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Western Animation / Tear Along the Dotted Line

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Strappare lungo i bordi

Tear Along the Dotted Line (Italian title: Strappare lungo i bordi) is an animated series that premiered worldwide on Netflix in November 2021, as one season of six episodes. It is based on the comic strips and books that comic book artist Zerocalcare (Michele Rech) wrote since the early 2010s, that in turn are loosely based on his personal life and experiences. Zerocalcare also created, wrote and directed this series, chose the songs for the soundtrack and, in the original Italian version, also dubbed most of the cast. It is the first animated series from Italy on Netflix.

Thirty-something cartoonist Zero and his friends Secco and Sarah are taking the train from their home town of Rome to Biella, a smaller city in Northern Italy. The whole series is narrated by Zero and is a flashback that shows the significance of that trip and what happened in his and his friends' lives up to that point, and reflections on what their future may hold. Zero's hyperactive imagination conjures up all sorts of scenarios, with or without many pop culture references, and his conscience is a whole character in itself, represented by a giant talking armadillo who tries to give Zero a different viewpoint.

Tear Along the Dotted Line provides examples of:

  • Advertised Extra: In a sense. The first teaser of the series was released about one year before it actually came out and, since Secco, Sarah and Cinghiale (a humanoid boar) appeared in it, most reviewers assumed that they were the main characters since they are major characters in the books and Zero's friends who always stuck with him no matter what. However, when the series was actually released, Zero, Secco and Sarah are the main characters, while Cinghiale only makes a few cameos that are irrelevant to the plot.
  • An Aesop: People are complex, and the reason why they do or don't do something is often a very complex compilation of factors. At the end of the day, a single person can only do so much for another or for a cause.
  • Animated Actors: Episode four starts like this, with the characters getting ready to film the scene and an assistant drawing Zero's Big Ol' Eyebrows with a marker! The end of the sixth and final episode also implies this.
  • Animate Inanimate Object: Zero's house is seen as a parody of The Brave Little Toaster series mixed with Game of Thrones, with every knick-knack and useless junk inside Zero's house conspiring to take ownership of his house and actively arguing and fighting for control with their owner.
  • Artistic License: Secco is said to be jobless and pay the bills by playing a whole lot of online poker games, though the only time he's portrayed doing it he's playing the Windows Solitaire. Lampshaded with the caption that says "I don't know what online poker actually looks like".
  • Art Shift: A few scenes are drawn in a style different from Zerocalcare's one, for example resembling childish doodles, or the part with Zero changing his car's tire drawn as an instruction manual of sorts.
    • Sudden Video-Game Moment: In one episode Zero compares getting bored to tears by an old woman's ramblings to a Street Fighter II-esque 16-bit fighting game, where he is getting knocked out by the old lady's special moves.
  • Bait-and-Switch: One episode shows Sarah getting ready to go to work wearing a suit and skirt, and getting behind a desk. Looks like she finally managed to become a teacher, her life goal she has studied all these years for! Nope. She is in a supermarket, selling toilet brushes and having to sing and dance to attract buyers, while wearing a cap shaped like a toilet brush.
  • Bland-Name Product: Pretty much every film and band poster, book cover and Netflix menu icon that appear (with the exception of Sense8 for some reason) is based on an actual one but redrawn in Rech's style and with the title either slightly modified or turned into a humorous description of the subject itself. E.g. the icon for Dark says something like "I can't understand shit".
  • The Cameo:
    • Several characters from his books (such as Cinghiale, Katja, Deprecabile, Corrado etc.) make short appearances, either silent or voiced.
    • The last couple of episodes feature appearances of someone looking like the Panda from A Panda piace..., the webcomic by Rech's friend and fellow cartoonist Giacomo Bevilacqua. He's not a Funny Animal like several others that appear, but clearly a man wearing a mask, and in fact he represents Bevilacqua himself.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: The ultimate cause of everything bad in Zero's life and beyond.
    • Zero lives a cheerful, friendly relationship with Alice. He's able to be somewhat affectionate only by text messages, and even so he goes to great lenghts to avoid spilling his true feelings. In the end it becomes his greatest regret.
