The Cartoon Revolution Will No Longer Be Televised
I hadn’t really kept up on children’s TV cartoon programming, not since I was part of the target demographic for it back in the ‘80s. As a young adult, I checked out the Batman series now and again, impressed by how well done it was. I became minorly obsessed with The Tick, because that was just a wonderful parody send-up of the whole superhero milieu I grew up in. The Simpsons crossed my radar, of course. But that’s about it.
I’ve been watching a lot of cartoons lately, because I have a daughter who’s almost five and a son who’s nearly three. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It turns out that television programming for kids has enjoyed something of a Renaissance in the last decade or so, similar to its counterpart programming for mature audiences.
But enjoy it while you can, because that era may be coming to an end…
Here I knew there were all these great dramatic series (mostly cable), from The Sopranos and The Wire and the revamped Doctor Who to Mad Men and Breaking Bad and the revamped Battlestar Galactica, but a similar spate of really good shows had also been created for young viewers: smarter, more sophisticated, with much better animation and action than any of my childhood favorites could offer.
We’re talking shows that the whole family could truly enjoy, exhibit A being Avatar: The Last Airbender (not to be confused either with the James Cameron movie Avatar or the stink-bomb live-action film adaptation The Last Airbender). We watched all three seasons on DVD. My daughter really got into it. I thought it was well done and compelling. Even my wife was hooked, and she’s not into superhero cartoons. I would’ve never believed a cartoon series produced for Nickelodeon could be this good.
Similarly, ensemble superhero shows like Teen Titans and Young Justice introduced season-spanning story arcs, character developments, and plot complications that kept older viewers and parents as invested as the young ‘uns (even engendering the notorious “okay just one more episode” effect that used to propel me through whole seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, and Battlestar Galactica in a matter of days).
Shows like Young Justice and Ultimate Spider-Man are just good television. They have all the bells and whistles for the kiddos, while at least acknowledging the intelligence of their older viewers, which many series that I enjoyed as a kid most definitely did not. Unfortunately, I know this firsthand, having nostalgically introduced He-Man and She-Ra to my daughter, to my own detriment, because I now have to endure the mind-numbing inanity of those shows of yore.
These newer series have integrated, for lack of a better term, “soap opera” elements of the sort that kept one tuning in to Firefly or Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Just as the sophistication of such shows has soared far above older TV fare like The Dukes of Hazzard and Greatest American Hero, that sophistication has translated down into the programming for younger viewers (and the sigh of relief from parents who have to wait until after the kids are in bed to pull up their own programming on the DVR is heartfelt. If you have to sit and watch something with the kids, at least it can be the revamped Scooby-Doo or Pound Puppies, shows made by creative, talented people who are mercifully aware that adults are also present in the room).
And then, to my dismay, I read a transcript from a recent radio interview by Kevin Smith with writer and television producer Paul Dini (the man who brought us that classic Batman series and so many great Warner Brothers/DC cartoons since then). In it, Dini notes that the growing trend among television programmers is to dumb down the cartoons to jettison the growing female audience, in the hopes that mentally un-engaging trash will maintain a “boys only” club for the sake of the toymakers.
When Kevin Smith protests that this is 51% of the target audience, and one that has long been coveted by folks creating this type of pop culture, Dini concurs but explains (or tries to explain) the Bizarro-world logic of the television and advertising execs (condensed from the original transcript):
“That’s the thing, you know I hate being Mr. Sour Grapes here, but I’ll just lay it on the line: that’s the thing that got us cancelled on Tower Prep, honest-to-God was, like, ‘We need boys, but we need girls right there, right one step behind the boys’ — this is the network talking — ‘one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as the boys, but right there.’ And then we began writing stories that got into the two girls’ back stories, and they were really interesting. And suddenly we had families and girls watching, and girls really became a big part of our audience, in sort of like they picked up that Harry Potter type of serialized way . . . But, the Cartoon Network was saying, ‘F*** no, we want the boys’ action; it’s boys’ action, this goofy boy humor, we’ve gotta get that in there. . . . And I’d say, but look at the numbers, we’ve got parents watching, with the families, and then when you break it down — ‘Yeah, but the — so many — we’ve got too many girls. We need more boys.'”
“And then that’s why they cancelled us, and they put on a show called Level Up, which is, you know, goofy nerds fighting CG monsters. It’s like, ‘We don’t want the girls because the girls won’t buy toys.’ We had a whole . . . merchandise line for Tower Prep that they s***canned before it ever got off the launching pad, because it’s like, ‘Boys, boys, boys. Boys buy the little spinny tops; they buy the action figures. Girls buy princesses; we’re not selling princesses.'”
Kevin Smith responds to the cancelation of such shows to clear the decks for mindless noise by saying it is “heartbreaking,” and as a parent I kinda understand where he’s coming from. I enjoyed plenty of mindless action myself as a boy, but stories that incorporated more intelligent world-building, more complex characters, and more developed narratives drew me in deeper.
I mean, if your test-market research discovered that an effective program for your toy-buying-boy target demographic was a film of meatballs, just a couple meatballs saying random goofy, off-color words, would you run with it? Two meatballs, and one says, “Fart.” The other titters and says, “Dung.” Then you sell some toys.
Girls don’t enjoy it, nor anyone with more than half their brain functional, but so what? We gotta sell more plastic.
Yeah, I know that it’s all market-driven, that the end game is to push product with those 30-second ad spots; that’s the whole reason for the existence of any of it. But if that is your end goal, don’t you at least want to produce something worthwhile, something that you can be proud of, on your way there? In this entertainment world, money may be the end-thing, but is it the only thing? For some of these people yes, yes it obviously is.
