Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Original Airdate: October 9th, 1976 on ABC

Out of all the entities in the intellectual property storehouse of Hanna-Barbera, the crime-solving Great Dane named Scooby-Doo has had the most staying power. There have been twelve different iterations of the animated series, including one that’s still on the air today, as well as countless feature-length animated movies, not to mention the live action movies with the hideous CGI dog. Seriously, Snoop Dogg turning into an actual dog in that music video looked more credible. There’s also the predictably large swath of merchandise and cash-in attempts, including actual Scooby Snack dog treats, a Scooby Doo-themed version of Clue, and for some reason a Scooby Doo stage play. Sadly, tonight’s case study demonstrates that a higher-profile Hanna-Barbera product doesn’t make for higher quality.

Strengths

  • Paying tribute to literary heritage. When I saw that this was going to center on the Headless Horseman, I felt confident that it was going to be a watered-down, half-assed public domain bastardization that would make Washington Irving spin like a whirligig. While Scooby is half-assed in all things, this was a surprisingly thoughtful adaptation of the classic story. The show makes an intriguing intertextual move by establishing that the Scooby-verse exists within the fictional context set up by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The horseman’s story is traced not to Irving but instead to Ichabod Crane, the ancestor of one Beth Crane (Janet Waldo, The Jetsons), a friend of the Scooby Squad that only exists for the purposes of this episode and this episode only. Beth faithfully situates the Horseman’s origins within the Revolutionary War—as in the story, the Horseman is said to be a luckless Hessian decapitated by a stray cannonball, and this is almost certainly the only Hanna-Barbera program ever to discuss Hessians. Because there’s a glimmer of uniqueness and originality in this part of the storyline, Scooby viewers may be tempted to track down the source text. Of course, they might after doing that be tempted to never watch this show again, but either way, points for being bookish.
  • Sparingly amusing. Scooby is ostensibly a comedy, but the laughs are few and far between. Here are the three funny things that happen in this episode. Number one: We begin the action at a Halloween party hosted by Beth, who is dressed as Snagglepuss. Hooray for synergy! Number two: At one point, the characterically craven duo of Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Don Messick) faint due to fright. Scooby’s dimwitted country relation, Scooby-Dum (Daws Butler, The Jetsons), sees this state of affairs and also pretends to faint, appearing to think that this is what they’re all doing now. Ho ho ho. Number three: At various occasions, the dogs get their noses touched, bopped or poked, resulting in a comical honk sound effect. This concludes the list of funny moments in this episode of Scooby. You might be saying, “Wait, none of those were funny at all!” Well, now you can imagine what the rest of the episode was like.

Weaknesses

  • Scooby-Dum. I know some of you stopped paying attention the second I brought up this hick. Yes, that’s right—the good people at HB decided they needed to spice up the action by introducing another dog, even dumber and less articulate than the original dog. Clearly they didn’t learn from this mistake, as the execrable Scrappy-Doo was still three years away from being born into existence wet with the amniotic fluid of Satan’s bride. S. Doo is already hard enough to understand and his conversations with S. Dum prove nigh incomprehensible. Dum has little to offer besides hammy mugging and a bumpkin-ish approach to the unforgiving world of confidence men dressed up as movie monsters from the thirties. Wikipedia grimly notes continuity errors amounting to a “dubious lineage” for Dum, and I figured that these errors were born of a critical lack of interest on the part of the people who had written 40 episodes of this particular flavor of Scooby, but it turns out that there’s inconsistency even within this specific episode, with Dum being referred to as both Scooby’s brother and his cousin. I’m going to choose to interpret this as evidence that the Scooby line is rife with incest, which goes some way towards explaining why the Scoobies are critically stupid despite their sapience.
  • Flaccid “mystery.” Look, I love a good mystery. Even when I was a kid I loved a good mystery. Scooby acts like it’s going to present you with a mystery. They drive around in a goddamned Mystery Machine. What we get instead would make Agatha Christie vomit blood in an incendiary, gin-soaked rage. The minute we lay eyes on Elwood Crane (John Stephenson, The Flintstones) it’s obvious he’s the monster-impersonating douchebag we’re looking for, but we have to hang around for 15 minutes while the usual gang of idiots figures out that the seedy uncle who took the diamond necklace for “safekeeping” is actually the bad guy. They still don’t come to the natural conclusion even when the “Horseman” “steals” Elwood’s head. The really outrageous thing is that there’s only one other person the Horseman could possibly be, the Lurch-esque butler Tarlof (Alan Oppenheimer, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.) Tarlof is obviously a fake-out, seeing as he’s creepy-looking as hell. He also didn’t take any fucking diamonds!
  • Unconvincing action sequences. The episode tries to go out with a bang as Doo, Shaggy and Elwood wrestle one another for control of a speeding biplane mid-air. The problem is that the show has been taking advantage of cartoon physics all along, so it’s not like gravity is a serious threat. In fact, Scooby at one point steps completely out of the plane and walks several feet out on the empty air in the grand tradition of Wile E. Coyote. Next, they apparently crash through the back wall of an airplane hangar without damaging the plane. Shaggy falls through a mysterious hole in the seat and grabs onto the landing gear. Finally, the plane abruptly and inexplicably disintegrates. The end result is something neither thrilling nor comprehensible.

