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Category Archives: Other Animated Shows
There’s typically a shelf life for television shows, especially comedies. Part of a comedy’s potency comes from its ability to surprise its viewers, to leave them taken aback with some hilarious and audacious line, gag, or sequence. But as a show gets on in years, the characters become more familiar, and the rhythms of a show’s storytelling and humor begin to be recognizable. That, almost inevitably, leads to escalation, where characters grow more caricatured, events start to become bigger and more dramatic, and episodes turn more and more self-referential.
And yet, even as it enters its eighth season, Archer has managed to stave off much of this standard seasonal rot. Part of that stems from the fact that it’s hard to turn the show’s already exaggerated figures into caricatures. Right from the jump, Sterling Archer was already a version of the Bond-esque superspy with all the drinking, womanizing, and death-defying qualities taken up to eleven. Part of it comes from the strength of the show’s dialogue and clever, densely layered writing, which continues to crackle even as certain plots may spin out or grow unwieldy.
But a big part of how Archer has managed to stay fresh, even as it moves within spitting distance of the 100-episode mark, comes from creator Adam Reed’s consistent willingness to reinvent and evolve the series as it carries on. Reed, who in addition to creating the show has been a credited writer on every episode, is not afraid to shake up the premise of his series — the setting the Archer gang finds themselves in, the types of stories told, and the characters’ relationships with one another.
“The End of Serialization As We Know It,” the finale of South Park’s ambitious twentieth season, closes with a speech about wiping the entire Internet clean and offering everyone a chance to start over. Troll Trace, the catalyst for the latest looming global catastrophe to confront this surprisingly consequential Colorado town, had threatened to expose anything and everything that anyone has ever said or done online. The town’s hard fought victory against the website guaranteed that risk of exposure, and the ensuing chaos, wouldn’t come to pass. With the threat extinguished, everyone can have a new start, a renewed chance to go on without all the baggage they’ve accumulated from years of surfing and posting and perhaps even trolling.
That sentiment echoes two articles, both of which are a few years old, but feel even more relevant now than when they were written. The first is a New York Times editorial entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It talks about the then-nascent emergence of social media and the way that the rise of what, in the salad days of 2010, was referred to as “Web 2.0” was poised to change things. The emergence of user-generated content as the engine of the Internet meant that more and more of lives was being preserved for the foreseeable future. Everything we posted threatened to become inescapable, destined to follow us and prevent us from living down our worst moments. The second is a satirical video from The Onion that presents the same idea in a much more succinct and amusing fashion, entitled simply: “Report: Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due To Facebook.”
They, and this episode of South Park, are getting at the same idea — that even though the Internet is an incredible tool that has changed the world, helping to democratize everything from art, to business, and even to politics, there are downsides to the digital lives we lead today. The way that so much of how we consume our media, how we work, and how we interact with the world, is filtered through our digital devices means not only that we’re easier to rile up, but that so much of what we do is captured forever, waiting to rear its ugly head and expose our weaker moments to everyone. That’s the central threat at the core of the show’s season finale.
There’s a scene in The Simpsons episode “Lisa’s Substitute” that I’ve always loved. In it, Lisa is smarting from the unexpected loss of her mentor, Homer had acted boorishly insensitive about it, and the two of them try to make peace after Lisa is clearly devastated at losing one male figure in her life who inspired her and not terribly pleased with the one she’s been left with.
Despite Homer’s clumsy attempts to start the conversation, a funny thing happens as the two of them find their groove. Homer admits, in a roundabout way, that he doesn’t really get Lisa. He admits, in a surprising bit of self-awareness from the Simpsons patriarch, that he is a pretty provincial guy. Homer realizes that his daughter is different and bright and has a future ahead of her that will take her to places he can’t even imagine. Despite that, he loves her, he supports her, and he wants that future for her, even if he’s not sure what he can do to help her get there. It gives the two of them a connection at an emotional level, even if Homer and Lisa may never connect on an intellectual level. There’s support even when there’s not understanding, and that means a great deal to a young woman struggling with what to do.
