On the Cartoon Network's new show "Class of 3000," OutKast's Andre Benjamin provides the voice of the main character, Sunny Bridges. His small-screen alter ego's name could also sum up Andre's intentions with his pop-star image. As a band, OutKast has always built bridges, creating music that spans from hip-hop to funk to rock and beyond, and brings balkanized segments of the audience together.
In his soft-spoken way, Andre has cultivated a sunny, positive persona. On his side of the OutKast double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, he's a 21st-century Casanova. In the recent film Idlewild, he's a sensitive, sharp-dressed artistic prodigy. Now, on "Class of 3000," he's a musical mentor with almost supernatural abilities. It's like Andre's carved out a public niche for himself that's more grown-up than 1980s-era Michael Jackson, more grounded than Prince and less hostile than various gangsta rap artists. Airing at 8 p.m. on Fridays, "Class of 3000" seems to seal the deal that Andre's the recording artist you'd trust with your kids.
Co-created with Tom Lynch, "Class of 3000's" setup finds Sunny walking out of an arena gig in Japan, having lost his passion for music amid the demands of the recording industry. He rediscovers his spark by taking a teaching gig at his alma mater, Atlanta's fictitious Westley School for the Performing Arts. "Class of 3000" touches on such an abundance of possible material for stories and aesthetic styles that it's no surprise that, as a show, it's something of an undisciplined mess.
Sunny's students all amount to familiar stereotypes, including a pair of sassy African-American kids, a schoolwork-obsessed Asian math geek and a hoity-toity rich white boy (the latter voiced by Tom Kenny of "SpongeBob SquarePants"). Along with an r-rolling Latino principal, nearly nothing but caricatures populate the show, and the plots prove so overcrowded and frenetic that they rarely have room to flesh out the personalities.
With a pop-star protagonist and unusual, art-school setting, you'd think a straight-up depiction of Sunny and his students' challenges would be sufficient for the show. Instead, "Class of 3000" frequently offers a broad, scattershot satire of education and the music business.
Some of its surrealistic jokes pay off. Sunny discovers that teaching requires a dizzying load of paperwork, and we soon see him hunched over a huge stack of papers. "And these are just the forms to apply for those forms!" he says, pointing to a pile so big, it soon attracts mountain goats.
Like Willy Wonka without the mean streak, Sunny makes an appealing, unusual character (although surely he'd have a harder transition to life in the slow lane). "Class of 3000" clicks when Sunny has his students close their eyes and play their respective instruments, and we see their feelings through dreamy fantasy segments. Andre provides one song per episode, and while they're not as catchy or sophisticated as, say, OutKast's "Hey Ya," their funk and hip-hop influences provide an intriguing sonic texture to a children's show. "Class of 3000" has a loosey-goosey visual style to match, with drippy, splashy colors and rubber-bodied characters. There's nary a right angle or straight line to be found.
Based on the episodes sent to the media, however, the show's often-bizarre plotting resists emotional connections. In one storyline, would-be drummer Li'l D gets a recording contract, inspiring plenty of maxims about temptation and selling out. The record label, however, is a literally demonic place, with serpentine agents, a satanic executive and screaming souls swirling around the offices. The story features a clever shout-out to "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and amusingly turns Li'l D into a shill for Extreme Ham: "Now with 63 percent more extremeness!" It's also heavy-handed to the point of seeming genuinely angry, with the satiric point superceding the character relationships.
"Class of 3000's" potential audience, however young, probably has enough media savvy to understand the show's intentions. But why not a more down-to-earth approach? When another media star, Bill Cosby, aimed his talents at children, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" took place in a then-unusual inner-city setting but gave the quirky characters room to breathe.
"Class of 3000" needn't try so hard to be all things to all viewers.