Final Judgment: 3/10. There are probably better episodes of Scooby. I know there are worse episodes, thanks to the aforementioned hell-spawn. Headless Horseman aside, Scooby and the gang can’t escape the stench of hackish mediocrity.

NEXT TIME: Gritty live action superheroes, anyone? I review Gotham!

Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Case Study 57: Roobarb, Episode 18–“When Roobarb Did The Lion’s Share”

Original Airdate: January 18th, 1974 on BBC1

The most obvious point of reference for Roobarb in the Oryx Vault is Paddington: It’s another five-minute cartoon made by BBC in the 1970s to pad out the hour when other things ran short. But while one series is based on an iconic and beloved children’s book character, the other is about a badly drawn chartreuse dog with a misspelled name. (At least it makes him easy to Google.)

Strengths:

  • Cute. Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m hopelessly devoted to dogs. And, sure, Roobarb only bears an abstract resemblance to any actually existing dog. Sure, it does the same weird thing that Paddington does where all the narration and voices are done by one guy (Richard Briers, The Good Life) so Roobarb doesn’t sound particularly distinctive, despite Briers gamely putting on a silly voice. But, come on, a dog wearing a poorly assembled horse costume? I’m not made of stone, people!

Weaknesses:

  • Rock bottom production values. To say that Roobarb shares Paddington’s lo-fi aesthetic is to put it mildly. As mentioned, there’s only one voice actor, but that’s just the beginning. Everything is a shaky line drawing. The characters’ mouths don’t match up with the audio, and that’s when they move at all. At one point, Roobarb’s foil Custard observes Roobarb in a comically humiliating situation, and it’s not clear if he’s looking through a hole in a fence, coming around a corner on the side of the fence or walking through the gate of the fence, because they didn’t bother to colorize the backgrounds. And the theme song? Let’s just say it’s doesn’t rival “Spin It” from Talespin.
  • Story that goes absolutely nowhere. Here is the plot, such as it is: Roobarb encounters a sad lion. The lion is sad because he’s part of a circus and he’s lost. Roobarb tries to distract him from his woes by putting on an extremely shitty one-man circus. Then the real circus comes back, so the lion books. If you’re going to do a lazy circus thing, just have the characters go to the circus and have misadventures there. It turns out that watching someone attempt to be entertaining and fail is not, in fact, super entertaining on its own.

Final Judgment: 4/10. You know, if there’s one thing I’m learning here it’s that the vast majority of television doesn’t even try to rise out of the endless sea of grey mediocrity that floods every broadcast hour.

NEXT TIME: Hey, they made a TV show out of the movie Limitless, so that’s going to have to make up for the fact that I couldn’t find an extant copy of the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure cartoon.

Case Study 57: Roobarb, Episode 18–“When Roobarb Did The Lion’s Share”

Case Study 55: TaleSpin, Episode 46–“Flight School Confidential”

Original Airdate: January 10th, 1991 on first-run syndication

Hey, a crappy kids’ cartoon that I remember from my actual childhood! The concept of Baloo (Ed Gilbert) from The Jungle Book delivering airmail was introduced on Disney’s first syndicated cartoon, DuckTales. DuckTales was enough of a hit for Disney that it launched a whole stable of early 90s syndicated animated programming for the studio. In addition to TaleSpin, my fellow snake people will probably remember Darkwing Duck and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. DuckTales also triggered a boom in innovative afternoon cartoons, demonstrating to studios like Warners Brothers and Fox that there was money to be made in developing high-quality animated fare like The Animaniacs or Batman: The Animated Series. It also led to a lot of garbage. TaleSpin isn’t nearly that bad, but let’s just say revisiting it tarnished a few childhood memories.

