Sunday, February 18, 2007

TV: Boys' WB!

Only boys watch cartoons and boys are stupid.

We decided that was the message Kids WB! was attempting to convey.

It's still called that, Kids WB!, even though it no longer airs on the WB because the WB is no more. Even though it's not "Kids" WB!, it's Boys' WB! Most of all it's dumb, really, really dumb.

He's a super dog.
He's a super hero.
He came to Earth from outer space and his name is Krypto.
He's super strong.
He's super brave.
He's Krypto, Krypto the Superdog.
Krypto, ruff, ruff, and away.
Krypto, Krypto the Superdog.
Krypto, ruff, ruff, and away.

That's from the annoying (and belabored) theme song of the series that kicks of Kids WB! each Saturday. (Note: Some areas air Kids WB! on Sundays and some monkey with the schedule -- we don't blame them -- but we're addressing the official Kids WB! shows.) It's a sing-song theme that you won't want to sing -- or to chant in the cheering sections -- and though not catching, it is annoying as hell. Ruff, ruff, get away.

This dog of a show, about a dog, is apparently cat nip to someone which is why it airs twice each Saturday on the official schedule. Or maybe the second airing is supposed to be reminiscent of a burp? Kicking off the morning it sets out the guidelines quite clear (a) bad drawings, (b) moralistic and (c) women are basically invisible.

On the latter, we don't mean that the female characters, like Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four, have a super power that allows them to turn invisible or that they fly around in Wonder Woman's invisible jet, we mean they usually aren't seen (or heard). On the moralistic nature of the shows, "pompous" might be the better word because, while morality plays have long been a part of animated cartoons, this is less concerned with instructing children in any core values and more concerned with superficial nobility that many of the characters possess. On badly drawn, Krypto the Superdog establishes quickly that the 70s cartoon series Super Friends is apparently still a template -- why, we don't know.

Kryptpo is supposed to have power pecs for some reason -- we don't know why, this is, after all, a dog -- but the best word for him may be "stacked." He has a dog house that outdoes Snoopy's, it has a rocket ship underneath its normal shell which may strike many as strange but not the creators of this show. Kevin is his young owner who says a lot of stupid things but you can't be too bright when you have a superdog. Kevin's cousin Bailey is out to expose Krypto (he would be the nemesis of the show -- but not the arch villain, it's too mild for arch villians). Streaky the Supercat is someone's idea of outrageous which, on this mild show, means it sounds like he's voiced by the ghost of Paul Lynde (it's really Brian Drummond) and he lives next door to Kevin and Krypto with his owner Andrea who, possibly picking up on the vocal similarities between her cat and Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, spends a lot of time finding outfits for Streaky to wear.
Andrea's theme song should be borrowed from Mad TV because she honestly could sing of being "on the outside looking in" for all the nothing she does from the sidelines.

In one recently aired episode, mini-aliens (the show's really ugly despite thinking itself too-cute-for-words) have decided to be super heroes (they're both male off course) and capture a bad alien (ditto) which they then rush to show off to Krypto and Kevin. He's escaped (without their knowledge) and he goes on to cause havoc that largely means Andrea's dream of having Streaky get some glamour shots taken by a world famous cat photographer (if the talking dog didn't indicate this show was all make believe, the notion of a world famous cat photographer sets you wise quickly). If you're thinking the show addressed vanity (either in the photography or the bragging that really is, temporarily, the mini-aliens undoing) forget that thought. There's no time for a message, there's barely time for a plot. It all plays out dully and soon enough you're on to the second story of the half-hour where Krypto and Kevin spot an ice cream truck. This story serves largely to illustrate how stupid the writers are and how stupid they think the audience is. How so? If you've ever purchased ice cream from a vendor in one of those trucks, you know it's prepackaged. Not in the land of Krypto where the vendor leaves the front seat of his car to go into the trailer and begin putting together ice cream sundaes (with a cherry on top).

That pointless bit leads to another, driving off, he ends up with a blow out. Only Krypto can save him! From a flat tire? No, the ice cream truck travels down street after street careening. You sort of picture the young viewers freaking out if their parents ever have a flat tire. Krypto tries to stop it by biting the bumper and dragging himself behind it -- sort of the way a dog drags its ass on the carpet -- but that doesn't work out. Instead he sits himself in front of the ice cream truck and finally manages to stop it. During all of this, Bailey is determined to get a photograph of Krypto using super powers to demonstrate/prove, there's nothing natural about the dog. When Krypto finally stops the truck, it's doors swing open sending ice cream flying through the air which then lands on Bailey.

