Infinity Train is your next great discovery: Review

·7 min read

Is Infinity Train really over? The sci-fi/fantasy/mystery cartoon just released its fourth and final season on HBO Max. These 10 episodes don't feel particularly final. Anecdotally, the show seems to be a recent discovery for its rapidly expanding cult audience, and in this blessed Warrior week, we can dream of a streaming service where uncancellation is the status quo. Also anecdotally: I keep talking to friends who would love Infinity Train who have never ever heard of Infinity Train. Good news, friends! You have almost seven hours of pure viewing pleasure awaiting you.

Creator Owen Dennis previously worked on Regular Show, one of those Cartoon Network wonders targeted at adventurous young children and adults looking for an out-there delight. Infinity Train begins at a familiar nexus of nerdly fascinations, that particular Scott Pilgrimy vibe where synth-rock and video game colors meet comic book mythologies and fringe comedy. In the first season, a teenager named Tulip (Ashley Johnson) flees the horrors of her parents' divorce and winds up trapped on a cosmic railroad train. Outside is entropy; what's inside is marvelous. Every car is a world unto itself, and every episode features at least one car, with landscapes that can be fantastical, horrific, high-tech, trippy, or familiar. (There's a mall car, a circus car, a forest, an iceberg, a car with nothing inside except a frog who needs kicking.)

Tulip has to solve a mystery or two. There's a glowing number on her hand, which seems to be counting down. There's a little robot named One-One who speaks with two voices, one chirpy (Jeremy Crutchley) and one morose (Dennis). She also winds up traveling with a talking corgi named Atticus (Ernie Hudson) — who is actually king of the talking corgis. There's also a cat named The Cat, voiced by Kate Mulgrew with amoral relish. Just when you think you have a handle on the show's quirky charms, a techno-anime monstrosity starts slithering after Tulip and her friends.

Infinity Train's first two seasons aired on Cartoon Network, and it sums up that outlet's best experimental instincts. Each episode packs a lot into a fleet 11-minutes-with-end-credits runtime, and each season tells a full story with eye-popping tangents. The second season (or "Book") follows a previously minor character on a much darker journey, which reveals some much stranger aspects of the Train's operation. That story also prominently features Ben Mendelsohn and Bradley Whitford as a pair of law enforcement officers whose specific biological status would take two paragraphs to explain. The best episode of that season is more or less a Mendelsohn showcase, with the actor's slithery voice taunting our hero across a nightmare landscape of unrelenting doom.

"Who is this show for?" is not really a question I trouble over much. Good things are for everyone; bad things are for reminding us what "good" isn't. Still, Infinity Train definitely falls into a miracle cavern of demographic impossibility. It evokes a YA sensibility, with young leads who learn helpful lessons on magical journeys. All the puzzles on the train car, and the nature of those numbers on Tulip's hands, reflect a gamer's sensibility. The main characters' general kindness is moving, and maybe a bit too sweet for viewers over 15. Yet the steady revelations about the train conjure the serial enigmas of Lost or Battlestar Galactica. Seasons 1 and 2 have isolated moments of dark disturbance — still appropriate for kids, I think, but also appropriate for larger parental conversations.

"Who is this show for?" is not really a question I trouble over much. Good things are for everyone; bad things are for reminding us what "good" isn't. Still, Infinity Train definitely falls into a miracle cavern of demographic impossibility. It evokes a YA sensibility, with young leads who learn helpful lessons on magical journeys. All the puzzles on the train car, and the nature of those numbers on Tulip's hands, reflect a gamer's sensibility. The main characters' general kindness is moving, and maybe a bit too sweet for viewers over 15. Yet the steady revelations about the train conjure the serial enigmas of Lost or Battlestar Galactica. Seasons 1 and 2 have isolated moments of dark disturbance — still appropriate for kids, I think, but also appropriate for larger parental conversations.

And then — holy hell — season 3. I regret not catching it last summer; slot it into my 2020 TV list in the No. 6 slot. By the third season, a viewer has a sense of Infinity Train's rules and even an appreciation for certain scary unknowns about the Train's operation. Everything has become understandable and adorable. Then the Apex arrives, and the show's whole moral universe explodes. The Apex is a squad of renegade children who have turned certain odd facts about the Train into a ferocious cult of violence and anarchy. The group's led by Grace (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a brash longtime passenger with years of Train experience and an arm covered in glowing numbers. She teaches her followers that passengers (humans) are the only true beings onboard the train. All the other creatures — those cute corgis, the devious cat, the floating eyeballs, the occasional sentient ocean — are "nulls," non-entities who can (and should) be disposed of.

Worth opening up the rabbit hole of hysterical allegory to ponder everything the Apex might represent: Simulation theory taken to a fascist extreme, a certain strain of extremely-online cynicism, the kid who plays an open-world videogame long enough that they start shooting non-playable characters just for the hell of it. It quickly becomes clear that the Apex are fundamentalists for a religion built on lies, which does sound like certain nation-devouring Reddit fan theories. Heavy stuff, but Infinity Train is too fast-paced for preaching. The season's excellence is vital and brutal; it takes the familiar misfits-on-a-mission saga and cracks it wide open. Grace and her partner Simon (Kyle McCarley) meet a young girl named Hazel (Isabella Abiera), who is the devoted charge of a protective gorilla, Tuba (Diane Delano). Tuba is a "null," according to the Apex, but Grace and Simon pretend to be friendly fellow travelers, all while trying to convince the very impressionable Hazel over to their way of thinking.

So that's some Orwellian brainwashing with a side of Lord of the Flies-ish chaos, all alongside Grace's dawning concern that she's played her whole life wrong. Season 3 is Infinity Train's smash-the-guitars epic, a fractured fairy tale about everything that went bad with geekdom (and everyday humanity) in the past decade.

And season 4 is... nifty! This last adventure prequelizes into a first adventure. Ryan (Sekai Murashige) and Min-Gi (Johnny Young) are two friends living in mid-'80s Canada. They're older than past main characters, and their dynamic has the complications of a young lifetime together. Rockstar dreams united them, but Min-Gi is settling towards a yuppie trajectory ("I'm gonna major in Finance with an emphasis on Risk Assessment!") while Ryan keeps begging his old bandmate to join him on the road with zero booked gigs.

When they wind up on the Train together, they befriend a talking concierge bell named Kez (Minty Lewis). You will not believe how much character Dennis' animators imbue into a talking concierge bell, and Lewis (who co-created The Great North) turns Kez into a loopy quote machine. The train car worlds are stranger than ever: Zero-gravity mega-kitchen ruled by giant pig baby, spacemen waiting outside a bumping space club, Wild West town full of giant bug-cowboys, etc. Ryan and Min-Gi are "two Asian guys from BC" and there are brief (but revealing) conversations that bring real-world racism into Infinity Train's emotional palette.

It's a solid season of television, disappointing only in the context of the expansive terror that immediately preceded it. I choose to believe there is more ahead. HBO Max is becoming a legitimate destination for animation. Each season's feature-length runtime is a single-night binge. Dennis is certainly game for more. Still, as Kez tells her human pals, "It's not about the desti-something. It's about the whatever." On Infinity Train, the whatever never ends.

The Show: B+

The Third Season: A

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