Mad Jack the Pirate shows that even the funniest cartoons need to have more going for it to be something memorable.
I decided to check out Mad Jack the Pirate after finishing up Eek! The Cat. Bill Kopp, who co-created Eek, conceived of Mad Jack after working for Disney with The Schnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show and part of Toonsylvania. His work on Eek was strong enough to warrant following, and while I’ve heard mixed things on Schnookums and Meat and Toonsylvania, I’ve heard nothing about this one-season show about a pirate’s constant failure to find treasure. I’m also fascinated by under-the-radar cartoons, so getting a whiff of one from Kopp’s mind made me crazy curious about it.
There are a lot of brilliance to Eek! The Cat, with appealingly goofy characters and an absurd world that mixes nutso humans with even mosre nutso talking animals, all couched in various permutations of satire, farce, and parodies. As insane as the world is, it is at least grounded in elements that the writers and animators could build off of, utilizing witty dialogue and well-timed visuals. “Paws” for example had a lot of fun with its characters within a Jaws parody, but also played stupid-fun with the kiddie-pool locale re-imagined as a deadly, endless ocean. Everything came together with confidence; even its weaker episodes were committed to its narrative and characters.
Mad Jack the Pirate is… less so. There’s either a budget issue or a general creative malaise to this show. With networks slowly moving away from Saturday morning animated content, it may quite possibly be both. There are a lot of potential ideas here, and there a quite a number of genuinely funny moments, but there’s a sense that the show doesn’t want to explore anything past its most basic of premises. It’s a show that can be extremely funny, but it’s also extremely unsustainable.
There are three reasons for this. The main problem is the lack of commitment to the world that’s been created. I don’t necessarily mean the internal, in-show world per se; there’s just this really odd, half-assed approach to everything that occurs on the screen. It’s often funny at times but it’s not “correct.” Eek! The Cat’s Metropolis was an absurd but vibrant world where characters could be anything and encounter anything. I can’t even remember the name of the “world” that Mad Jack explores, which is a just a bunch of islands, and the occasional random location, like Megamouth Studios. It’s not that anything here is bad, since these locations are built mainly to put Mad Jack and his partner Snuk through the ringer, but they’re perfunctory, and only a few of them feel worthwhile.
Maybe it’s less the locations and more the lack of dynamic characters. The second main problem? The cast is boring and non-existent. Mad Jack desperately needs a diverse, comedic crew – a cast of semi-regulars to bounce off, characters that can produce multiple viewpoints to this world around them. It seems like the pilot episode, “The Terrifying Sea Witch Incident,” is leading to that – a talking, arrogant chicken ranting about his “mascot” role in the show; three random crew members with potential to be unique and interesting; the arrogant “hero” prince Flash Dashing, who talks like William Shatner taking the role of the “hero-antagonist” to Mad Jack’s “villain-protagonist.” Even the crow in the crow’s nest, while an obvious dumb joke, has potential as a character:
But looks what happens – the chicken is presumably eaten and the crew just runs off (the show ends with an elaborate tag where the chicken rants about not being killed, which tries to come off as a smart-ass putdown on executive meddling, but really comes off as the writers forgetting about him in the first place). Flash Dashing is only used in one other episode and the crow is recycled in a later episode again without any other lines. When all is said and done, the show is solely a Mad Jack and Snuk affair, and it’s a dynamic that really goes nowhere. It’s cute, sure, but with Mad Jack constantly shitting on, abusing, and otherwise exploiting Snuk, it’s a one-sided affair that doesn’t lead to anything palpable.
As the examples suggest, the show also engages in a darker, more vicious tone; there are a lot more explicit descriptions of murder, violence, and sex than one might expect from a cartoon. Mad Jack, in fact, is not a pirate with a heart of gold (not at first), but a criminal through-and-through, who cheats, lies, and steals with little to no shame. This creates a lot of comic moments – there’s a lot of hilarity in putting criminals in lead roles, only to watch them fail miserably and constantly – but without some kind of redeeming factor, it’s particularly hard to stand behind him. In fact, in “The Strange Case of Angus Dagnabbit,” Mad Jack straight-up kills the guy he’s trying to rob. It’s a startling event, and the show kind of glosses over it when the murdered Dagnabbit comes back to haunt Mad Jack, but there’s a difference between redemption and revenge; both can be funny, but the latter leads to dwindling audience support, while the former shows the character’s willingness to change, which is more dramatically interesting. “Darkness” in and of itself is neither a hit for or strike against the show, but Mad Jack’s lack of progress as a character is another example of the show’s lack of dynamics.
The third and final issue against the show is the lackluster staging and art direction. It’s something more people wouldn’t recognize in a cartoon until you watch it and find yourself… bored by something, but struggling to say what exactly. Mad Jack the Pirate has the appearance of a visually interesting cartoon, with its vibrant colors and potentially interesting locales, but the actual direction is bland, with most scenes animated straight on full shots, with characters walking left-to-right or right-to-left. There’s very few dynamic zooms or close-ups, creative montages or audacious dream sequences, or even simple visual cues like running toward or away from the cameras. Eek! the Cat had a lot of unique views, so it’s disappointing to see Mad Jack, rich with potential, fall so short in the animation department.
Combining all three issues – lack of world exploration, character dynamics, and directorial diversity – leads to a show brimming with potential but constantly falling short. The “pirate world” premise with wacky/absurdist trappings feels undercooked and random, and while there are funny moments, it never feels committed. I laughed quite a bit at “Lights, Camera – Snuk,” where Mad Jack, in a desperate attempt to show a film producer how real pirates live, constantly gets hurt after every showcase, and ends with him eaten by a dinosaur. Every set piece ends with him eaten by a dinosaur, which is part of the “hard-to-pull-off” gags of repetition, but it works up to a point; beyond that gag, there’s no “uniqueness” to the approach, narratively or visually. It’s less “how many funny ways to be eaten by a dinosaur” and more “we don’t know how else to do this bit”. There’s no real satire to the movie-studio parody either, so there’s nothing else going on here except the one gag, which dies as soon as the episode is over.