If you're looking for a moral don't bother. And if you're looking for Andrea to do anything in this story, don't bother either. She's a lot like June Lockhart in a Lassie episode as she hollers to Kevin to watch out because his cousin's trying to get Krypto's picture. At one point, Bailey stumbles upon the rocket underneath Krypto's dog house and, though he's been screaming about exposing Krypto to everyone, he rushes off to get Kevin's mother and show her. Kevin's ahead of her and the dog house moved while a blanket's tossed over the hole leading to the rocket. No one notices but the characters are awfully slow. Kevin's mother yells at Bailey (while Kevin smiles/smirks) and then storms off back into the house (the kitchen?) which makes her come off as a real shrew. Possibly that's the point?

Then it's time to giggle some more as Andrea grabs Streaky to take him back to her house to try on more outfits.

If you're bored reading all the above, just be glad you didn't have to watch it. This was followed by another episode of Krypto the Superdog which seemed to exist largely to nail the the hideous theme song permanently into your memory.

Next up was Loonatics Unleashed and the best way to describe that show is to ask a question? Did you see the episode of The Simpsons where Poochie is added to The Itchy & Scratchy Show in an attempt to be happening and "now"? That's what Loonatics Unleashed plays like and you can almost hear audiences hissing everywhere as the familiar templates of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Taz and others get updates.

Though Bugs may have provided you with hours of laughter, funny is really an after thought to this show that wants to be an adventure and involves super powers. Characterization is also an after thought which is how, on this version, Wyle E. Coyote and Road Runner are not only friends but downright boring. On the missions, they're usually sent to their rooms (something we'd strongly recommend for the creative 'geniuses' behind the show) while Ace Bunny, Danger Duck, Slam Tasmanian and Lexi Bunny to go off on adventures. The storyline played out like a nightmare of Katrina vanden Heuvel's (editor & publisher of The Nation). Lexi, the girl surrounded by boys, accompanies the gang to a planet where women control all and finds that extremely frightening long before she discovers that the males of the planet have been entrapped in plants. While Lexi's part of the 'gang,' she really doesn't do much except offer a lot of psuedo deep talk. Laughs are supposed to ensue when Ace and Danger (Christopher Hayes and Eric Alterman?) dress up as women. They don't.

Bugs Bunny often cross dressed to comic effect (and, of course, Garth of Wayne & Garth found Bugs in drag sexy). Here, Ace and Danger prance around a bit with none of the charm of Uncle Miltie. The drag scenes ends (thankfully and quickly) and, soon enough, all is right in the world as Lexi returns to being the token female in this comic universe. We think the drawing style plays out like someone's photoshopped every cell with the "pinch" feature and see that as appropriate since many viewers will probably have to "pinch" themselves to stay awake through the cartoon.

Apparently in a panic that Lexi Bunny tagged along on the mission (and talked a lot), Kids WB! immediately launches into Tom and Jerry Tales which takes the old characters of Tom the cat and Jerry the mouse and surrounds them with minor characters, all male. In the ignoble tradition of Josie & the Pussycats in Outer Space and Partridge Family 2200 A.D., both storylines for the most recent episode found Tom and Jerry in outerspace with Tom (the cat) being Tom the cat/octopuss in the first story. With the exception of Jerry shooting a gun repeatedly at Tom, which seemed more obviously violent (and tired) than we remember the original being, this played out basically the same as the original series (and didn't age well).

The male bonding only increases as Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get a Clue! follows and revolves around Shaggy and Scooby Doo with Velma and Daphne (as well as Fred) no where to be seen.
Shaggy and Scooby do have a (male) robot along for the hijinks and the Mystery Machine has been retooled so that it looks a lot like the son of Rosie the Robot from The Jetson's fame. But if you've been pining for the day when Shaggy was a millionaire, we don't think you were watching the same Scooby Doo we were. What stands out the most about the way the series is drawn is that Scooby Doo now has serious bags under his eyes and someone's apparently decided to give him Don Johnson's Miami Vice stubble. Whether that was an effort to butch up the character or not, we don't know. We do know that Grendal's "ex nihilo nihil fit" came to our minds while watching and we didn't see that as a good thing.

