We Bare Bears’ Cuteness Masks a Shockingly Cynical View of Humanity

In “$100,” a friend that often visits the young bears’ home dons a ski mask and tries to rob them of their new-found $100 bill. In “The Road,” the bears share their box-home with a hitchhiker, only for the hitchhiker to steal their box the following morning. In “The Fair,” a loser carny exploits the bears’ cuteness to earn more customers to his rigged game. In “Pet Shop,” after failing to attract potential owners, the pet store cashier boxes up the bears and puts them in the trash. In “The Island,” a potential island friendship is ruined when we learn the dude has been gaslighting and manipulating the living fuck out of the woman also stuck on said island. These episodes involve the bears as young, even cuter versions of themselves as hapless, adorable, orphan wanderers, and perhaps the show finds amusement in their constant struggles. But, damn, those struggles really come off vicious and bleak, a pretty cynically dark take on humanity.

The episodes that focus on the bears as adults aren’t much more optimistic. The last new episode that aired on Friday, August 11, (“Summer Love”) contained a scene in which Panda was forced to pay a bribe to some bubble tea cashier to get information on a girl that left her phone behind. Later in the episode, he runs into trouble with some guy who goes crazy when a girl he liked became an astronaut. (The portrayal of dudes being obsessed over women, which includes Panda here, is an issue all on its own.) There’s an episode where the bears go to a crowded beach but for some reason every human there is some form of shit stain – a litterer, a loud music player, some woman who brought ribs (“Private Lake”). At the beginning of the show’s run, there was a chance that the show was attempting to channel that human behavior towards something specific, in their behavior towards the bears themselves, in treating them differently or aloof because they were bears (I weirdly got pushback for mentioning this, only for the very creator to more or less post a confirmation on Twitter). Basically, if you were to watch an episode of We Bare Bears with the thinking that, thematically, the show is about how subtly but clearly awful humanity is, you might be horrified by how distinctly the show believes this.

There’s the episodes with Nom-Nom, voiced by Patton Oswalt, who hates the bears and only cares about his social media following, and any moment that showcases a smidge of humanity from the cute koala is undercut; lessons are rarely learned. There’s Charlie, the show’s worst character, who’s pretty annoying be default and whom the bears only hang out with because they either feel sorry for him, or he has something they want (I find it remarkable that the show never realizes how insanely shallow this make the bears seem). Chloe is the only character that feels like she genuinely likes the bears, and whom the bears like in kind. Her early approach towards the bears, which was entirely academic and aloof, became something genuine, something shared between her and the bears. Both understood what it felt like to be outcasts, and their connections (and episodes) feel like the rare time the show exhibits some hope.

There’s a “but” coming, though.

Before that, though, I do think that episodes with Chloe suggest that We Bare Bears is not actively trying to be nihilistic. It’s a brightly colorful show with soft, cute character models by design, and it utilizes a light touch with a good amount of its narrative beats – its song cues and montages, its portrayals of its emotional moments, its honest depiction of its central brotherly bond. The issue is that, to get to the ultimate point of those latter two, it has to chart a streak of abject meanness and callousness in its world and its cast of characters. We Bare Bears hides its harshness well, and there’s a chance that it’s intentional; perhaps Daniel Chong finds humor in the contrasts of its characters’ awful, self-centered behavior and the lowkey, soft aesthetics of the show. But Chong isn’t Dan Harmon or Raphael Bob-Waksberg, or even a Ben Bocquelet. His show doesn’t seem to have a larger thematic point beyond that contrast. If he’s aiming to say that despite a hopeful sensibility about the world, the only people who can really trust are family, then… fine, I guess. It’s a bleak outlook for sure, but I don’t think he actually wants to say that, which is why We Bare Bears is a really muddled claptrap of a show.