    • Also Zero is shown unable to tell everyone else what's hurting him, hiding his feeling on a goofy facade. His own antropomorphic consciousness (a talking Armadillo) goes so far to make him admit he has problems, but telling him he doesn't have to voice them to other people if he doesn't want to.
    • Also, Alice shares the same issue. Going so far to take her own life, because, in her father's words, she was "too kind to dare stepping on someone". Summing up, she avoided telling her feeling to Zero as much as he did, she had her share of abusive relationships and suffered them without a complain and refused to tell her parents how bad she felt as a jobless, pennyless adult woman until she killed herself over it.
  • Central Theme:
    • Egocentrism.
    • Life not being what anybody expected or planned and what to do with it.
  • Clapper Gag: The Armadillo does it when Zero asks him to go together at Alice's, but he has no intention to get outside of the bed.
  • The Dividual: As one of his various part-time jobs, Zero gives remedial classes to several kids. They are usually represented as funny animals (or Blanka in one famous case). Two of them are girls depicted as mice, who are so inseparable despite not being related that Zero depicts them as one body with two heads. When Zero meets by chance one of them ten years later, he can't believe that she has her own life and the other one is no longer around... so naturally he imagines that they were separated with some horrific surgical procedure.
  • Doomed by Canon: If you ever read La Profezia dell'Armadillo, you're going to already know what's going to happen.
  • Driven to Suicide: Alice.
  • Expy: In the comics, Zero's mother is portrayed looking exactly like Lady Cluck from the Disney Animated Canon film Robin Hood (1973). In the series, while she's still a hen, her outfit and hair was changed, probably to avoid any copyright claim.
  • Flanderization: Secco in the comics is kind of a simple-minded comic relief character, but the fact that he's unemployed and lonely is not Played for Laughs, and he's a more complex character than he initially let on. In the animated adaptation, however, he's The Slacker whose only traits are that he doesn't care about anything and an obsession with ice cream (that he mentions a couple times at best in the comic books).
  • Flashback-Montage Realization: Basically, the sense of the whole season.
  • Four-Philosophy Ensemble: Zero is The Cynic (rather bitter and anxious, with Guilt Complex); Secco is the Apathetic (being, well, a VERY apathetic slacker who only wants to eat ice cream, even at inappropriate moments); Alice is the Optimist (a kind and idealistic young woman who just wants to do good) and Sarah is the Realist (a genuinely kind person who is the most balanced and grounded overall).
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: As part of the Reference Overdosed nature of Rech's works, there are several sight gags and sentences that can only be caught by pausing the video.
    • Word of God states that every single detail is based out of real items Rech owns: Zero's cellphone shares Rech's wallpaper, the "Game of Thrones" scene at Zero's place is based on the real Rech's house, down to the messy couch and even his backpack is an animated rendition of one Rech actually owns.
  • Funny Animal: Just like in the Zerocalcare comic books, several people are represented as humanoid animals, for the sake of making references and/or to avoid using those people's real likenesses. The Armadillo is more of a Cartoon Creature than a real armadillo, then again he's just a figment of Zero's imagination.
  • Funny Terrain Cross Section: Another example of Freeze-Frame Bonus, right at the beginning of episode 1. There is a pan from Rome's subway system to the surface, where the terrain is filled with all kinds of stuff: Roman relics and treasures, but also monstrous skeletons, novelty items from Zero's youth, random junk and Rech's own comic books.
  • Generic Graffiti: Averted in an interesting way. All tags that appear on walls in this series are lifted straight from the work of real-life crews (for example German writers 1UP, who were also referenced in Rech's books). According to a behind-the-scenes video, Rech asked these crews for permission and their tags were then scanned to reproduce them as faithfully as possible.