Having suffered through two shows without even a token female lead in the lineup of characters, viewers now get Johnny Test which is actually funny and also offers three female characters in the mix (Test's mother and his two sisters). Though Johnny Test fights all the battles, sisters Susan and Mary Test are scientists whose experiments result in super powers for their younger brother. The half-hour show goes by so quickly partly because it's only the cartoon WB Kids! has that actually seems like a fully thought out one as opposed to a pitch session gone bad -- "We'll take Bugs Bunny, make him a super hero, but in outer space and younger and we'll change his name to Ace! Ace is happening! Ace is now! Ace is Extreme!"

Next up is The Legion of Super Heroes. If you've ever seen the oversize, special edition, seventies issue of the DC comic where Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad finally marry, you're well aware that there's an entire universe of characters in the Legion's universe. The series, however, is sparesly populated and, although Phantom Girl pops up on some episodes, Saturn Girl is usually the only female on most episodes. She shares time, usually with four males. (Again, it's like a cartoon version of The Nation!) On the most recently aired episode, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Bouncing Boy, Timber Wolf, Superboy, and Braniac 5 played like Randy, Simon and Paula as they auditioned Legionairre wanna bes. Five didn't make the cut. Like the five judges, the five contained four males and one female. The five rejects decided to prove that they were worthy. A storyline that played out about as interesting as a Super Friends subplot involving the Wonder Twins finally merged in the last minutes with the main battle going on in outer space where the characters floated around and Lightning Lad shot bolts of lightening while Clark Kent's character punched a lot. Humor was supposed to be in abundance but we'd argue when you're relying on the very tired line "Tastes like chicken," you're neither as funny nor as original as you think you are.

In the film Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer's character, upon being saved by the Caped Crusader, wonders if it's "The Batman" or "just Batman"? The animated series tells you that it's The Batman. Dick Grayson is back as Robin and he's in school. The credits show Batgirl but she didn't appear in the most recent episode. The Riddler did appear -- with an updated look. This was both a repeat and an origin story (telling you how the Riddler came into being). This go round, the abusive father wasn't the big bad responsible for Edward Nigman becoming the Riddler, it was a woman he loved named Julie, a fellow scientist, who betrayed him out of greed. When an entire episode plays out for a half hour and there's only one woman on screen, we're not really sure that the way to go is to make her evil incarnate. But the Kids' WB! must know what they're doing, right? The WB is still around, after all. Or, at least, CW.

As The Batman fades, you're left with Spider-Riders which plays out like a mixture of Tremors and Lord of the Rings. Though striving for an epic storyline puts it far ahead of the ambitions of Kids' WB! staples, the show's real mood is creepy which keeps getting watered down. Older kids will be frustrated. Inhabited by a large universe of characters translates as the typical token female on one of this network's cartoons actually becomes two super heroines. This is apparently supposed to be seen as progress.

Completing the Saturday run is Monster Allergy. If the fact that there are basically eleven regular characters and that four of them are female strikes you as unusal, you've obviously logged a lot of TV hours where women remain in the minority of portrayals despite being the majority of the population in the United States. If the fact that the cells exhibit actual artistic talent surprises you, note that this hails from Italy. It's a pleasant show, not ground breaking, not earth shattering. It's pulls off what Krypto the Superdog was probably supposed to and could actually air much earlier in the schedule.

Wading through Kids' WB!'s schedule, messages are sent home repeatedly. The first one is that the programming is actually Boys' WB! The second one is that it's all White. In a book discussion exactly a year ago, Betty noted this:

And, let me add, that Sesame Street doesn't cut it. That's one show. When I grew up, we had shows, not one, with a variety of races. PBS seems so scared these days that if the characters aren't White, they're animals. The issue of representation was one of the reasons PBS excited me as a child. There was no Black person in the Scooby gang, no Black Superfriend, go down the list. But on PBS, I could see all races. Not these days. PBS: making the world safe for animated bears and bunnies.