Strengths

  • A strong, relatable premise. The hook of this episode’s plot is simple: Baloo’s 12 year old navigator and apprentice Kit (R.J. Williams, Wake, Rattle and Roll) feels like he’s ready to fly a plane after extensive experience riding shotgun, but everyone thinks he’s way too young. Who hasn’t been in a position where they’ve been told they’re not old enough to do something they feel confident they can handle? Ultimately, this episode is about the relationship between Kit and Baloo, but as you’ll see, we get distracted by a whole different pile of much less compelling bullshit. If they had focused on that core relationship—on Kit trying to convince Baloo, on Baloo addressing his fears over Kit’s independence, on Kit trying to win Baloo’s trust in spite of his naturally unhinged inclinations—it could have been a great story.

Weaknesses

  • Jingoistic bullshit. Hey, you know what this kids’ show about a sloth bear flying a cargo plane needs? Cold War geopolitics! Much of this episode takes place in Thembria, which is populated by a bunch of authoritarian warthogs with cheesy Russian accents. Thembria is characterized by incompetent militarism, tyrannical rulers and austere radish-centric cuisine. Was any of this necessary? It was 1991. The Wall came down, guys. You won. Maybe there was a fear that this state of affairs was tenuous and we still needed to indoctrinate our children with unthinking contempt for commies. I don’t know. As it stands, it makes a godawful mess out of the plot. We go from Kit chafing under Baloo’s authority to Kit chafing under the authority of a bunch of Thembrians we’ll never see again to him getting rescued by Baloo. So is he going to teach Kit to fly, then? No. “You’ll make a great pilot someday,” he says. Kit is mollified. So the moral here is do what Baloo says or you’ll fly your plane into a mountain and die a fiery death in a foreign country. GREAT STORY BRO
  • Kit. I wanted to relate to Kit so badly. But there’s a difference between being prevented from doing something you know how to do based on arbitrary ageism and being cocky and stupid. Every time the kid tries to fly a plane it ends in a disaster. In the opening scenes, he crashes Baloo’s plane into some rocks. He steals a plane from the Thembrians under the cover of darkness, never manages to close the landing gear and crashes it into a wall. In the grand finale he takes control of a plane yet again and nearly runs into a goddamned mountain. And I get that he’s rebelling against the authority of the adults and/or the Soviet government, but it would have made for a better story if he tried to work with that authority instead of against it, since he’s clearly not equipped to do the latter with any kind of competence or affability.

Final Judgment: 4/10. Mostly inoffensive and not actively stupid, TaleSpin clears a lot of the low bars set by the children’s programming previously discussed here, but it hardly rises to the level of anything I’d actually recommend. By the way, I never thought I’d compliment Angelina Ballerina, but at least their Russia stand-in isn’t straight out of a fucking propaganda poster.

NEXT TIME: I cover the British political sitcom The New Statesman!

Case Study 55: TaleSpin, Episode 46–“Flight School Confidential”

Case Study 45: Fireball XL5, Episode 6–“The Sun Temple”

Original Airdate: December 2nd, 1962 on ATV

If you’re familiar with any creation of the husband and wife duo Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, it would have to be 1965’s Thunderbirds, the James Bond-esque marionette adventure series. It spawned a terrible 2004 film reboot as well as a salty parody in the form of Team America: World Police, but other than that, Thunderbirds has faded into nostalgic obscurity. But in the 1960s, the Andersons made a cottage industry out of what they called “Supermarionation,” producing a whopping eight series. Fireball XL5 was third in the lineup, giving us a choice example of early science fiction for kids on TV.

Strengths

  • High level of craftsmanship. Okay, so the marionettes and the elementary-school-diorama-style sets don’t exactly look sharp. In fact, the production values are jarringly bad—a devastating explosion bears a striking resemblance to a handful of firecrackers detonating, the limited range of motion inherent in a marionette leads to risible action sequences and when Doctor Venus (Sylvia Anderson) is tied to a sacrificial altar, her permanently cheerful rictus undercuts some of the tension. But there’s genuine love on display here. This is as good as marionettes can possibly get, and the starship vessels and sets are at least as immersive as what you might find on Fireball’s  low-budget sixties sci-fi cousin Star Trek. I think a good comparison here is Max Steel. The people behind Steel had 38 years of added wisdom and experience when it came time to create a visually appealing science-fiction show for kids, and it came out looking like Max Headroom had a back-alley abortion. It probably cost a hell of a lot more than Fireball, too. The moral here is that even if you’re working with antiquated technology on a shoestring budget, you can still create a (mostly) captivating aesthetic.

