overthinking the idiot box

May 8, 2006

Animation on television, child-safe and otherwise.

Some Recent Good Ideas/Bad Ideas

by Adam Lipkin

In the tradition of Animaniacs, this week's Zoinks! column presents yet another episode of Good Idea, Bad Idea:

Good Idea: Letting Trey Parker and Matt Stone have as much freedom as possible, with no taboos. The latest season of South Park started with a bang, with great episodes attacking Scientology (and their use of the brainwashed Isaac Hayes), hypocrisy over hybrid cars (on both sides of the political aisle), and the hullabaloo over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed. The latter plotline (spanning two episodes) had some of the sharpest writing the show has seen in years, as Parker and Stone deftly mixed shots at Family Guy, The Simpsons, and even their own work into a surprisingly insightful look at how the media react to even the possibility of controversy. Comedy Central's decision to censor the appearance of Mohammed (after having no problems with a pre-controversy appearance by him in 1999) only served to highlight Parker and Stone's point.

Bad Idea: Letting Trey Parker and Matt Stone have as much freedom as possible, with no taboos. The problem with the South Park way of cartooning -- a method that involves writing shows up until the last minute, with no real review process -- is that there's no editor (or even, at risk of blaspheming, someone on staff at Comedy Central) to let the boys know when an episode is just terrible. Even if there were an editor, it wouldn't matter much, since an episode turned in on Tuesday night can't really be cut or changed much. After the initial high of the current season, South Park has wallowed in some truly dreadful episodes that probably sounded great on paper when Matt and Trey were giggling over them at three in the morning. Using recovering drug user Towelie as a surrogate for James Frey was an inspired concept, but the Oprah plotline fell flat. And their Al Gore episode managed to commit the double sin of being neither funny nor timely. Good as the show can be, Matt and Trey need to step back every once in a while and admit that a lousy episode should just get tossed on the scrap-heap.

Good Idea: Revisiting old ideas and reinterpreting them in new ways. I've defended (and will continue to defend) The Batman, the latest incarnation of the Caped Crusader, as a damned good show whose only sin is not being the beloved Bruce Timm/Paul Dini show of the '90s. But the younger-skewing show has done a nice job of reinventing some villains (notably Clayface), and has focused on a younger, less experienced Bruce Wayne. Next season, we're finally seeing this universe's version of Robin, and it's about time. By bringing in Batgirl first, we'll be looking at the first animated series to turn the traditional Batman/Robin relationship on its head, and I'm intrigued by the possibility. As JLU comes to a close this month, The Batman will be the flag-bearer for the animated DC universe (alongside the upcoming Legion of Superheroes show, about which I'll write in a future column), and bringing in Robin manages to be both a nod to the traditional DC universe and a sign that they're willing to take those traditions in new directions.

Bad Idea: Revisiting old ideas and reinterpreting them in cheap, exploitative ways that insult the audience. I launched this season's Zoinks! column by lambasting the Kids WB for Loonatics Unleashed, a cheap and lazy attempt to revamp the classic Looney Tunes characters as future sci-fi superheroes. It was an idea that could have worked, in the hands of a talented and visionary creative team, but instead was churned out by what we can only assume is a committee of marketing executives without the slightest clue of what makes Bugs and company entertaining. Although the WB has renewed this show for next year (not surprising, given the amount of time and effort invested in promoting it), it won't be the worst thing on the air. That spot is sure to be taken up by the new Scooby-Doo cartoon. Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue will feature... Oh, I can't even describe this with a straight face, so let's pull from the Kids WB on CW (yes, that's the name of the new animated block) press release:

Ruh-roh! Everybody's favorite quivering sleuths -- Shaggy and his lovable Great Dane, Scooby-Doo -- are back in a new adventure that will anchor the "Too Big For Your TV" programming block. In this comedy from Warner Bros. Animation, Shaggy and Scooby live in the bling'd-out mansion of Shaggy's Uncle Albert, solving mysteries with the help of a transforming Mystery Machine which, at the click of a remote, can morph into one of a number of modes of transportation. New Scooby Snacks infused with a top-secret nano-technology allows our canine hero to fly, become a towering robot or even turn himself into a giant magnet, which comes in handy as Shaggy and Scooby-Doo carry out their new mission: protecting the Scooby Snacks and keeping them safe from those who want them for evil.

Yes, Scooby Snacks now grant real (nanotech-based!) powers, instead of the imaginary ones conferred by what everyone knows are really some form of illicit substance. Yes, The Mystery Machine is now a Transformer.
Okay, now Scooby's been subjected to some indignities in his time. There was the shark-jumping introduction of Scrappy; Scoob's cousin Scooby-Dum; the loss of most of the supporting cast; and, of course, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. But in a million years, I'm not sure that I (or anyone who actually gives a damn about writing, characters, or entertainment in general) could have imagined something this horrible. Yes, their mansion is referred to as "bling'd-out" (combining cheap use of modern trends and buzzwords with that unique brand of borderline illiteracy that insists on using apostrophes when turning a noun into a verb). Yes, Scooby Snacks now grant real (nanotech-based!) powers, instead of the imaginary ones conferred by what everyone knows are really some form of illicit substance. Yes, The Mystery Machine is now a Transformer. No, there's no reason to think that the creation of this show is anything other than the most cynical of decisions from a group of creatively-bankrupt hacks.

Good Idea: Going out and buying Animaniacs when it hits DVD this summer.

Bad Idea: Revamping the Warner Brothers into a trio of elite rappers who fight crime while running around the underground street-racing scene. No, it hasn't happened yet, but given the way the landscape's looking, just give it time.

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