Really, most episodes place the bears in a situation where each bear has to deal with some inane, contrived obstacle – a person being obtuse, a machine that fails to work, a thing in the way of progress. These episodes aren’t particularly funny or noteworthy, although Ice Bear’s blunt, contrite statements are good for solid laughs. Grizz’s heart tends to be in the right place but will most likely go overboard. Panda writhes between being hapless and pathetic, but he remains endearing enough so he rarely gets annoying. The bears’ problems are mostly situational, almost like bits in a sketch show, escalating problems that come together at the resolution. And that’s fine; at its best, the show’s escalation tinge with pastiches of a clear love of style, like Ice Bear’s vengeful mission in the very good “Icy Nights.” A sweet two-part episode called “Captain Craboo” also indicates a very clear understanding of the kind bittersweet storytelling that warms the cockles of one heart. See, also, “Yuri and the Bear,” a story in which Ice Bear and a tough Russian man named Yuri start as mismatched enemies but end up as friends.

But (there it is) there’s the sense that while Chong and his crew understand story structure, they don’t really have much stake in the characters and/or world that supports that story. Chong knows the proper beats to tug at the heartstrings, but fails to apply actual heart or meaning to anything outside that storytelling modus operandi. It’s all mechanical, which results in an assortment of characters who are one-note and dickish, until they aren’t, and that’s only when the story needs the emotional heel-turn. Outside of that, characters are mostly some form of asshole, indirectly or directly, masked behind millennial trappings like gourmet coffee, vegan food options, and excessive-to-obsessive mobile/social usage. (The show, to be fair, nails that modern sensibility but offers little to no exploration of why people are so engaged in those sensibilities, which makes them come off bubbled; Panda orders a fairly over-wrought drink (a gluten-free, chai-coconut milk boba tea) but I’m not sure if we’re supposed to laugh at that or understand it as a reflection of who Panda is.)

I look back at Daniel Chong’s tweet, and I look back at my own AVClub review, and I think about the show’s very early interest in maybe, sort of, exploring the uncomfortable treatment between the bears and the humans, in the very human world surrounding them. I think that, had the show kept that as an undercurrent, the sheer cynical approach to said humans (and to the bears) would have had context, something rich and consistent to better reflect Chong’s vision and thematic approach. We Bare Bears eventually dropped that human/bear tension (which I why I got shit for mentioning it in the pilot), but kept the broad sense of hostility, which results in a show that may understand story structure but has a deeply dim view towards humanity. Watching We Bare Bears is pleasant until its over; the aftermath leaves a weird taste in your mouth. That taste? A darkly negative view, underneath a tasty boba tea.


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The Amazing World of Gumball Recaps: “The End” and “The Dress”

The Amazing World of Gumball S01E03 The End… by nexusdog1997

“The End” – B

It’s still very early in the show’s run, but The Amazing World of Gumball is starting to show early signs of the kind of confidence and cleverness that it will use to eventually become one of the sharpest and smartest shows on TV. After its introductory episodes, it’s starting to embrace its role as “cartoons about cartoons,” in a way, still focusing on its characters within an animated space and forced into animated plotting. In “The End,” we deal with a classic trope – the belief that the character(s) will be dead within twenty-four hours, so they end up doing all the things that they’ve always wanted to do. Unlike other cartoons, which goes through hoops to “justify” the misunderstanding, or go overboard with those bucket list goals, The Amazing World of Gumball just leans into the sheer stupidity of it all.

I mean, Gumball and Darwin ultimately fall for the mistake by flicking some channels, mistaking a sale sign that says “The End is Near,” and learning about what ancient Mayans thought about solar eclipses. Thus begins their venture into “end of world” fire sale actions, but there’s a number of unique twists to their endeavor – complete with 24-hour countdown clock (and this won’t be the first time they have to deal with that). Darwin wants to actually do good deeds, which is the show’s way ribbing plotlines like this and the selfishness of these characters, particularly with Gumball constant putdowns of Darwin’s selfless desires. Instead, the blue cat finds himself on the verge of going all out, but always being cut short: badmouthing and splashing his teacher with water, for example, forces him to waste three hours of detention. He tries to marry Penny, but she quickly puts short work to that dream. He gets a perm. That’s… it. And there’s something hilarious low-key in how the episode portrays all this – refusing to escalate the intensity of everything Gumball wants to do, it’s creates the opposite affect of what you’d expect. You’d think Gumball and Darwin would be rushing to complete their lives, but everything gets caught in the way.