Weaknesses

  • Sludgy pacing attempting to compensate for an underwritten story. Do we really need to see the entire countdown for the rocket’s launch sequence all the way from 30 on down? How about the endless interstitial shot of everyone on board the Fireball sleeping? And of course it takes a goddamned eternity for Col. Steve Zodiac (Paul Maxwell, Aliens) to find his way into the titular Sun Temple. How hard is it to fill 25 minutes with actual content? Of course, once you hear what the actual story is, you may find yourself wishing that they had spent more time dicking around…
  • Colonialist racism. Okay, any story about alien contact where there’s a vast disparity in technological aptitude risks flirting with colonialist themes. You can be conscious of that and try and address those themes intelligently, you can do your best to elide the issue or you can stupidly blunder right into the heart of the matter due to lousy writing, and that’s almost certainly what happened here. Now, I’m not sure that’s better or worse than deliberately writing an artful tome about The White Man’s Burden but with aliens like Arthur C. Clarke did in the landmark 1953 novel Childhood’s End. It’s certainly just as annoying. You see, this episode tells the story of Zodiac’s team launching missiles carefully calibrated to break up asteroids that imperil Earth’s space program. These missiles come close to the planet of Rajusca without actually harming anyone there. Rajusca is unexplored but known to be inhabited, and the missile attracts the attention of a pair of bumbling, dark-skinned sun-worshipping cultists. In a hastily appended coda, we learn that these two were exiled from Rajuscan society “because of their evil hocus-pocus.” Needless to say, much is unclear about Rajusca and how technologically developed they are in general, but the cultists know that the missile came from Earth and retaliate by destroying the World Space Patrol’s launching pad using some sort of giant mirror apparatus. The Fireball is dispatched so that the WSP can see what’s the big idea, pally, and the cultists promptly grab the first white lady they see so they can sacrifice her to their god. Look, you have the entirety of space to work with and any number of outlandish aliens to create. Do we really have to recreate this particular flavor of tedious Earth bullshit on our distant sci-fi planets?

Motivation: Welp, once you’re strapped to the good old sacrificial altar, it’s hard to think much past survival.

Final Judgment: 3/10. Excellent if you like puppets. Terrible if you like anything else.

Case Study 45: Fireball XL5, Episode 6–“The Sun Temple”

Case Study 42: The Huckleberry Hound Show, Episode 41–“Legion Bound Hound”

Original Airdate: September 18th, 1960 on first-run syndication

I doubt that Huckleberry Hound is anyone’s favorite cartoon character. Hell, I doubt he’s anyone’s favorite Hanna-Barbera character. But he plays a relatively prominent role in the history of western animation. Hanna-Barbera was one of the first studios to make cartoons specifically for television, and Hound was their second offering and their first big hit. If my reviews have demonstrated the lowlights of children’s fare from the 2000s, 90s and 80s, trust me that before 1960, kids TV was a vast wasteland of hideous puppets and Krusty-esque clown shows on local TV stations. There were cartoons like Looney Tunes and Mighty Mouse, but they had first appeared in movie theaters back in the days when a two-hour feature film was the culmination of an entire evening’s worth of entertainment. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera got their start in this world, making theatrical cartoons for MGM Studios, including the smash hit Tom & Jerry series. In the late 1950s, MGM decided they had a sufficiently robust catalog of animated features that they could just start reusing them and that there was no need for Hanna & Barbera to keep making cartoons. The animators scrambled to get the backing to start their own production company. They didn’t have the natural pathway into movie theaters that animation studios run by MGM, Warner Brothers or Disney did—so they looked to television. The rest is history, but how closely should we revisit this particular history? Well…

Strengths

  • Unique, if esoteric, setups. Okay, so it doesn’t speak highly of Hound that its solitary strength is also something of a deficit, at least for anyone wondering if their kids would like the show. But I’ll tell you one thing—you don’t see many cartoons about dogs/stereotypical Southerners fighting with the French Foreign Legion in the Algerian War. Nowadays, you don’t hear much about the French Foreign Legion—I didn’t even know what it was until high school—but when they were on the front lines of an exotic desert war, they had more pop culture cachet. There was even a TV show on NBC a scant three years prior to this episode, but nowadays kids might just find this setup baffling. The other two segments are equally charming in their dated/unhinged nature—the cumbersomely named “Pixie & Dixie and Mr. Jinks” feature has Jinks (Daws Butler) selling his mouse friends to rocket scientists intending to qualify them for status as Laika-esque animal astronauts. Jinks is the one that eventually gets sent to the moon, and if he follows in Laika’s pawprints and dies from hyperthermia it happens off screen. The premise of the “Hokey Wolf” installment is less topical but no less bizarre–Hokey (Butler) tricks three little pigs (uncredited) into relinquishing their home to him by posing as the ghost of another wolf they fucking murdered and haunting them. Okay then!