Boys' WB! fails the gender test and also exists in a lily, White world -- which is non-reflective of the world around it and indicates that the same 'real life' experiences, that translates into all the girls going to school on The Simpsons wearing dresses. are at play here. (For the record, overgrown boys pay attention, girls haven't worn dresses to school every day in years and very few girls, especially with loose skirts, take part in jump rope while wearing them.) (We would add, "for obvious reasons," but we just grasped that we were dealing with overgrown boys. Girls rarely play jump rope at school in dresses due to the fact that jumping up and down will make loose skirts fly up. What Marilyn Monroe went for in The Seven Year Itch isn't really something young girls are dying to recreate in grade school.)

Earlier we mentioned Josie & the Pussycats -- that early 70s cartoon featured one of the first female leads of color. If a cartoon special wanted to feature Valerie chairing a panel discussion on race in the cartoon universe, it would still be a very small panel. Over thirty-years later that is especially disappointing. Any hopes that such charactes would be integrated into diverse shows appears to have not only vanished but been forgotten.

There's nothing wrong necessarily with a show revoling around one race and gender but there's something very wrong with a schedule that relies on White male leads (and don't kid that the animals aren't all voiced White) and reduces all others to tokens or renders them invisible. There's also something really sad about how tired the majority of the shows on Boys' WB! are. Krypto the Superdog? Shaggy Wants to Be a Billionaire? The Legion of Super Heroes Idol? The last cartoon that we found interesting and enjoyable was the Ripping Friends (a very funny show). It revolved around four male super heroes, one of which (Slab) was African-American. It lasted one season on network TV (Fox Kids). The Power Puff Girls, which was often funny, predates Ripping Friends. It also had the Cartoon Network as its original home -- not broadcast TV.

Gender, race and ethnicity are not side issues. They are very much at the forefront. In addition to them, there are a number of issues that have led to a preponderance of crap on Saturday mornings. We're apparently going to pay forever because Mighty Mouse might have gotten high and because Paul Reubens (not dressed as Pee Wee Herman) whacked off in an adult theatre. The fall out has been bland shows for decades now. In addition, the networks are under some idiotic notion that the public clamors for a Saturday version of their infotainment shows. And there was a move to the same cheaply made reality shows, but centered around children, that attempted to pass for 'educational.'

We're not really fond of 'educational' for 'educational' purposes TV. We think ABC's School House Rock provided more than enough education during its hey day. When networks are forced to go educational, they end up filling their required three hours of children's programming with dopey shit like Veggie Tales. In fact, NBC is the worst offender when it comes to children's programming, offering the type of moralizing that would leave Davey & Goliath sheepish and mixing in 'classic' lit as a cover (Babar). It's why Cake airs on CBS -- a show that plays worse than the most hideous PBS attempt at arts and crafts.

By contrast, ABC is having a golden age by attempting to actually entertain.

We don't generally note cartoons here. When this site first started up, and these reviews were a group project, we'd considered reviewing the X-Men cartoon. For whatever reasons, that ended up getting bumped for a primetime show. But we (Ava and C.I.) are aware that young families make up a significant portion of the readership. We're also aware that they struggle and cable or satellite isn't an option for many.

So, in closing, what we'd like to do is ask those readers to think about their own days in front of the TV on Saturdays. Were they watching lame gimmicks (Captain Cave Man & the Teen Angels, for instance)? Do they remember that around the age of seven, Babar-type shows would have been seen as for little babies? Do they remember the shows they liked?

You're going to have to be the voices for your children. When we mentioned we were tackling cartoons, Ty said there have probably been fifty e-mails complaining about Veggie Tales (we share your dismay). Would you have watched that nonsense? No. Should your children have to? That's up to you. Not just in whether the TV turns to that channel but also in terms of whether or not the network starts getting some real pressure.

They get psuedo pressure all the time from scolds complaining that this is too violent or that is too scary or that might give ideas (ideas are very dangerous in today's climate -- second only to thinking). If you remember the days when you could be entertained, maybe learn a little along the way, but be entertained in front of the TV and you want your own children to have that opportunity, you're either going to have to get vocal or figure out how to swing cable or satellite. That is the reality.

If you do decide to get vocal, do everyone a favor and use your voice to also call for better representation on TV. It's very scary that children today are growing up with the notion that all leaders, all active participants, are White males. That's not reflective of society. It robs all children, even White boys who, if they buy into this nonsense, are still going to have to bump into reality at some point. Due to the silence, Boys' WB! can pass for Kids' WB! That's only the tip of the iceberg.
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