This even happens when they bring in Richard. Of course he’d believe the boys’ ridiculous claims, but still, the show pulls back from rushing things on purpose. They “need to go faster” in the car but the handbrake is on, and then they crash it, and have to hustle to the store on foot. They’re not even allowed to run in the grocery story! Speedwalking like loons, “The End” just has fun with the idiocy, including a prolonged bit involving a self-checkout machine, and it’s just solid jokes all the way through, even with a porta-potty in the end. There’s a sweet layer to Gumball and Darwin’s final moment on the roof, undercut by the moon literally mooning the sun, in which the two learn the lesson of living life to the fullest. Later in the show, it’ll take that lesson into deeper, more significant places, but here, and in the next episode, Gumball is starting to toy a bit more with its sincerity, its irony, its timing, and its satire.

“The Dress” – B+

Particularly in “The Dress,” The Amazing World of Gumball is really aiming to work on it’s satirical prowess, using a “fame going to one’s head” and pushing it to some wild and hilarious degrees. It never gets personal, nor does it hone in on a specific target like its later episodes, but it does utilize the ol’ “mob crowd” to ridicule how easily people get caught up in… well, anything. “The Dress” leans on a relatively dumb concept – somehow Gumball in a dress is beautiful enough to fool everyone he’s a cute girl from Europe – but the show has so much confidence and commitment to this premise that ends up being kind of weird and wonderful and hilarious. It’s one thing for Gumball to exploit his new-found popularity by forcing his friends to do stuff for them. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to have Darwin fall madly in love with him. His own brother. He’s adopted, sure. But it’s still freaking weird and a bit disturbing.

That “The Dress” invests so heavily in this storyline is part of Gumball’s slow, overall build into something juicier than “funny takes on cartoon tropes.” This feels almost South Park-ian or American Dad-ian in scope. Gumball can’t wear his regular clothes since they’ve been shrunk in the wash by Richard, so he begs Gumball to wear his wife’s wedding dress. Here, there are two growing implications that will build over time: 1) the family’s difficulty with money is implied here (or else, why wouldn’t they just buy new clothing?), and 2) the weird, heighten, psychotic desire for the parents to prove to themselves, and to others, that they are “good” parents in a “wholesome” family and are absolutely normal. Both these points will be so, so important to the overal narrative of Gumball, especially as the show delves into the raw, intense feelings and truths that both those points will expose. Right now, they’re just quiet undercurrents to the show. In the future, they will become immensely significant, so it’s good to see the early bits of that showing up here.

Back to the episode at hand, “The Dress” mostly contorts its weird dumbness into a hilarious story that’s told in a straight-forward, low-key way, just like “The End.” Nothing too over-the-top occurs, in terms of pacing, but Darwin’s growing obsession with fake-Gumball does enter into full-on creep territory. It’s also the funniest part of the episode, although Gumball’s growing awareness of his power as a cute girl – as well as the realization that its gone too far – is also a highlight. I think it’s arguable that Gumball is attempting to make a gendered point about how the world will bend over backwards for attractive women – how his classmates treat him, how his teachers treat him, how Darwin treats him – and I love that at first, Gumball can’t even grasp that concept until Anais points it out to him. That’s when Gumball decides to exploit it, up until Darwin makes a move on the roller coaster, which is so messed up in so many ways, incestuous implications aside. Gumball ends up going through so many things that women have to deal with when it comes to creeps (particularly young women, who find themselves so concerned with “their feelings” instead of their own), and yet in true Gumball fashion, he comes up with an insane plan that gets out of hand.