  • Growing Up Sucks: Part of the series theme: Zero is well in his thirties, yet he claims he mastered the art of dodging life, choosing to live as an awkward manchild because he feels unwilling to lose the simple life he managed to build for himself and fighting an universe of constant change. Eventually, he has to find a precarious equilibrium between change and status quo, learning a few lessons along the way
  • Guilt Complex: A huge deal of Zero's mindset. Zero is shown as easy feeling guilt for basically everything to the point of of self-deprecation. Kid!Zero is shown beating himself up over bad grades, as he truly believes he failed his teachers causing them to suffer, Young Adult!Zero feels guilt wherever he fails to be a good example and an outstanding member of his community, and Adult!Zero actively blames himself for Alice's suicide. It takes the combined efforts of everyone of his friends to make him stop claiming It's All My Fault with every breath he has.
  • It's All About Me: Cue Guilt Complex. Zero truly believes himself the center of everyone's else attention, going so far to shoulder everything bad happening around him and people he even barely knows.
    • See Talking To Himself: the exact moment Zero stops beating himself for Alice's ultimate fate and start seeing himself as a simple human being and not a failure bringing unhappines and shame to everyone who dares becoming close to him, his friends gain true voices and not a voiceover of the author and we finally are able to hear Alice's voice and not the creepy robotic monotone signalling the fact Zero was able only to remember the times he disappointed her, and not even how her voice sounded.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: Everyone who read La Profezia dell'Armadillo can already pierce what exactly means being Zero's first love and how Camille was Doomed by Canon all along. Though Alice took her own life, while Camille died because of eating disorders.
  • The Lost Lenore: A walking spoiler trope Alice's death sends Zero into a spiral of guilt, selfhatred and reflection. He pushes himself to realize he cared for her, even had romantic affections towards her, and starts to believe he could have saved her by confessing everything when he could.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Much life in the strips, every character wears only the same clothes, with Zero apparently owning only two shirts: the iconic "Punisher" black shirt with a white skull, and a reversed one as his sleeping gear.
    • Funnily enough, when Zero was a rebellious angsty teen with a red crest on his head, the skull on his shirt looked much more aggressive and had a crest too.
  • Medium Blending: Mostly used in episodes 1 and 2, with sightings of barely-animated cut-outs of real historical figures such as Mao Zedong, Friedrich Nietzsche and Adolf Hitler (all speaking in Rech's voice). Episode 2 has a scene of Zero imagining he is running for president, featuring a photo of Michele Rech's real actual face.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • A constant in Rech's works, his life and problems are represented both by goofy, comical gags and references to other works, and by personal and painful memories where the metaphors are completely serious. In this case the story revolves around Zero's friendship with a girl named Alice who is involved in a toxic relationship and later takes her own life.
    • An example is when Zero and Secco go to a pizzeria and Zero's indecision on whether to order the usual pizza margherita or try some new tastes is presented as a monumental task (even getting compared to Plato's Cavern) in a humorous way. However, Zero's fear of not being able to change in a harsh world that rapidly evolves and being left behind by friends and younger people is very real and leads to some painful introspection.
  • My Greatest Failure: Even for the master of Martyr Complex, Zero believes there's a sin in his life that may never be forgiven: Alice's suicide, because he never confessed his feeling to her and, when Alice was at her lowest, he choose to avoid hearing her out and sent her away with a hug and some ice cream.
    • Also the reason Alice took her life, as she could never forgive himself for being a jobless young woman living out of her parents' money.
  • No Swastikas: When Zero finds on social networks one of the kids he used to teach to (a lizard boy) years later, it turns out that he grew up to become pretty much a Nazi. However in the guy's profile picture the Nazi flag behind him has the swastika replaced by a white diamond symbol. Justified since the Nazi flag is still a hate symbol and it's better not to include it in a series that gets streamed all over the world, and Zerocalcare feels very strongly about Nazi ideology, so he doesn't feel the need to give it any more space.
  • Production Throwback: The series is full of nods not only to the books that Zerocalcare published up to that point, but also to the animated shorts that he made during 2020 and that were the precursors to the cartoon. For example, the monologue about pizza was lifted wholesale from one of these shorts.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Not quite a biography, but almost. Every single Rech's writing or animation is a disguised part of his life. Word of God states that every single character is a mix-and-match creation made by different parts of different people in his life, shuffled around enough to protect their privacy, modesty and allow them to go on with their lives without being burdened by their animated counteparts.