Weaknesses

  • Unfunny. I will credit Hound by saying that this isn’t the obnoxious, toxic “humor” where you’re peppered with an endless stream of try-hard non-jokes in the manner of Danny Phantom. Instead, Hound mostly doesn’t try at all. It’s very gentle. The proceedings mostly take the form of the classic Looney set-ups of hero vs. antagonist, but these shorts don’t have the anarchic joie de vivre that made Looney and its siblings famous. They’re generally much more sedate—while your typical Bugs/Fudd stand-off involves at least 5 or 6 encounters and opportunities for Bugs to outsmart and flummox Elmer, when Huckleberry (Butler) confronts Powerful Pierre (also Butler) there are only two confrontations until Huckleberry has the matter in hand. Huckleberry is also a less compelling hero than Bugs. Bugs outwits his rivals, while Huckleberry only manages to prevail through dumb luck. Bugs moves quickly, while Huckleberry moves at the pace of the South. This one probably won’t matter as much to the kiddies, but Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner and Jerry the mouse are underdogs fighting for their survival, whereas here Huckleberry is an officer on the side of a colonialist government in a war of liberation and Pierre is a renegade insurgent. Regardless, here’s an example of Hanna & Barbera failing to recapture the magic of their more famous film counterparts.
  • Derivative. It’s common knowledge that the most famous Hanna-Barbera creation, The Flintstones, was a thin gloss on The Honeymooners, and one of their other famous creations, The Jetsons, transparently relocated the Flintstones to the distant future instead of the distant past. If you add that to the creativity on display here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hanna & Barbera never had an original idea in their lives. Hokey Wolf bears a suspiciously strong resemblance to Yogi Bear, the woodland animal he replaced in the lineup, right down to his porkpie hat, neck-tie and diminutive sidekick (Doug Young, The Flintstones.) Pixie et. al seems like what would happen if a particularly uncreative writer’s room pitched “Tom & Jerry, except there are two mice!” At first blush, Huckleberry himself passed this test, but that was until I saw a clip of Southern Wolf, a character that animation legend Tex Avery created during his time working alongside H & B at MGM. It doesn’t help that all three of the originals are funnier than what we see here.
  • Poorly plotted. There are two moments in these cartoons that really test one’s suspension of disbelief, even considering that we’re extending a fair amount of cartoonist’s license as a matter of course. The scientists (uncredited) in the Pixie & Co. short are looking for animals smart enough to send into space, and yet when they first meet Mr. Jinks they don’t seem to consider him as a candidate, despite the fact that he can talk. It’s only until later, when Pixie (Don Messick, The Flintstones) & Dixie (Butler) aren’t working out, that Jinks seems perfect for the job. Geez, if you’re determined to murder super-intelligent animals, you could have saved a lot of time by paying attention to the cat smart enough to exchange mice for cash. The Hokey Wolf story is even flimsier. As mentioned, Hokey hopes to acquire real estate via the time-honored method of simulated haunting, and all goes well until the pigs are confronted by the original wolf, who is somehow still alive despite the fact that he climbed down a chimney and into a burning fire. Sure, it’s a cartoon and he probably got away with some singed, sooty fur, but how did that happen without the pigs noticing? I had assumed all along that they had buried his charred corpse in a shallow grave and resolved to hide their shameful secret from the public. I know it’s pointless to argue with cartoon logic, but it’s an awfully big hole in the story and everything hinges on the wolf’s miraculous return to life, and there’s not even a single line of dialogue attempting to explain.

Motivation: Mr. Jinks and Hokey both want money (in the form of cash and real estate, respectively) and Huckleberry is questing for the power of the French empire.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. There’s hours and hours of classic Warner Brothers cartoons for free on YouTube. Maybe stick to that?

NEXT TIME: What happens when aliens invade England during the Blitz? Find out as I review Invasion: Earth!