There’s a similar scene between Bob and Tina in “The Hormone-iums,” that stands out in a show that’s proved to be one of The Simpsons’s great inheritors. When Tina is struggling with whether to follow her dreams of becoming a soloist in the Hormone-iums (Wagstaff School’s preteen issues-based music group), despite the fact that it would cement her as the poster child for an idea she doesn’t believe in–that kissing is wrong and dangerous–Bob is there to listen. And like Homer, one of Bob’s trademark qualities (and the one that makes him a good dad even if he occasionally, by dint of narrative necessity, brings his kids along on some pretty dangerous adventures) is that he loves and supports his kids, even when he doesn’t really understand them.
The Land of Ooo, the setting for Adventure Time, is a bright, candy-colored world, but those garish hues mask the harsher truth revealed over the course of the show — that the series takes place not in some wholly imaginary fantasy land, but rather on Earth, generations after humanity was wiped out in “The Great Mushroom War”. That kind of contrast is also the central conceit of the show, where a series that, on the surface, appears to be a silly children’s cartoon, with brightly-colored characters and goofy adventures, reveals an unexpected depth, sensitivity, poignance, and even, occasionally, profundity, belied by the fairy tale nature of its setting and style.
Adventure Time embraces the basics of its palette in “The Comet”, the finale of the show’s sixth season. There are three distinct philosophies on life and on choosing one’s path within it offered in “The Comet”. These philosophies are symbolized by the three primary colors, and none of them is so favored or dismissed as to be dominating or irrelevant in the show’s calculus.
The first season of Daria is good, but not great. Many of the elements that would eventually establish the show as a touchstone for disaffected youth were already in place in these early installments. From the beginning, Daria showed off the deadpan snark that would make her famous; the rest of the Morgendorffer clan had their basic personalities sketched out, and the show was already devoted to shining a satirical light on the lumpier parts of high school and teenage life writ large.
But in the show’s early going, its bread-and-butter humor and critiques of life as a young adult are a little less sophisticated and a little more obvious. The satire isn’t as sharp or incisive as it would become later in the series, and the secondary characters are flatter and more stereotypical. Most of all, the series only gives glimpses of the depth and insight series creators Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn would eventually imbue into Daria and the show’s title character.
This all makes me sound far more negative on Season 1 than I mean to be. Even if Daria had never progressed past what it was able to accomplish in its first season– creating a fully formed protagonist who could wield witty barbs like a literate ninja, mustering a solid dose of knives-out fun directed at one-dimensional high school archetypes, and offering a fractured take on life as a teenager–it would still be an enjoyable series with a memorable hook.
But in “The Misery Chick”, an episode written by Eichler that served as the finale of the show’s first season, the folks behind Daria showed the series’s uncanny ability to address complicated, meaningful topics with a deft hand. What’s more, the episode served as something of a mission statement for Daria herself and also proved that the series could show empathy for its broader, less likeable secondary characters, revealing the hidden depths and humanity of the less-flatteringly-depicted residents of Lawndale. These are the elements that allowed Daria to transcend being a simple paean to teenage snark, and become one of the most incisive and hilarious looks at young adulthood ever on television.
Who is Rick Sanchez? Is he simply an amoral (or post-moral) mad scientist with a drinking problem? Is he a reluctantly self-sacrificing grandfather who secretly loves the family he occasionally torments? Is he an anti-authoritarian hedonist with no regard for sentient life or anything else that stands in the way of his fun? Is he a man in pain who keeps himself constantly moving forward so as not to have to face his own demons and personal failings? Is he a jaded spacefarer who’s seen a universe’s worth of crap and has to dig through it to recover the remaining scraps of his humanity buried underneath?