After a pretty wild fantasy (Gumball trapped in domestic hell with cat/fish surrounding him, with Darwin-as-breadmaker bursting in, demanding more kids), Gumball fakes leaving forever by bus, but his balloon counterpart escapes, flies into the sun, and pops, right in front of everyone. Explaining it doesn’t do the scene justice, but it is such a comical visual that it sort of overcomes the lack of bite the episode has towards it overall thematic point towards the end. That’s okay, though. It’s still testing the waters there, and Darwin immediately falling for a fire hydrant wearing the same dress shows how overwrought the whole venture is in his mind. Gumball is eventually caught with his pants down (or gone, in this case), so he gets his karmic payback in the end as well. “The Dress” is both a play on a classic cartoon trope AND a light dip into blunter satire. It does the former better than the latter, but it’s overall still quite funny, and it’ll get even more confident over time.


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The Amazing World of Gumball Recaps: “The Third” and “The Debt”

The Amazing World of Gumball Season 1 Episode… by gumball-amazing

“The Third” – C+

I forgot how “introductory” these early Gumball episodes are. They’re quietly structured around introducing new characters and locations and “things,” like the infamous Dodge or Dare game, which they boys immediately give up on playing. This episode introduces the “school” setting, and a few of the various students in the class. We see most of them – Tina the dinosaur, William the floating eye, Joe the banana, Bobbert the robot, Leslie the flower – but we’re only provided closer looks at Tobias and Alan, and even then they’re mostly one-note at this point. (Tina and Bobbert don’t even have names at this point.) This is a solid episode for introducing the sensibility of the show, which is composed of such an assortment of character and character types, characters who just are what they are and have to exist within that space. This will be more important later, especially as the jokes get deeper and crazier and the show gets more sincere and more satirical. Right now, it’s enough to marvel and be amused by the world opening up a bit.

It’s not that great of a story though, and I can chalk this up to early show “jitters” and the show’s lack of a clear viewpoint this early in the run. “The Third” doesn’t quite know whether it wants to approach its “is Gumball losing Darwin as a friend to Tobias” sincerely, or if it wants to ridicule such a dated and lame trope. The Amazing World of Gumball will get so much better at balancing and bridging those two lines – sincerity and irony – sometimes in the same episode. But for now, this feels like a test. I don’t doubt that “The Third” sees Gumball and Darwin search for a third friend as inherently silly, since it’s instigated because the boys are bored one morning. Later in the episode, when Gumball asks what Darwin wants in a friend, he lists a number of superficial traits: rich, athletic, and “colorful,” as well as “good at listening.” (The last trait, which often is noted as the most important trait in friendship, is clearly tossed off here.) But Gumball’s mad dash to get back his friend feels a little more heartfelt, and even though it’s populated with dumb gags, like breaking through concrete with the power of friendship, it still wants to be honest about it. The issue is that it’s unearned. There’s no realization or cathartic change of heart from Darwin over what he’s done. He just misses Gumball. When he arrive, they hug it out. It feels like something got lost in the narrative.

Still, there are some things to like about this episode. It stands to reason that Darwin would take to Tobias since he did represent all the traits Darwin listed, for better or worse. I’m amused that the show never calls too much attention to Darwin literally buying Tobias’ friendship, even at the expense of Gumball’s own money. The gags are dumb but mostly land, mainly due to how well the show manages the timing of those gags. Bobert’s slow wind up before punching Gumball back is heighten by not showing the actual punch but the hilarious aftermath. The mad dash to Tobias’ house also has a lot of insane bits of visuals, and as I watched it, I’m struck by how well the use of color, backgrounds, and layouts work to really make the show pop, even at this early stage of the show (the hills are a particular highlight). The denouement is the weakest part unfortunately, as Darwin suddenly seems to miss Gumball for no reason, and Tobias lacks any reaction to this point. This also kills the final ironic beat when Darwin and Gumball reject Tobias’ request to play. The blunt, selfish irony of that beat gets lost in the dud of the climax. But it’s practice now, as the show will get much better at this soon.