Case Study 42: The Huckleberry Hound Show, Episode 41–“Legion Bound Hound”

Case Study 35: The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show, Episode 7–“Step-Ladder To Heaven”

Original Airdate: February 13th, 1995 on first-run syndication

At the end of my last review, I promised to explain what foul truffle I’ve exhumed from the deep roots of television to present to you today: The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show. Yeah, you’ve never heard of it. It ran for 13 episodes. It was a spinoff of Marsupilami. Yeah, I know–you haven’t heard of that one either. Marsupilami was a spinoff of Raw Toonage. I swear I’m not making these up. Toonage’s tenuous hold on a cartoon you might actually remember is another one of its spinoffs, Bonkers. Remember Bonkers? Some kind of predatory cat that was also a cop and had trouble with the ladies for some reason? Yeah, you can go back to forgetting Bonkers. Shnookums was the decidedly less notable creation of Bill Kopp, responsible for Eek! The Cat and the Whammies from Press Your Luck. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Anyway, it’s divided into three segments focusing on different characters and it’s annoying garbage from wall to wall. Will I explain how and why in a profound level of unnecessary detail? You know I will.

Strengths

  • A unique setting for the Pith Possum segment. That’s right, Shnookums narrowly avoided the ol’ goose egg with one slightly interesting idea. It’s a tired-as-hell Batman parody, but the Batman character is a possum (Jeff Bennett, Johnny Bravo) and instead of Gotham City, he patrols a city of woodland creatures deep in a forest. This makes for some interesting visuals. The plot deals with rampaging termites, and they eat the police station, so the commissioner or whatever (Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond) summons Pith Possum “down to the police pile of sawdust right away.” I chuckled. The end.

Weaknesses

  • Misogyny. Jesus, my kingdom for a TV show where I don’t have to put up with this. I guess we’ve got to get the kids hating women early! Shnookums (Jason Marsden, A Goofy Movie) and Meat (Frank Welker, Scooby Doo) are a chaotic dog and cat duo that is legally distinct from a much more famous chaotic cartoon dog and cat duo from 90s kids cartoons. In their segment, they die and go to heaven, where the housepet version of St. Peter (uncredited) calls them to the carpet for their many sins. One of these involves our heroes going on a blind date, but their dates turn out to be ugly, so they ditch them. Because the only value women have is contingent on their fuckability! Taking notes from Henry the VIII, I see. Later, S&M learn that there are sexy succubi in hell, so they clamor to be sent there. Yep, all the best kids’ cartoons are about housepets wanting to fuck busty demons in hell. Where were the Parents’ Music Resource Center people for this shit? Let’s leave the worst parts of Looney Tunes in the past, shall we? The joke’s on S&M, though–the succubi are actually the ugly dates in disguise. Haha! There is no punishment worse than sex with an ugly woman!
  • Incoherence. Sometimes S&M are house pets. For the blind date interlude, they’re inexplicably dressed as 50s greasers, because I guess that goes along with the fact that they take their dates to the drive-in-movie, or perhaps this is meant to be a scene from their callow youth, or who the fuck even knows. The worst offender on this score is the third segment, which is about cowboy Tex Tinstar (Bennett.) For some reason, unlike the other two segments, the third segment is serialized, which is a bizarre choice in the first place. The entirety of the segment here is a dramatic fight between Tinstar and his foes. It starts in a saloon. It continues to a carnival. Then the characters dive into some dude’s bathtub and all of a sudden they’re under the sea, with sharks and so forth. There’s no resolution. The set up is minimal. It’s cacophonous and disorienting. I get that cartoons are supposed to be wacky, but usually there’s a narrative through-line and a vague gesture at adherence to a setting. Why have a cartoon about a cowboy if you’re not going to use the Old West setting? There’s also five more characters than there need to be. It’s just a hot mess.
  • Shitty voice acting. You’d think that industry pros like Welker, Bennett and Garrett would be able to acquit themselves more nicely here, but it might be a man behind the curtain situation. Welker and Bennett just use the Scooby and Bravo voices respectively. It turns out there’s a reason Scooby-Doo doesn’t get much dialogue. The Bravo voice makes sense on Johnny Bravo, but on an old west cowboy it’s simply confusing, and Bennett hadn’t refined the voice, so much of what Tinstar says is nigh incomprehensible, adding to the general feel of incomprehension plaguing that segment. Garrett voices the antagonist of the Possum segment, one Shirley Pimple, and as you may have realized he has no range whatsoever.
  • Not funny. Look, “funny” is in the name of the goddamned show. It should at least deliver on that. No? Okay then. I mean, if “Shirley Pimple” doesn’t tell you all you need to know about the humor on display here, what will?
  • Derivative. Yeah, you guessed it. Take one part Ren & Stimpy, one part Animaniacs and one part Tiny Toons and you get fetid, grey mush. I understand the rationale the Disney execs used–these other things are popular! Let’s just copy off their work! Surely then we will be successful! Of course, the reason people liked the latter cartoons is because they were original and funny and charming. But it’s a lot easier just to churn something out of a Play-Doh Children’s Cartoon Fun Factory, isn’t it?
  • Clip show. Ugh, this is like a compendium of what not to do. Mercifully we’re only treated to a single recycled montage of S&M misbehavior from this show and Marsupilami, but that’s one too many. This is episode seven of your show and you’ve already run out of fresh material? BOO MINUS.

