

One area of production where the show holds up fairly well are it’s production values. The puppets themselves are fairly well made and you’d be hard-pressed to tell which puppets are on a public broadcasting show and which ones are on a YouTube series channel. While the puppets on “Vermin” may not have a “Sesame Street” level of quality to them, they are definitely above the standard of a typical store-bought or amateurly-made puppet.

Other production aspects, such as lighting, sound & camera angles, are all competently executed. There are many scenes that have multiple camera angles and the puppets, at times, perform some complex moves, such as picking up telephone receivers or falling out of an air vent and “getting back up” to a standing position shortly thereafter. These seemingly simple tasks are not so simple in the world of puppetry. Although you can easily see the wires that are holding the puppets’ arms, I did not regard these wires as a lack of production values but more as a specific design choice as many professional productions don’t care much for the “illusion” of invisible or barely visible wires.

Beyond the physical production values of the series, though, there are considerable deficiences that hinder the series’ effectiveness at being a source of entertainment for a general audience.

First and foremost is the script itself. The series is only 4 episodes long and each episode lasts roughly 8 to 13 minutes long. That run time also includes a short intro theme and a credits roll for each episode. The resulting amount of time doesn’t exactly allow for a lot of time to be devoted towards building the characters or telling a particularly compelling story. Although each episode is somewhat independent from one another, they are loosely connected to form an overall story arc.

A story is only as effective as it’s characters and the characters are only as good as the story that they are in. The overall premise, of rats working a laboratory much as factory workers have perfunctory lives within a factory, is perfectly workable and fine. The rats themselves are all easily distinguishable from one another: Roz wears a tinfoil hat and acts neurotic; Stu is a larger, chunkier white rat; Oscar has a low, deep male voice but wears feminine facial cosmetic make-up; Ralph, obviously, wears a lab coat and his demeanor is the most tempered of the group.

Yet the story gives these characters little to work with besides one-off set-pieces that don’t compound onto one another. Jokes and gags work better when they’re integrated into a story, when one is set up to enhance another. There are few “running gags” in the series and only one of them, a door that a majority of the rats are programmed not to see, has any amount of pay off to it. One of those gags, the boss of the lab is constantly eating bagels, doesn’t really go anywhere or amount to anything; He just likes eating bagels (apparently).

Some characters are given nothing to do and their inclusion into the series is a complete mystery. One character isn’t even a rat at all but is a puppet referred to as “Bigfoot”; He’s just there and given nothing to do but be shown in the background. Was he supposed to have a larger role? Is he a carryover from one of the creators’ prior series (Transylvania TV)? Nobody knows. Another character is a human character named “Svetlana” who, at best, has a cameo appearance and doesn’t move the story in the one episode that she’s in at all. Why not a puppet character in her place? Why did it need to be a human at all?

The series does have a loose story arc: What is the nature of the laboratory? Ralph, in his newly-promoted job as lab assistant, attempts to find out but doesn’t get very far. The entire series is only 4 episodes but it feels as though it was supposed to go on for much longer. Characters are introduced in the final episode as though they were supposed to become part of the regular cast; A three-eyed mutated mouse joins the cast but is only given one scene. There’s a mysterious character watching the monitors and calling the lab boss but we never get any sense of who he is or what the ultimate purpose is to the lab.

For a 4-episode series, the characters don’t evolve a great deal. The characters don’t have any great reflection upon their lives or what they do; The lab boss could have been played by just about anyone and it appears that Trace Beaulieu took on the role either as a gift or to boost his puppet credentials or maybe he was just bored and wanted to be out of the house for awhile; The role isn’t even listed in IMDb (as of the writing of this review).

The entire series feels incomplete, as though the series was meant to go on for more episodes but needed to quickly wrap up in the fourth episode. As a result, there’s just no story or character progression and you don’t feel any sense of satisfaction from watching the series. Since the last episode was made in January 2017, it is very unlikely that more episodes will ever be made. Not even the series’ website is active as of the time of this review.

The art of puppetry is not for the faint of heart: It is hard work, expensive & under-appreciated as an art form. The mass majority of people who perform within the industry often do so out of a labor of love. To slightly alter an old phrase, “There’s only one Jim Henson; Everyone else in the industry are just working stiffs.”

It pains me to find a puppet production that isn’t lewd and that is also not good. The characters, the sets, the props and all of the physical aspects of the production couldn’t save an otherwise disjointed and fragmented script. This is not to write that a 4-part series can’t have some level of story arc or character progression but the entire production could have benefited from less characters and a tighter story.

“Vermin” may not be lewd but it doesn’t have the required storyline sophistication to attract anyone other than small children who just enjoy comedic puppets and the slapstick situations that they find themselves in. Once again, puppetry finds itself siding with one of the two extremities and leaving those of us wanting something in the middle left out. “Vermin” is ultimately an experiment that, while it may not have failed, isn’t a success, either.

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