On Superjail!

Last week Christy Karacas, the creator of what’s become one of my favorite TV shows, tweeted something disconcerting:

That link takes you to a post on the best approach to story structure, “from Aristotle to Dramatica” (which from what I can tell is some new potentially trademarked schema for analyzing narrative structure that after this post I’ll read because like maybe it’ll be useful?). Why it was disconcerting is that one of things that’s made Superjail! a new favorite is how awe-somely it seems to disregard story structure.

Summary: The Warden is a manic, possibly magical Wonka-type genius who owns Superjail!, which has a seemingly endless supply of hyperviolent criminals that have to be kept at bay. To do this job, the Warden has Jailbot: a floating superfast robot with any number of weapons hiding somewhere in its fuselage; and Alice: a brawny sexed-up prison guard who readily smashes the skull in of any out-of-line convict. Also there’s Jared, a kind of man Friday/admin assistant. Oh right and there are these Eurotrash alien twins with whiteblond hair and dark unibrows who teleport in and out of scenes and seem to regard Superjail as an arena for their practical jokes and chicanery.

Superjail exists underneath a volcano that is inside another volcano (and yet, each episode, a rockabilly jailbird named Jackknife finds a way to escape). I both want to go there and want never to go there.


I mentioned Superjail! a few posts ago when I was looking for contemporary and new things to champion. It’s the most violent show I’ve ever seen, and often the violence is funny (usually through timing and surprise). Like: I’m pretty sure I laughed when a baby got run over by a truck in one episode. It’s both vile and beautiful, but that’s not so much why or how I want it to influence me.

Superjail episodes develop seemingly through dream and whim. I get the sense that plots are constructed by Karacas deciding what might be fun to draw. Nearly every episode culminates in a surrealist orgy of bloodshed and destruction that I try not to blink during. Here, for instance, is a breakdown of my favorite such sequence, set in a kind of cold-storage sector of Superjail staffed by polar bears, penguins, giant Yetis, and animated snowmen. Some background: the twins have reprogrammed Jailbot to start attacking Superjail staff, and Alice has been frozen while trying to have sex in the cold-storage zone with a convict’s corpse:

  • Mad jailbot throws Jared (dressed himself as a robot as a form of defense) through the wall of the cold-storage room, destroring shelves and crushing a number of penguins.
  • A penguin runs to a yeti for help, an the yeti picks it up and puts it on its shoulder, than grabs robot Jared and raises his up over his head.
  • Jailbot extends an arms with a knife at the end, saws off the yeti’s arms to bloody stumps, and reels robot Jared back over to him.
  • The yeti cries and other angry yetis throw barrels of Frozen Cat (i.e. a food product) at Jailbot, beating robot Jared with a mallet, which barrels Jailbot slices in two with a laser.
  • One of the snowmen throws his head at the convicts (who’ve spilled in through the hole in the wall that robot Jared’s thrown body made) and crushes one.
  • Three elves ride a polar bear, who bites off the heads and generally mutilates three other convicts.
  • Jailbot grins while it blows away one yeti with a gun and traps another in one of the ankle-claw traps, who it then shoots with three metal daggers, before using a magnet to bring robot Jared back to him. Then he unfurls a chainsaw, blowtorch, radial saw, and crowbar on various extendable arms. Oh, also a welding mask.
  • Happy-looking huskies drag a sled holding a whipping eskimo-type who nabs Jared.
  • A muscled armored Father Time-type busts up through the icy floor and freezes a few convicts with his breath, and then smashes them with his fists.
  • One of the frozen convict’s heads slides on the floor past the Warden, who is drooling over frozen Alice (he’s got a crush). The position she froze in, mid-thrust, has her uniform-clad breasts poised just so, so the Warden tries to give one a lick and his tongue freezes.
  • An angry pine tree chases a convict with a skull mask on, until the convict finds an axe on the wall, chops the tree in pieces, and gets killed by a bunch of icicles shot by the hand of a frozen ice gremlin.
  • The gremlin crouches on top of some high shelves and sniper-like kills convicts with these icicles. He’s indescriminate, and murders a walrus, and then one convict tears off a walrus tusk and uses it to bat the icicles back to the gremlin. He takes one in the eye and falls to his death.
  • Jailbot starts bending convict corpses into Tetris shapes and stacking them in a room. Then he finds the beatup body of robot Jared and throws it against the wall, where it hits the thermostat and the cold fans start making things colder.
  • A giant ice stalagmite busts up from the floor and pierces the body of a yeti.
  • More kill penguins and convicts.
  • Out through a hole in the wall, all of Superjail starts to freeze, turning convicts into popsicles.
  • The twins decree a snow day and everyone goes outside to play.
  • Inside the cold-storage, the Warden is frozen solid, his tongue still stuck to Alice’s corpse.

End of episode.


You can watch the sequence here. I’ve known some draw-ers in my life, and usually they like to draw. They draw because they like to and they draw what they like to. Watching Superjail! makes me ask myself: What do I like to write? What if I wrote what I enjoyed writing?and not, like, in terms of genres or subject matter, but in terms of tactics, or styles, or … moves I guess?and not what craft might dictate? To develop a story or essay through my idiosyncratic desires and not through what I’ve learned by studying story structure.

Maybe it’s just surrealistic, but it feels different, not tied to any ideology. Watching Superjail! feels like watching really focused and dedicated people do what they love to do. Literature can be made this way, and I want to figure out how.

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