Rick Sanchez is all of these things. He’s a man who’s keen to kick back and watch the turmoil of a “Purge Planet” like it’s a spectator sport. He’s a man who’s willing to sacrifice his own life to save his grandson. He’s a man who would create an entire miniature universe, complete with intelligent life just to power his spaceship. He’s a man who attempts to kill himself after being left by an old flame once more and told he’s a bad influence. He’s a man who has fought in a war, walked away from a failed marriage, and accordingly refuses to leave himself vulnerable. And he is also a man who scarred his daughter by abandoning her when she was young, but who later turned himself in to the authorities to keep her and her family from having to live as intergalactic fugitives.
In short, he’s complicated. It’s easy to mistake the divergent takes on the same character that inevitably emerge from the cacophony of voices in a T.V. writer’s room for complexity. But given Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon’s history of writing damaged, multifaceted characters, it’s no stretch to see these characteristics as something more than just a jumbled series of inconsistent traits. Instead, they are signs of the conflicting impulses within one of the most three-dimensional characters to ever anchor a comedy as madcap and irreverent as Rick and Morty.
Toy Story, the first fully CGI feature film, would still have worked without its groundbreaking, digitally-rendered aesthetic. The film’s visuals were certainly eye-popping in 1995, and Pixar’s decision to feature toys as the main characters was partly motivated by an aim to mask the limitations of computer animation at the time. But at its core, Toy Story is a universal tale about jealousy and acceptance than transcends the particular style employed by its creators. It could have been a traditionally animated film or a comic book or even a puppet show, and while some of its elements would certainly have been lost or changed in translation, the heart of the film would still work just as effectively.
ReBoot, on the other hand, the first fully CGI television show (which, incidentally, predates Toy Story by about a year), may very well be inextricable from the medium in which it was expressed. The show’s premise is inherently tied to technology. Set in Mainframe, an electronic metropolis that represents the inner workings of a computer, the world of ReBoot is replete with a series of anthropomorphic “sprites”, “binomes”, and “viruses” who deal with reality-altering games input by a mysterious “User”, unruly visitors from “The Supercomputer”, and vague whispers about “The Web.”
As with Toy Story, the artificiality of ReBoot’s setting helped the show to overcome the fact that full photorealism was beyond the reach of computer animation in the early 90s. But that same digital aesthetic also proved to be the perfect medium for depicting this sort of world, to the point that it’s hard to imagine the series working apart from the computer-generated imagery that made the show stand out among its Saturday morning brethren. That’s why I’m more than a little leery of the upcoming, inevitable reimagining of the series. Part of what made ReBoot so inseparable from its computer-animated style is the fact that the show was not merely closely connected to technology; it was closely connected to a conception of technology as it existed in 1994.
Philosopher David Hume disclaimed the idea that man was “the rational animal.” He argued that a human being’s capacity for reasoning was as much a slave to the caprices of passion and the weakness of will as in the simple creatures his contemporaries looked down upon. He once wrote, “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”
I sincerely doubt that Philip J. Fry was inspired by David Hume, but in “The Why Of Fry”, he expresses a remarkably similar sentiment. In a pivotal scene, Fry learns that his journey to the future was no random mishap, but rather that the Nibblonians chose to cryogenically freeze him and send him a thousand years into the future, without his knowledge or consent, in the hopes that he would one day fulfill a prophecy to save the universe. Fry is outraged, and Nibbler pleads with him, “You were the only one who could help us. What is one life weighed against the entire universe?” Fry responds, clearly devastated, “But it was my life.”
“The Why of Fry” is about the relativity of importance, the way that a person, or an idea, or indeed the whole of existence can be magnified or shrunk in the funhouse mirrors of our minds. Fry is inessential to the Planet Express crew, but to the Nibblonians “the fate of all that exists and ever will exist” rests with him. Chaz has an inflated sense of importance as the Mayor’s aide, but when shown in a different light, he’s quickly revealed to be a puffed up nothing. Leela often feels lonely or isolated or uncared for, but unbeknownst to her, the fact that someone does care about her saves the entire universe from destruction.