I want to say one more thing about this episode, but this will be very important for the show as a whole. Gumball’s final race for Darwin is filled with an assortment of obstacles both familiar (biking through wet concrete) and outlandish (a talking wall, and a talking manhole cover). As the show continues, it will slowly start to incorporate a lot of “cartoon-ness” into its worldbuilding, in which its characters-as-cartoons must survive a world in which cartoon tropes, concepts, and meta-concepts are as much obstacles and advantages as anything else in potential narratives. I sort of get into it in this piece about Gumball I wrote years ago, but I’ll explain this in clearer terms as the show gets really comfortable. All you’ll need to know now is this: The Amazing World of Gumball is a cartoon about cartoons; this will make more sense as time goes on.

The Debt – B

Introductions continue as we’re introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, and (briefly) their son, Robbie. With Mr. Robinson, The Amazing World of Gumball will set up a Dennis the Menace/Mr. Wilson dynamic that will run through the course of the show. I’ve always be a bit aloof about this dynamic. The show doesn’t explain exactly why Gumball (and in the future, Darwin) is so smitten with his neighbor. It sets this up mostly because they know that it will create some hilarious comic scenarios over time – and to be clear, they are hilarious. The situations that bring Gumball to be his most annoying, and Mr. Robinson to be his most frustrated, will create some of the funniest gags in the show’s run. They won’t create many of the more meaningful moments, though, not until they calm Gumball down a bit. One of the things I’m curious about is watching Gumball’s changing level of maturity, if not necessarily his age. That’s one of the limits of this cartoon about cartoons – being “stuck” within a situation and the trappings of cartoon structure (later episodes will make this point more explicit) – but still affecting certain layers of personal growth and change.

Right now though, Gumball is young boy whose fascinations and determinations and energy levels seem endless. It’s the very thing that keeps “The Debt” moving along despite the fact the episode is utilizing one of the older cartoon tropes in the book: the vowed life debt. Gumball perceives that Mr. Robinson somehow save his life (by not running him over with his car, in a situation where Gumball’s life wasn’t even at risk), and swears to watch Mr. Robinson at all costs until he saves his life. It’s an old bit for sure, and Gumball lampshades the idiocy of this story by the non-threatening inciting incident. But it doesn’t do much more than that, still going through the typical beats you’d expect in other cartoons: every time Gumball tries to protect Mr. Robinson, he only makes things worse.

Two things keep this story moving though: the bits they do pull up are very funny, and there’s a weird-but-informative streak throughout the episode that keeps one’s interest piqued. Gumball’s booby trap is just a sudden bit of physical, surprise comedy, and as much as you may cringe with watching Mr. Robinson getting hit in the groin, you might cringe just as much as Gumball is hit in a head by a brick. Anais and Darwin feeling bad for Gumball is kind of out of character, in the sense that Gumball shouldn’t be doing any of this in the first place, but their secondary plot to fake an assassination attempt on Mr. Robinson is great, because it develops its own set of gags and problems, mostly centered around Anais trying to explain the plan to Darwin. And then there’s Mr. Robinson’s final performance, and it’s just so ridiculous, a sort of “release” in case viewers were getting too sympathetic to Mr. Robinson. All that prep, and you’d think Gaylord would have a hidden, glorious singing voice, but it’s just his gruff regular voice, and some 80s aerobic dancing to misplaced fogs and lights. It’s the kind of chaos and misdirection that Gumball is good at, and it’ll get even better.

Gumball does save Mr. Robinson’s life, which is kind of sweet in its own way, up until he pushes Gumball aside to bask in the applause of two old people. Mr. Robinson is a bit… delusional; that and his woes with his wife and son will grow clear and more distinct over time (leading to the darkest moment of the show’s run by far). Still, “The Debt” is a fun watch if not exactly a necessary one, but worth engaging in to see the origins of some the show’s most comedic dynamics – just like “The Third,” really. We’re still getting used to the show’s cast, vibe, and aesthetics, and there’s a value in watching this work in progress.


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