Motivation: Too incoherent to tell. I guess S&M want to get their dicks wet on that sweet succubi gash, so that’s love/sex for you. And Possum is trying to save Possum City from destruction, so we’ll chalk that up to survival. Couldn’t tell you about Tex Tinstar.

Final Episode Judgment: 1/10. The only reason this didn’t join Mary-Kate & Ashley in the annals of ignominy is because I was feeling charitable. Yeah, that up there? That’s what charitable looks like.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that Nick-at-Nite makes original scripted programming? Read my review of See Dad Run to learn more!

Case Study 35: The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show, Episode 7–“Step-Ladder To Heaven”

Case Study 24: We Bare Bears, Episode 18–“Emergency”

Original Airdate: October 16th, 2015 on Cartoon Network

Way back in my second review, I bemoaned the fact that I’d found the low end of the 10 point scale very early. I’m happy to say I’ve finally found the high end and in a rather unexpected place to boot. This blog is teaching me not to judge a book by its cover when it comes to TV–I was stunned by how amazing Hindsight was, for example. It doesn’t help that so far my luck with children’s programming has been decidedly spotty. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to say I’ve finally stumbled upon something that truly deserves a 10/10.

That doesn’t mean We Bare Bears is for everyone. Some adults will simply not lower themselves to watching anything made for children that doesn’t speak to their own nostalgia, and Bears is very profoundly silly. It doesn’t exactly speak to the human condition, if that’s your standard for great television. However, this episode does everything it sets out to do, and it does it perfectly. I also like to think that it’s a good moment for adults interested in delving into what would traditionally be considered all too kiddie-bye. Bears definitely has the pedigree for appealing to that crowd–it’s the creation of Pixar vet Daniel Chong, and if anyone can get grown-up butts in seats for G-rated fare it’s Pixar. Television cartoons are also undergoing a renaissance in terms of adult appeal–just ask the legions of 21 and over adherents to the churches of Adventure Time, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or Avatar: The Last Airbender. So what does that look like when it’s firing on all cylinders?