    • "The Prince of Tripping people"/"Il principe degli sgambetti" was a story for kids that Rech actually wrote and illustrated in his youth. It was even drawn in the same style depicted in the cartoon and based on a bully that actually bothered Rech as a kid.
  • Reference Overdosed: Downplayed compared to the comic books, but there's still plenty of nods to films, cartoons, anime, TV series and novelty items. Even one of the trailers is this: to show how Zero feels about getting on Netflix, the scene starts with him and the Armadillo sitting on the sofa as usual, then becoming bemused as they're joined in rapid succession by a robber from Money Heist, the Demogorgon and Squid Game's robot doll.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Early in the story, Alice, friend and love interest of Zero, asks him to write a children's tale. Zero, attempting to avoid being involved and starting a relationship with her sends her a wacky, zany story about a child bullied by the "Prince of Tripping people", a bully who loves tripping a child and when the child becomes a world famous scientist, Took a Level in Jerkass and straight up murdered him as the "Prince of Stabbing". While it gets Played for Laughs, with Alice claiming the story is obviously unsuitable for children and also as a proof of their mutual feelings. However after Alice's death it shown that not only Alice cherished the story, but was fond of it and loved to tell the first part to children taking Zero's unwilling advice by heart. Life will hurt and scar you (or at least your knees), but until you're alive your scars will become the proof you lived and someone remembered you.
  • Running Gag: Secco asking to go eat some ice cream, especially at inappropriate moments.
  • Shout-Out: As stated in Reference Overdosed above, there's too many split-second references to be counted. Interestingly, one of them is a real-life reference: the name "Kobayashi" on Zero's doorbell is not an allusion to either The Usual Suspects or Star Trek's Kobayashi Maru. It was the surname of an actual Japanese person who lived in Zero's actual apartment before he moved in it, and that he never got around to change.
  • Signs of Disrepair: In one episode Zero imagines his part-time job about teaching kids as a run-down factory named "Ripetizioni di Calcare" (more or less, "Calcare's Remedial Classes"). The L from the sign falls down, turning it into "Ripetizioni di Cacare" or, roughly, "Shitty Remedial Classes". (In Italian "cacare" means "to take a shit", and "fa cacare" is equivalent to "it sucks")
  • Scars are Forever: The reason Alice invested herself in boxing before her suicide. Her obituary, and Zero's story he wrote for her, flatly states that Alice wanted to die as a scarred old woman, with every scar tied to a fond memory, rather than a clean, unchanging doll.
  • Take That!: In the Imagine Spot described above, where Zero runs for president, there's a poster with Michele Rech's actual face and the words "L'ultimo faggiano" on it. That is a parody of the actual cover of an important Italian magazine that in late 2020 took a random photo of Rech and put it on the cover, paired with the text "L'ultimo intellettuale" ("The Last Intellectual"). Rech wasn't consulted and didn't know about it, and when he found out, he was reportedly furious and embarrassed, and even ranted about it on his social media profiles. However, in a behind-the-scenes video, it was said that the animation studio inserted the photo as a joke at Rech's expense, so make of that what you will...
  • Tomato Surprise: The reason for the trip, and by extension the old couple that the main characters are staying with are well known to them, but a mystery to the viewer, until it is revealed that Alice is dead, and they are visiting her parents are housing her friends to attend a ceremony for her.
  • Voice for the Voiceless: Alice, Zero's on-and-off love interest during his teenage and college years is always shown speaking with an eerie Computer Voice, as Zero constantly states he's unable to remember how her real voice does actually sound. The exact moment where Zero is forced to remember is the most emotional part of the whole season.
  • Wham Line: The very end of episode 5, where Secco bluntly states that Alice has died. The old couple that Zero, Secco and Sarah went to visit are thus revealed as Alice's parents, that they reached since they needed a place to stay before attending Alice's funeral.