Case Study 73: Pucca, Episode 26–“Soap Opera/The Choo-Choo Trouble/Pucca Goes Dutch”

Original Airdate: May 14th, 2007 on Toon Disney

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a huge corporation in possession of marketable intellectual property must be in want of a television cartoon. Pucca got her unlikely start in the year 2000 as a character from South Korean animated e-cards. Remember e-cards? Web culture from the turn of the century is so quaint. Much like Hello Kitty, her East Asian comrade in marketing excess, Pucca was a merchandising gimmick before narrative of any kind entered the picture. But great things can come from ignoble beginnings, and the Pucca cartoon is downright charming. It’s the product of an international collaboration between Korean creators, British producers, Canadian animators and American writers. Internationalism: first it brought you the Large Hadron Collider, and now it brings you Pucca. What’s not to love?

Strengths

  • Distinctive visual style. As we’ve seen time and again in this space, animators have a tough line to walk. Ideally they can create a cartoon whose aesthetic leaves a distinct impression. The goal is for someone to be able to take any random frame and identify the source based solely on the art. Of course, this can backfire horribly, because “distinctive” doesn’t automatically translate to “appealing.” But for Pucca, it mostly works! The characters are all about two feet high with oval heads and tiny little stubby arms with no fingers. Backgrounds are colorful and stylized without being too abstract. It’s very well done, and it has the desired effect of cheer and whimsy. Man, if Pucca is anything, it’s whimsical.
  • Original, if outlandish, stories. Cartoons are the perfect showcase for unbridled creativity. You aren’t confined to the limits of the human body and the tightly-budgeted set designer, and kids are generally more willing to accept nakedly ridiculous premises. Pucca takes full advantage of this. In the first segment, a dishwasher named Dada (Lee Tockar, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) discovers Mr. Dishy, a magic genie who lives inside a bottle of dish soap. Mr. Dishy has one very specific power: he can give Dada a makeover, complete with a stylish hairdo, a sharp suit and natty accessories. So what does he use this power for? Why, to impress a woman, of course—namely, snotty mean girl Ring Ring (Tabitha St. Germain, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.) The catch is that he loses his sleek new look the second he gets any kind of dirt, grime or stain on his duds—and there’s a limited number of uses before Mr. Dishy pops like the sentient soap bubble he is. The remaining segments are just as bizarre. In the second installment, ninja Garu (Brian Drummond, Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu) is tasked with transporting an ancient, magical urn across the country. While en route, he has to keep the urn from getting smashed by the sinister Tobe (Tockar.) The strangest story of all is the final segment. The Pucca characters are inexplicably transposed into the Netherlands, where they find themselves under attack from fiendish Belgians led by Tobe. The show doesn’t make a big deal about completely revising the setting, and I’ve gotta say, that fluidity is pretty attractive. It speaks to an inventive and flexible writer’s room. Stories this inspired can really reinvigorate tired narrative cliches—for instance, the “moral” of the dish soap segment is one we’ve heard a million times before: it’s not worth making superficial changes to impress someone who will never appreciate your true self—but everything’s better with a magical soap genie.
  • Unabashedly silly voice acting. The show earned a few belly laughs from me over the course of a half hour, but the overall feel of the cartoon’s sense of humor is greatly supported by its perennially game voice actors. Pucca (St. Germain) and Garu only speak in grunts and squeaks, but everyone else is firmly committed to deeply silly voices. Ring-Ring has a honking Brooklyn accent that rivals Harley Quinn, made all the more amusing by the fact that she’s also supposed to be some kind of Chinese wind goddess. Garu’s mentor Master Soo (Richard Newman, Beast Wars: Transformers) undercuts any whiff of Orientalism with a thick Jewish accent, complete with the occasional “Oy vey!” And you’d be surprised how much comedy St. Germain and Drummond wring out of those grunts and squeaks.
  • Humor. This helps keep the show vital just as much as the unique animation, stories and voice acting. It’s all about the little moments. Mr. Dishy describes Dada as a “sad little man with dishpan hands.” Being a soap genie, it’s only natural that Dishy would take careful note of who does and doesn’t have dishpan hands. The second segment features a couple of goofy references to Thomas the Tank Engine, including an appearance from Sir Topham Hatt* (French Tickner, Barbie in the Nutcracker.) When Hatt reprimands the engine about going too fast, it responds by discharging a cloud of hot locomotive steam right in his big ugly face. It’s Hatt’s “AUGH” that really sells it. And when those angry Belgians shoot cannons full of food at Pucca’s friends, it gives them an excuse to shout, “Look out! HERRING!” I mean, come on. Herring is a perfect comedy food.

