From spinach-loving sailors and outlandishly clever bunnies, to Stone-age families and highly energetic sea sponges, cartoons have been bringing laughs (and love) into American homes for decades upon end.
Yet, these Saturday morning favorites have come a long way since their initiation into mainstream American media, and today, bring much more to the table than cheap gimmicks and minor chuckles. More often than not, they’ve become humorous ways to foster cultural conversation, especially about delicate subject matters that continue to cause fervent debate among various members of society–such as immigration.
With “Bordertown,”a new animated series tackling immigration, broadly, and sub-topics like border control and undocumented immigrants, narrowly, FOX is throwing its weight behind the idea that cartoons can create much more than laughs.
The show’s creator, Mark Hentemann, believes the effects of immigration have been central to “a lot of the changes happening in the U.S.” Which is why, he says, he was inspired to take on the controversial subject back in 2007. Along with friend and fellow executive producer Seth MacFarlane, the person behind animated hits like “Family Guy” and “American Dad!,” the two had pitched it to the network several years before.
“It’s been in the making for some time now,” laughs Hentemann, who after working on “Family Guy” (which he also runs and executive produces) for several years at the time “was looking for something new to write about in animation.”
The first most daunting challenge, though, was finding something that fan favorites like “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” and “South Park” had not already done. “Between them, they’ve done about 1,500 episodes of animated television!” Hentemann says. “But at the time, George Bush was President and there was already a lot of debate about immigration. I was interested in exploring that.”
“Anyone who has grown up in this generation can see that the country is becoming more ethnically diverse,” Hentemann explained. “I’ve read articles that whites will be projected to lose their majority status in the next 20 years. It’s such a historic moment after 250 years and is clearly causing anxiety and fear and lots of ominous debate. I felt that it was the right territory to write about.”
On top of that, Hentemann also felt a personal connection to the story, which, in many ways, remains a huge part of his identity. “Everyone in this country has an immigration story in their family somewhere back throughout the years. Everyone that’s an American has started somewhere else; their family came from somewhere else,” he says.
Growing up in Ohio, Hentemann’s father was the son of German immigrants who immigrated to America to make a new start after World War I.
“My dad told our family’s immigration story a thousand times. Anytime he had a couple glasses of wine in him, he’d talk about his father coming over with about seven brothers—about how they all shared an apartment in Cleveland while working multiple jobs,” Hentemann says.
“It was such a clichéd immigrant story. They all had to work very hard. My dad always used that as something to convey the values that he wanted us to embrace, which is to never take anything for granted.”
However, after two preliminary scripts, an animated short film, and a lot of hard work to really flesh out what the series could be, FOX decided not to move forward with the series.
“I think they were a little nervous about tackling an area like this,” says Hentemann. “After that, I figured the issue would get resolved, become some stalemate, or would somehow blow over, and that the show I created would no longer be relevant. But amazingly—for better for worse for the country—it hasn’t gone away. It’s now seven or eight years later and it’s still very much the center of debate and national discussion.”
Since its January 3, 2016 premiere, the animated series has already succeeded in injecting high dosages of satire, ridicule, and irreverence into everything from border walls and the drug war, to the embattled American Dream and the Southwest’s obsession with high school football. The series explores these topics through the lens of a pair of unlikely neighbors: Ernesto Gonzalez, an upbeat, hard-working, undocumented Mexican immigrant, and Bud Buckwald, an angry and overly-frustrated U.S. border patrol agent who begins to feel overpowered by the growing Latino presence that surrounds him. Together, they live side by side in the fictitious town of “Mexifornia,” set along the border of California and Mexico, and attempt to change the world—one mishap at a time.
The show could not have come at a more appropriate time, as many of its themes continue to surface in national headlines week after week. Network executives even bumped up the “Borderwall” episode to second in the lineup for timeliness. “Who knew Fox would ever capitalize on the news?” Lalo Alcaraz said in an interview with The Washington Post. He, along with Gustavo Arrellano, author of the nationally syndicated column “Ask a Mexican,” are among the room full of Latino writers that Hentemann and MacFarlane personally brought on in order to avoid perpetuating stereotypes. Both Alcaraz and Arrellano promise that although the show will feature plenty of “Family Guy”-style humor, from “tacos that induce fiery farts, spring breakers vomiting on sombreros, and a cannon that is used to shoot undocumented immigrants back to Mexico,” “Bordertown” will also go much deeper than past adult-oriented sitcoms and the equal-opportunity offensiveness that propels them.
“As soon as this show was announced, there was almost this immediate interpretation of what this show would be—that it would be offensive and racist, and that it would go after easily portraying negative stereotypes. That was never the intent of the show at all,” says Hentemann. “My hope is that people get what this show is trying to do, which is to show a portrait of all sides of the immigration issue. Hopefully it’ll spark conversation and show the human element of it all—that immigration is not just a political issue, but really help boil the issue down to the people that have been affected by it.”
So far, five unruly episodes have already run, and with eight more to go, there are plenty of exciting moments for audiences to get ready for. “There’s one where the baby is born and tips the population to a Latino majority in that town. So Bud, who’s kind of an Archie Bunker-type character, freaks out and realizes that he’s a minority now. He totally can’t come to grips with that and even feels like the once-proud white culture is in danger of disappearing. So he goes to petition for a white-people reservation to preserve ‘white’ culture,” Hentemann teases.
Audiences can also expect “a Santa Ana winds episode,” as well some minor jabbing at various aspects of American Southwest life—from wild fires and UFO sightings to the growing presence of megachurches.
Though a long time coming, for everybody involved in the project, from the producers and writers to the actors and illustrators, the production process has been spectacular to be a part of.
“It’s such a surprise that even so many years later, we’re still dealing with the same immigration issues,” says Alex Borstein, who voices both the characters of Janice Buckwald, Bud’s wife, and Becky Buckwald, his 18-year-old daughter. “It’s kind of sad actually—but interesting to see it being still so prevalent today.”
“I’m really proud of being a part of something that is about something that has some meaning. The show is taking on this issue of huge social relevance right now and it’s kind of cool,” she continues. “We’re all immigrants—or we’re children of immigrants, or grandchildren of immigrants. So to pretend that there’s any meaning to the term ‘I’m an American’ is a little bit foolish.”
She adds: “There’s a really funny moment in the show when Ernesto is sitting on his porch and the joke is made that the moment he magically becomes an ‘American,’ is when he starts saying he doesn’t want to let anybody else into America. That is so funny to me, and so dark, yet so true—that people are losing sight of the fact that we’re all guests here, and we all came here from some other place. That’s how we were formed. That’s the message, really. Anyone’s welcome… as long as they’re willing to deal with America’s bullshit.”