Strengths

  • Character design. One easy way to score points right out of the gate is to have attractive, distinctive character design, and adorableness helps tremendously in this regard. Bears are adorable, and this probably helped along by the fact that many people have positive childhood memories of bear-shaped stuffed toys. Sure, in real life bears are quite dangerous and often gross, but for the softened visual language of cartoons, bears are a great choice. It doesn’t just come down to the animal selection, either. The bears are meant to be brothers despite being different species, and the similarity in the character design reflects that, but as you can see here, their modes of expression and the small detail work sets them apart based on their personality. We’re off to a good start if we’ve got charming visuals with a good sense of aesthetics.
  • Attention to detail. In animation, what’s being presented to the viewer can be as precise or as abstract as the creators desire. Whichever style is chosen, the medium demands a painstaking eye for detail to reach maximum potential. Hilarious signs and business names seen in passing pack more laughs per minute into an episode of The Simpsons than you’re likely to find elsewhere on TV. Shows like Bojack Horseman and Ugly Americans take full advantage of their uniquely deranged universes in ways that only cartoons could. Bears understands this. In the great opening credits sequence, which is scored with a lovely, bouncy number from the excellent Estelle, the bears are shown walking in their signature stack through a quickly changing variety of situations. In one, the bears stumble into a ball pit and emerge festooned with children clinging to them like barnacles. Grizzly (Eric Edelstein, The Hills Have Eyes 2) is on top of the stack and dislodges the children with the action of opening an umbrella, which transitions seamlessly into the next clip, where the bears trundle along on a rainy day. Of course, Grizzly is swept away from his position on top of the stack when the wind catches his umbrella. In this episode, we briefly catch a glimpse of the fact that Grizzly has 911 programmed into his phone as “The Po-Po.” Hee!
  • Technology integration. It’s something of a stroke of genius that this show takes it as a given that its characters exist in a world just as technologically sophisticated as our own. Many cartoons seem to sanitize modern technology from their universe as if they hold some sort of puritanical worldview about ubiquitous gadgets being inherently corrosive, as though many of these shows aren’t currently being watched on those ubiquitous devices, as though television itself isn’t a ubiquitous and arguably corrosive device. Bears makes no apologies for its characters living in a thoroughly modern world. They use laptops. The opening credits features Panda (Bobby Moynihan, Saturday Night Live) checking a Tinder-esque mobile dating app only to discover he has 0 matches. In this episode, they even take an ill-fated ride with an unhinged ride-sharing service driver. The show is a great example about how a kid’s show can be clever and unique without making any concession to the fact that its characters live in a world very similar to our own.
  • Funny. This is pretty essential for a comedic cartoon, isn’t it? Thankfully, Bears delivers. The story here is about Ice Bear (Demetri Martin, Important Things With Demetri Martin) desperately trying to get some time to himself chilling out in his home (a refrigerator, natch) watching ice skating and knitting. Alas, the antics of his idiotic brothers will take him on a journey far from his fridge, and this begins as Panda intrudes into his sanctuary with the goal of digging around for ice cream pops. Because it is a fridge, after all. Aside from the great visual of Ice Bear scowling as Panda climbs over him and shoves his gigantic poofy-tailed ass in Ice Bear’s face, we get a golden moment. Panda is searching for a French vanilla ice cream pop. Ice Bear taps him and produces the desired dessert. “Hey! You found it!” says Panda. “…Do you have any green tea ones down there?” He resumes rummaging. Ice Bear continues to scowl. In addition to the comedy of Panda cheerfully misreading the social cues, the mental image of a panda bear enjoying a green tea ice cream pop is delicious. Eventually, the main plot commences–Grizzly has purchased a “pet” crab from the grocery store, despite the advice of the grocer. Ice Bear is dubious–with good reason, since the crab promptly latches onto his ear. His brothers hasten to get him medical attention, which involves an odyssey across the city. At one point, they disembark from a subway train, only to realize that they’ve lost Ice Bear–because the crab has used his other claw to grab a piece of subway station infrastructure. That crab is an asshole. So the brothers tug, and tug, eager to make a crucial train transfer. Ice Bear winces. Finally they dislodge him–and the crab takes a chunk of metal with him. Asshole crab. Again, great visuals combined with slapstick are the bread and butter of silly comedy, especially in the cartoon form. The dialogue sparkles, as well. Eventually Ice Bear manages to go rogue and dislodge the crab on his own. Now his brothers are panicking because they don’t know where he is, so they head to a psychic (Edi Patterson, Partners) with crab in tow, of course. Grizzly wouldn’t abandon his pet! At first, it seems like the psychic is going to be helpful–she sees something white, covered with fur, beady eyes, doesn’t say much…and he’s at the pier! He’s scared and confused and headed towards a boat! “Where’s he going?” Grizzly exclaims. “Back to the place where it all started. Back to his wife, Guadalupe!” Grizzly gasps. “…Wait, who?” “He’s not a white-haired divorced man named Esteban?” Oh, man.
  • Excellent voice acting. This can make or break a cartoon, and Bears delivers in spades. I’ve often held that it’s harder to do comedic roles than dramatic acting, because a comedic actor has to both sell a punchline with perfect timing and delivery and invest their routine with genuine characterization, emotion and motivation in order for a bit to truly sing. Stand up comics can get away with general drollery with no particular voice coming from outside of a narrative space, but in the world of fiction the stakes are higher. Edelstein in particular manages to make many of Grizzly’s lines seriously funny solely through performance while still being convincing as someone deeply concerned for his brother’s welfare. It’s all too easy for actors in children’s programming to phone it in–see practically every other example I’ve reviewed here–but the cast knocks it out of the park here, and I think we’ll definitely be hearing more from Edelstein in particular in the future.

Motivation: Survival. And I’m not referring to Ice Bear’s injury–he’s never in any serious danger despite the mad rush to the hospital. When Grizzly and Panda finally find Ice Bear, he’s lying on the floor of an ice skating rink, totally blissed out. He just wanted to chill (see what I did there) and be himself. Of course, Grizzly and Panda are motivated by family, but this is truly Ice Bear’s story.

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. I’m so pleased to deliver a review where I have absolutely no criticisms. This is what a great cartoon for kids looks like, and silly grown-ups like myself will love it as well.

NEXT TIME: I finally get a chance to cover name-brand superheros as I review Teen Titans!

Case Study 24: We Bare Bears, Episode 18–“Emergency”