On Nickelodeon, a spy family amuses with familiar themes
In the animated show ''The X's,'' which borrows from ''The Incredibles'' and ''Alias,'' a spy family struggles to look normal to the outside world. (Nickelodeon Photo)
''The X's," Nickelodeon's new cartoon spy family, are a little like ''The Incredibles" with ADHD.
The aesthetic here is all sharp angles: eyebrows that arch precipitously, smiles that overwhelm animated faces, explosions that might leave you with a mild tension headache. Tonight's premiere, a 90-minute block that starts at 8, is a bit too much of a decent thing, like lingering too long at the video arcade.
But beneath the fast-paced surface, it's not hard to discern a timeworn theme in kids' TV: a family's struggle to look normal to the outside world. There are few kids, after all, who aren't afraid of what the neighbors might think. And if Wendie Malick were your mom, you'd be bound to feel odd -- even if she didn't know jujitsu.
Malick, who occupied the snarky center of ''Just Shoot Me," provides the voice for Mrs. X, the sharp-kicking wife of Mr. X (Patrick Warburton, best known as Elaine's hapless boyfriend on ''Seinfeld"). Their kids, also spies, are green-haired teenager Tuesday (Lynsey Bartilson) and freckled kid Truman (Jansen Panettiere). They live in a Bradyesque suburban house that occasionally blasts off into space, report to a spy operative, and fight an evil conglomerate called S.N.A.F.U. (whose villains tend to seem a little whiny).
At certain moments, it feels a bit like the original concept of ''Alias," albeit with villains who are bona fide cartoons and a sense of humor that sometimes hits the mark. ''License to Slumber," one of tonight's 15-minute episodes, is a decent sendup of high school girl culture. ''Three Days of the Coin-Op" is a funny spoof of a family with no clue how a laundromat works: They launch a ''Mission: Impossible"-style investigation, then put too much soap into the washer.
It's amusing enough as derivative fare, with enough flatulence jokes to keep a 10-year-old happy. And it steers clear of morality lessons or treacly we're-all-in-it-together moments. The X's like one other fine, in the end, but they're not about to stop bickering.
Still, it's hard not to watch it all and feel a wee bit bored, wishing for something more original -- or, perhaps, a sharper focus on suburban life. (Granted, the station wagon whose wheels turn 90 degrees, for easy parallel parking, is an inspired idea.) But in a culture that puts a high premium on smashing, crashing, and blowing things up, a little family togetherness isn't such a bad message.
Besides, most kids could probably relate: There's no safer place than home to be as different as you want.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.