Photo courtesy of Rooster Teeth (Licensed)
Movies have been attempting to decipher the world of dreams for years: Inception, Nightmare on Elm Street, pretty much David Lynch’s whole filmography. According to horror movies, our dreams are a vessel for dark matter. But what if you could make your dreams a nonstop party? Or, you know, use them to open up a terrifying portal?
Crunch Time, the latest series from Rooster Teeth, attempts to answer that question. It’s a bit of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in its parallels to the show’s “gang” of awful, selfish people, and Weird Science, in that clueless guys are using rogue science to make their fantasies reality. This gang includes Sam (Avery Monsen), who is reeling from a sudden breakup with his girlfriend, Hannah (Jessy Hodges). His pals Connor (Samm Levine) and Berkman (Nick Rutherford) join in on an ethically questionable journey to win Hannah back, and in the process open the door to dream demons and beyond.
Series creators Andrew Disney and Bradley Jackson’s last collaboration was the 2014 film Balls Out, which featured Rutherford and a number of Saturday Night Live cast members. And while there are still a lot of balls in Crunch Time, the premise is a little more engaging: There's a device that allows people to fall asleep and enter an abstract concept called the Brain Frame and then tailors lucid dreams to their needs.
Is there any real science behind this? Jackson admits they’re not making Primer here. They have a “soft spot” for ‘80s sci-fi films but wanted to make a half-hour serialized show that created its own world, something akin to the warp zones you can drop into in Super Mario Bros.
“Most of the comedy out there,” Jackson says, “you can watch season 3, episode 9 and understand what’s going on. Whereas, if you wanted to watch Game of Thrones, you couldn’t start with season 4, episode 2… We kind of wanted to do that, where at the end of each episode the stakes are huge. Someone might die, or there’s a black hole.”Across six episodes, the story of what happens in the Brain Frame is told via a True Detective-style interrogation of the gang, and we learn how their dream machine went off the rails. It starts with a bad decision: After breaking up with him, Sam renders Hannah unconscious by zapping her with some Men in Black-esque device. Sam and his buddies then go into her dreams without her consent and try to get her to like Sam again. The subtext here might not be immediately clear, but it feels like one of Crunch Time’s missteps, especially because later episodes bring Hannah into the “gang” and this breach of trust isn’t really discussed again.
They did talk with Hodges about how to approach the scene, and the whole ridiculous chain of events started with a “guy who had just gotten his heart broken, and so that was always the jumping-off point," Jackson says. "We knew that everything bad that had happened had come from this guy."
And, admittedly, these characters aren’t really meant to be likable; when Rooster Teeth co-founder Burnie Burns shows up as a sadistic interrogator, you’re kind of rooting for him. Kirk Johnson, who plays dream assistant Larry, is one of the series’ highlights. He’s responsible for controlling simulations back in reality, but his ineptitude provides some of the funniest moments in a truly absurd series. There’s also an extended cameo from Starship Troopers’ Casper Van Dien, who first appears in Hannah’s dream.
While Crunch Time is a complement to Rooster Teeth’s other recent series, Day 5, in which sleep equals death, here co-creator Andrew Disney says they tried to hit “all the things your mind thinks of when uninhibited” in shaping the different dream scenarios they eventually start selling to people, which include flying and a woman being able to shoot lasers from her breasts.
“The fact that people in different cultures have the exact same nightmare is really interesting,” Jackson says. “One of the most common nightmares is being chased… teeth falling out, being naked in public, flying is a huge one. So we thought that would be a fun jumping-off point. Dreaming is a shared experience that we all have.”
Crunch Time doesn’t really decipher the world of dreams; it turns it into a video game and highlights the id at its foundation.
Here’s an exclusive clip from the first season, which debuts Sept. 11 on Rooster Teeth.