You can read more of the transcript and commentary from IO9 blogger Lauren Davis HERE.
If you’ll excuse me I’ll be in the corner weeping. And clutching my Samurai Jack DVDs to my chest.
@Joe H: I didn’t mean to sound so alarmist, but you’ve gotta understand how nice it is to find a show that you can enjoy with your kids and doesn’t drive your wife crazy. I don’t know if you have kids, but if you do then you know how much children’s programming is out there that will make your head hurt. You can feel your brain cells dying. Then a show comes along that is artistically creative or clever or intelligent in some way, and you rejoice. Samurai Jack fits the bill — that was a good cartoon!
Great post. I have an 8-year old and I find some things (like X-Men Evolution) just barely his age, while others (Wolverine and the X-Men, Batman The Animated Series) to be a bit above his age in terms of violence or tween/teen issues. Where would you place Young Justice and Teen Titans in age appropriateness? Thanks.
Nope, no kids of my own (although I do occasionally hang with other peoples’ kids); I just watch more cartoons than I probably need to.
(My favorite probably remains Thundarr the Barbarian.)
@Derek: Teen Titans is definitely geared to younger audiences: lots of kinetic action, and the animation morphs into a cute, hyper-exaggerated anime style at high-energy moments (which is interesting in the stylized way it uses the medium, but occasionally distracting to me. The same effect has been adopted by the new series Ultimate Spider-Man, but for some reason it bothers me less there).
Young Justice is more talky, deals more with the “teen” issues — it consistently tackles themes of identity and parental figures (or the lack thereof), with its many characters who are orphans/parentless (Superboy is, in fact, a clone of Superman) and seeking role models. The violence is more realistic and consequential as well, the stakes higher.
Funny thing is, while Teen Titans was clearly geared to a younger audience, characters are constantly punching and kicking each other through buildings etc. The violence is cartoony and without serious consequences, but eminently inviting of imitation by rowdy young viewers. My wife banned it in our house because our daughter was practicing TT moves on her younger brother. It recalled to mind many years ago when she worked in a daycare where they decided to ban Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because some of their charges were getting too physical in their mimicry.
@Joe: I have only the vaguest recollections of Thundarr the Barbarian. Do you really recommend it, or do you say that with some irony and memories colored by nostalgia? I’ve revisited shows I adored as a kid and been less than enamored. That happens with books, too, of course: a cherished work does not hold up to the version that existed, apparently, only in a young, impressionable mind.
I remember loving that Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Herculoids because it had such weird, cool creatures, but I haven’t gone back and watched it as an adult. Two other series on my “To Revisit” list are the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon and The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers.
I think the dumbing may already have begun. Very little has hit the high of the Batman: The Animated Series in terms of consistently good writing and cartoon work. Justice League and Justice League:Unlimited (but then they were by the same people as Batman) and to a lesser extent, Superman are in the same ballpark. Batman Beyond, also by the same hands, could be very good, but with a caveat. The first season was even darker and more violent than Batman: The Animated series. The second and longest season was dumbed down by the network. The third season stepped back up to the older level of quality, and I seem to recall hearing that since it was known that the third season would be the last the producers they just did what they wanted with it.
The next Batman series, by different hands, was pretty hard to watch.
Spectacular Spider-Man was head and shoulders above Ultimate Spider-Man, but Nick cancelled it after two seasons because by their calculation they weren’t selling enough videos. Of course, they weren’t packaging the show in complete seasons, either.
All may not be over, though. My family has enjoyed both the original Avatar cartoon and the new Avatar: Legend of Korra — apparently there will be two more seasons of that. And for goofy and surprisingly moving (sometimes) there are always Adventure Time and The Regular Show. Admittedly, it took my wife and I a little longer to get involved in these last two because of the oddity of them both and the animation style, but now we look forward to seeing new episodes with our kids.
If you have fond memories of Thundarr, don’t re-watch it… The coolest thing about it is the opening. Re-watch that on Youtube if you would and then imagine how cool it’s going to be, but don’t actually view an episode. Just think of the potential of what it might have been like rather than finding out how bad it actually was.
The best thing about Thundarr (aside from the opening credits) is probably the design work by Jack Kirby and — was it Alex Toth? It might be worth your while to check out one episode, say, Stalker from the Stars or Mindok the Mind Menace. I think the D&D cartoon probably falls into the same boat.
I’ve really enjoyed Avatar and the first season of Korra. Also, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes has been quite good.
The last cartoon I really liked was Sym-Bionic Titan, which was Genndy Tartakovsky’s follow-up to Samurai Jack. It was cancelled after only one season, supposedly because its audience skewed a tad older than Cartoon Network wanted (CN really does sound like a horribly run network), but it was such a fun mixture of classic anime, daikaiju concepts, and John Hughes teen movies. I keep hoping that maybe we’ll get some closure on its story someday.
The first time I really noticed Cartoon Network’s merchandise-centric policy was when they cancelled Symbionic Titan, also by Genndy Tartakovsky, because it wasn’t selling enough toys. How many toys did he sell with Samurai Jack, Johnny Bravo, Dester’s Lab, and Powerpuff Girls? For me, that was the end of Cartoon Network’s golden age.
Also, I have really enjoyed Disney’s Marvel series, but I can’t quite get past their canceling Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, for Disney’s Avengers. The latter is good, but nowhere near as good as the former.
I’m really enjoying Cartoon Network’s new Dragons: Defenders of Berk series, spun off from the How to Train Your Dragon film, and the original series of middle-grade chapter books the film was based on. Okay, there are only two regular female characters, alongside a very large male cast. On the other hand, Astrid is a kick-ass character, the only person who can keep up with the hero in mental and dragon-riding prowess.