Weaknesses

  • Sexual harassment comedy. This dates back to Pepe Le Pew and Kermit and Piggy on The Muppet Show, but it’s not cute. Pucca is forever trying to win the affections of Garu. She follows him around. She goes to great lengths to speed up the train so he can deliver the urn on time. She chases him. She tries to kiss him. You see, it’s funny because she wants to get physical with him but doesn’t have his consent. Haw haw! Do you really want your kids getting the message that doggedly pursuing someone and kissing them against their will is funny and charming? And this isn’t an incidental occurrence—it’s so central to the brand that if you do a Google search for Pucca, this is the first image you see. This is the image on the Pucca Wikia article about “Pucca and Garu’s Relationship.” Look, Pucca doesn’t talk, which is fine, but it means we have to figure out what her character is like based on the actions she takes. It’s hard to conclude that her main characteristic is anything other than “sex offender.”

*Let’s take a brief moment out of your day for a fun fact about Sir Topham Hatt. Even though his name is Sir Topham Hatt, the title of his Wikipedia page is “The Fat Controller,” a phrase that sounds like it was ripped straight out of some alarming fetish porn.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. Overall, this is pretty damn charming and I’d be happy to binge-watch Pucca with a small child any day of the week. Just couple that marathon with a stern lecture on consent and boundaries and you’ll be fine.

NEXT TIME: I’ll put aside the endless torrent of wacky cartoons in favor of a wacky alt-comedy parody of wacky kids’ programming: Wonder Showzen! As long as it’s wacky, dammit.

Case Study 73: Pucca, Episode 26–“Soap Opera/The Choo-Choo Trouble/Pucca Goes Dutch”

Case Study 59: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Episode 6–“My First Thanksgiving With Josh!”

Original Airdate: November 16th, 2015 on The CW

You don’t see a lot of musicals on television. There’s a couple reasons for this—they’re a lot of work to produce, and the financial outlay is considerable if you want to have things like dancers, costumes and unique sets. As television budgets have gone up, public interest in musicals has decreased, Hamilton-mania aside. Live-action film musicals were once a staple of the Hollywood diet. When the Golden Globes were founded in the early 1950s, it made sense to have a category called “Best Musical or Comedy.” But aside from outliers like Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd and Mamma Mia, there just aren’t many musicals in theaters these days outside of Disney animation. So Crazy Ex-Girlfriend took a chance, and I’m happy to say that for the most part, it paid off.

Strengths:

  • Musical numbers. So let’s talk about them. This is for the most part virgin territory and Crazy executes its musical sequences remarkably well. Unlike Glee, every song is original, which must make it hard to crank out forty a season. Unlike The Flight of the Conchords, the songs are smoothly integrated into a larger storyline about the quintessential musical-comedy topic of romance. Unlike Cop Rock, it wasn’t cancelled instantly. I watched the first six episodes of Crazy for this review, and while the early episodes had three songs apiece, the pace has slowed to two by this point and that’s mostly a good choice. A song isn’t like a joke—if it falls flat it sucks up two to three minutes of screen time and the show starts to feel like Saturday Night Live. The songs here are both amusing and creative. The first number features our heroine Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) rapping about how she always impresses the parents of her romantic paramours and the second is a loose parody of “Piano Man” about how bitter bartender Greg (Santino Fontana, Frozen) hates being trapped in the sleepy California suburb of West Covina. Songwriting is a completely separate skill from television writing, and it’s impressive that the creators are able to bring both talents to the table.
  • Droll. Crazy is not uproariously funny, and sometimes it’s unsure about whether or not it wants to be funny at all. In the six episodes I watched, there was palpable push and pull over whether the audience is here to laugh or to hear a story. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but various outings struggled with offering a reasonable balance. Happily, “Thanksgiving” performs well in this department, but don’t expect belly laughs, either. For an example of what to expect, there’s a gag in the “I Give Good Parent” song where Rebecca and her backup dancers turn around to reveal booty shorts emblazoned with inscriptions like “Polite,” “Smart” and “Good Hygiene.” But it’s hard to maintain the rapid-fire humor of something like The Simpsons or 30 Rock when you’ve got a B-plot about how Greg’s dreams are getting crushed under the weight of his father’s medical bills or an unstoppable urge to move a protracted romance plot ever forward. It turns out that same focus that gives Crazy a leg-up on Conchords is also a drawback if the show is viewed strictly as a comedy.
  • Rachel Bloom & Donna Lynne Champlin. When you’ve got a comedy that’s kinda sorta a comedy but not really, it’s important that you have funny actors who can sell an otherwise uninspired bit. Champlin plays Paula, Rachel’s best friend and co-conspirator in affairs of the heart. Today’s conspiracy involves insinuating Rachel into a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the family of her crush, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III.) Paula and Rachel encounter Josh’s mom (Amy Hill, 50 First Dates) and Paula urges her to invite Rachel for the holiday. “I would ask her to come to my house,” she lies, “but we’re going to Paris. ‘Cause that’s where we autumn. It’s like wintering, but cheaper.” This line isn’t especially funny on paper, but the comedic energy Champlin brings to the performance is priceless, and there are a million moments like this for both Champlin and Bloom. Bloom goes the extra mile, as Rebecca is regularly seized by anxiety, self-loathing and anguish as she pines for Josh and fumbles her way into his life. I’ve said before that the chops required for comedic acting are underestimated and Bloom’s performance is a great case study. Rebecca’s experiences really run the gamut, whether she’s confidently rapping, listening to Josh and his girlfriend Valencia (Gabriella Ruiz) have sex, or eating tacos on the couch with Greg.
  • Expanding universe. This show would get pretty suffocating if it was just an endless cruise on the SS Josh & Rebecca, so it makes the smart move and develops a strong cast of supporting characters. Paula is a high-spirited enabler of Rebecca’s romantic schemes, but at home her romance consists of a husband who prides himself on remembering that his wife likes a soap opera that he thinks is called All Of My Days. Greg is quick with a jaundiced one-liner, but it turns out he learned it from his father (Robin Thomas, The Banger Sisters), who uses humor as a defense mechanism to deflect Greg’s attempts to show care and concern.
  • Thematic cohesiveness. Too often, a show will have a perfunctory subplot to pad out the runtime that adds nothing useful, but Greg’s story tonight underscores the theme of Rebecca’s troubles: neither has control over the critical aspects of life that they see as essential to their future. Rebecca moved across the country to chase after a man she had a fling with in summer camp, and it’s a surprise to no one that it isn’t working out for her. This is only reinforced when her Thanksgiving scheme is derailed by Josh asking Valencia to move in together. Greg wants to leave his crappy job as a bartender to go to business school, but he can’t get out from under his dad’s medical bills, whereas Paula is so helpless that she’s living vicariously through Rebecca even more so than usual: she’s got her miked for video and sound. When Greg and Rebecca end up together at the end of the episode goofing off, watching TV and eating tacos, the show makes the tantalizing suggestion that they’d be better together than Rebecca and clueless pretty boy Josh. But Josh doesn’t have control of his life, either—it’s made clear that Valencia is manipulating him with sex.

