Original Airdate: May 20th, 2000 on The WB
Conventional wisdom dictates that children’s programming designed to shill toys in easily-digestible 22 minute infomercials disguised as narrative are the nadir of TV for kids. I can definitely sympathize with this line of thinking, but the more time that’s gone by and the more I think about it I’m not sure how persuasive it really is. The entire business model of broadcast television is an inundation of advertisements with blandly inoffensive dancing monkeys inserted periodically. Now we have DVRs and streaming and other technological magic, so instead we’re treated to lovingly detailed portrayals of the features of Alicia Florrick’s Lincoln Town Car and desperately self-aware gags about Snapple in 30 Rock and Subway in Community. And you might say that at least these shows aren’t conceived out of whole cloth to sell tie-in merchandise, but the networks are currently inundated with shows designed to get you addicted to an endless parade of superhero movies, not to mention prestige shows determined to sell you board games and comic books and an endless variety of things that look like relics of British public infrastructure from 50 years ago. In addition to shilling Lincolns, my beloved Good Wife will gladly sell you a $6000 dollar sofa that looks exactly like the generic leather couch in Will Gardner’s office. When it comes to our offspring, though, we expect them to eagerly swallow tepid moralism and sage life advice about not doing shots before a marathon. So if you’re going to judge Max Steel, judge it by its own unique failings, not because it was intended to make money selling crappy toys. Make no mistake—I’m a dyed in the wool pinko, but we can hardly afford to get doctrinaire about the relationship between art and commerce in the hot light of 2015. After all, Powerhouse was brought to you by a non-profit organization and look how well that turned out.
Having said all that, Max Steel may be more successful as a media franchise than as a line of toys. The reason I had to specify up in the title that this is the 2000 Steel is because it’s just been rebooted, although the fact that it’s been on the air for three seasons and each season has seen it on a different network doesn’t exactly bode well for its health and welfare. Still, there have got to be 12-year-old Steel superfans out there, because they’ve also cranked out 9 straight-to-DVD movies.
- Intrigue. Hey, have you got a generic superhero story filled with generic superhero nonsense? Do you lack the rich and varied history of decade-spanning comic book franchises? Do you want to avoid the Danny Phantom or Murder, She Wrote trap of having an improbably large amount of excitement and adventure occur in a flyspeck town? Well, take a page from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and have your superhero adjacent antics take place within the context of a secret international crime fighting agency! By mixing a bit of intrigue in with your superpowered action, you’ve got a whole new well of stories to draw from, and it’s even better if you’re an animated show like Steel—you can use settings from all over the world without cheesy soundstages, green screen effects or unpersuasive attempts to replicate the Mongolian steppes in the outskirts of Vancouver. This also has the effect of making the heroes’ adventures seem more substantial and grounded in an existing and tangible reality. Despite the show’s inevitable silliness, the insertion of the counter-intelligence agency–here called N-Tek–turned out to be a great decision.
- Sly metacommentary. So the main event of this episode of Steel centers around criminal mastermind John Dread (Martin Jarvis, Titanic) luring our eponymous hero (Christian Campbell, Trick) into an ominously unstable Aspen ice cave by pretending to be N-Tek’s resident teenage tech prodigy, Dr. Roberto Martinez (Jacob Vargas, Next Friday.) The show uses this plot device to slyly and ingeniously subvert some of the hoariest cliches of potboiler action/adventure. Since it’s Berto’s job to spew an endless stream of technobabble, Max credulously believes the patent nonsense Dread makes up on the spot, just like he does every week. How many times have you seen a show with a scene something like this?
RUGGED HERO: Nebulously Qualified Science Geek, we need a way to defeat the Asshole of the Week in time to save the Civic Center, and we need it NOW!
NEBULOUSLY QUALIFIED SCIENCE GEEK: Well, my calculations have shown that if we just apply [string of gratuitously made up jargon] to the [actual scientific concept that makes no sense whatsoever in this context] we should be able to triangulate the signal!
ALLEGEDLY SASSY SIDEKICK: Give it to us in English, you friendless virgin!
NEBULOUSLY QUALIFIED SCIENCE GEEK: I made a map of the building he’s in, I’ve circled the locations of the plastic explosives and I somehow installed a GPS chip in his urethra!
RUGGED HERO: LET’S MOVE
As we near the end of the second act, Max begins to put it together, but it’s hilarious how easily Dread tricked him with the usual handwavey TV nonsense. And Steel doubles down on another cliche-one-note characterization, often hung on a very tenuous hook. As far as I can tell, Berto’s character has two traits: he’s a wildly unrealistic teenage super-prodigy of the Doogie Howser variety and he’s Colombian. Since this is TV, of course he loves the Spanglish. Again, it takes Max to the end of act two to figure out that Dread’s version of Berto is using the wrong variety of Spanglish salutations. It’s very easy for Dread to trick Max into thinking he’s Berto because Berto is a cardboard cutout. Of course, by foregrounding the glaring flaws in the fundamental properties of their own TV show, the writers of Steel may be shooting themselves in the foot to a certain extent. And it’s entirely likely that your average 8 year old isn’t going to pick up on or remotely care about tongue-in-cheek lampshading. But you’ve got to take your thrills where you can find them when you’re reviewing eminently forgettable children’s television from the past.
- Hilariously bad animation. Animation in the mid-to-late 90s is a classic case study in “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” The wonders of digital animation with 3D effects were only just being discovered. There was Pixar, making that shit look gorgeous. Of course, Toy Story cost $30 million goddamned dollars. Did the creators of Steel have $30 million dollars? They did not. Look, I realize this was 15 years ago and the people who made this show can’t hear me, but please don’t do this kind of thing unless your show is set in the uncanny valley. Watching this was like watching a Let’s Play of Deus Ex. And the thing about Deus Ex is that it’s not really contingent on acting. When you’re making a TV show wherein people feel emotions, it often helps if their face and/or body moves in a vaguely realistic way. I will also tell you that despite the illustrious cast of people who peaked in the 90s, the voice acting leaves something to be desired. They could probably have saved a lot of time and money if they had just made characters in The Sims. Compared to this, Super Mario 64 looks like Gustave Courbet. And what the hell is wrong with good old fashioned 2D animation? If it worked for Walt Disney, Hanna-Barbera and Hayao Miyazaki somehow I think you clowns can piece something together.
Motivation: Even when his life’s on the line, Max is on the job. Preventing Dread from poisoning his hometown with some sort of magical ice artifact or whatever the fuck is all in a day’s work.
Final Episode Judgment: If you’re a hopeless superhero TV junkie and you’ve somehow managed to exhaust the mountains and mountains of name-brand material out there, you could actually do a lot worse. Like Danny Phantom, for instance. 6/10.
NEXT TIME: I dive into the over-chlorinated swimming pool of “historical” drama for a game of Marco Polo!