Weaknesses

  • Racism. It’s sad to report that something that’s been hailed as “a breakthrough television show for Asian-Americans” for its casting of a sexy Asian man as a romantic lead is still susceptible to lazy, racist jokes. Rebecca imagines “basking in the warm embrace of a loving Filipino family” and being “surrounded by the unconditional love of a hundred Filipinos.” She even punctuates this thought with a bizarre fantasy where she’s Mary Poppins and is surrounded by an adoring crowd of children hanging on her every word. Even though stereotypes about Asians being overly dedicated to strong family units are mostly positive, they’re still stereotypes and it’s weird to watch the show uncritically reify them. That article I linked above specifically mentions this episode’s bit about dinuguan. The interviewer says that he’s never seen a joke about dinuguan on mainstream TV. It’s true that representation is important, but I do wish that the joke wasn’t that it smells disgusting and gives you the shits, which is what ends up happening to Rebecca. “Your culture’s food is weird and gross” isn’t what you’d call a super-empowering message. It also doesn’t help that Paula ridicules Valencia by calling her “Venezuela” and “Valderrama.” That’s what she gets for having a Spanish name! Look, Crazy isn’t exactly Birth Of A Nation. The decision to have the romantic lead be an Asian man is huge and has been rightfully applauded, but the show shouldn’t get a free pass on everything. This episode also helpfully illustrates an important point about racism: one reason Paula dreads Thanksgiving is that it means she’ll have to put up with her husband’s “racist uncle.” Later, she tells him “Everyone hates you. You’re racist.” See, that’s the thing—racism isn’t an on-or-off switch, where someone’s either Jesse Jackson or David Duke. Most, if not all, white people inadvertently say or do racist things on a semi-regular basis. Racism is a cultural failing, not a strictly personal flaw, and it often comes across in microaggressions—fantasies about positive stereotypes, open displays of disgust about unfamiliar foods, jokes about someone’s unfamiliar name. When we confine our willingness to acknowledge racism to a crusty old guy at Thanksgiving dinner, white people let ourselves off the hook. I think progressives and liberals are especially eager to do this so they can identify someone else as the bad guy, and I’ll bet the progressives who wrote this show are no exception. They were conscious enough to cast Rodriguez, but they’re by no means perfect.

Final Judgment: 8/10. If you like romcoms, musicals or both, Crazy will fit nicely into your regular rotation. Yes, the racial politics are sometimes fraught, but in American television, it would seem that there are two settings for racial politics: fraught and whitewashed. So I guess the former is preferable???

NEXT TIME: I review another TV show based on a movie when I take on the original La Femme Nikita!

Case Study 59: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Episode 6–“My First Thanksgiving With Josh!”