That “funny but bland” aesthetic continues throughout the show. “Happy Birthday to Who” is just Mad Jack getting abused at a carnival (after a bit about Mad Jack wanting to go to a brothel, which is part of the show’s dark edge without doing anything with it). “The Horror of Draclia” is a flat tale that pits Jack and Snuk up against a lazy Dracula parody (which also forgets about about a separate monster in the woods that essentially kills a guy). The show does kind of picks up around episode thirteen (which, as I’ve mentioned before, is usually when cartoons are retooled for the better) in “The Case of the Crabs,” which pits Jack and Snuk up against a civilization of hostile underwater sea creatures. Part of the uptick is they introduce a new character, Chuck the Imitation Crab, who’s easy-going characterization brings a fun dynamic to Snuk’s push-over vibe and Mad Jack’s cruelty. It helps, too, that Jack’s cruelty has been toned down a bit here, with the pirate opting to actually help Chuck escape as well. It also helps that this underworld of Crustacia has vibrancy and energy that the show’s other locales lacked.
Later episodes have a bit more going for it, but they never feel complete. Flash Dashing, Dagnabbit, and Chuck all return in other episodes, who are all fun characters, but because they’re never really part of the main cast, they feel perfunctory and underused. I also think the vague, overarching plot of Mad Jack needing to pay off a vicious debtor Sharkface Willie to his ship the Sea Chicken is a sound idea; some kind of constant threat would give the show a more grounded edge. Yet we don’t see Willie until “Mad Jack and the Beanstalk,” a bit that’s tossed aside as a Godfather parody and nothing else. Broad “parodies with nothing else” become the show’s bane; “Uncle Mortimer” could’ve been an exciting pot-shot at Hanna-Barbara cartoons (the plot is about delivering a dog named Scabby Doo to the Isle of Hanna Barbarians after all), but it’s stuck with a predictable Scooby-Doo, “guy-in-monster-costume” story. The fact that they don’t even have fun with HB’s limited animation bit goes to the show’s uninteresting visual style. I wonder if that’s the issue though; the lack of a B-story, or a B-anything, to give the show some kind of narrative or visual heft. The few times it does have them, like in “The Case of the Crabs” and in “Jack the Dragon Slayer,” where a dragon and a princess humorously connect at a platonic-then-romantic level while Jack figures out how to slay the dragon the the behest of the princess’s father, the show improves immensely and starts to utilize the full extent of the show’s premise.
Unfortunately the show rarely feels like it wants to. I’ve learned via Wikipedia that Mad Jack the Pirate is more-or-less a parody of Blackadder, stealing lines and dialogue wholesale from the British show. This is nothing new, really; TaleSpin cribbed from Tales of the Gold Monkey, and Bonkers is a clear rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Yet Mad Jack the Pirate feels like that’s the only thing it’s really interested in, because only rarely does it seem as engaged in its cartoon world as it does in copying Rowan Atkinson’s infamous program. Had Mad Jack the Pirate put more effort in building a dynamic cast, a developed world, a creative direction, or some kind of narrative rhythm, it could’ve been special, a one-season wonder with a more adult bent. As it is, though, it’s a show with a lot of mature comic standing, but lacking anything else to stand on.
I wanted to do a piece about kids networks and recent rash of man-children cartoons for a while now – by which I mean, cartoons staring mostly adult-ish characters who have simplistic pleasures and seem more prone to skirt responsibilities in order to engage in juvenile behavior or activities. In some ways, the “man-child” has always been part of the animated landscape – Bullwinkle J. Moose is a fairly classic man-child – but it was tempered with a sense that the character, at least at some level, had a clear direction, an idea that he was doing something right, a guiding voice (in this case, Rocky), and a sense of logic that drove his actions. Bullwinkle was goofy, sure, but he was a loveable goof, loyal and passionate and at least somewhat-down-to-earth. Jay Ward’s titular cartoon was also loose and free with its characters, easily plopped into simple plots that doubled as smart-ass satire against current events. Other cartoons, too, emphasized semi-silly characters who were at least dedicated to their jobs – Super Chicken, Roger Ramjet, Dudley Do-Right.
AO Scott wrote this pretty interesting piece about the fall of adulthood recently, and while its a little rambling, it made me think about current cartoons today, particularly on Nickelodeon, and their emphasis on man-children adult characters. After all, Nick’s call for animation pitches only allowed for ‘toons with kids or man-children adult protagonists (mainly due to their research stating that kids today just want comedy). There’s really nothing inherently bad about the man-child adult icon, but the recent batch of cartoons with such characters helming the show are dialed up to eleven. These are not characters who enjoy their childish pleasures while working their way through their (often newly-earned) responsibilities. These are characters who thrive in their juvenile behavior, behavior that is encouraged and often ends up saving the day despite the fact that such behavior would be dangerous and/or illegal. This can only go so far before the true nature of growing up becomes muddled.
To clarify, the rise of man-child entertainment arose from three specific events: 1) the social embrace of “nerd” culture – things like comic books and cartoons, media originally created for kids, 2) the recession, which leaves the younger generation aloof from job/domestic responsibilities due to the difficulty and ambiguity of acquiring them, and 3) what can be described as the “new sincerity,” which in some ways arose from “ironic culture.” [The best way to describe this would be to think about someone who enjoys something objectively terrible because of its terribleness like The Room, or Saved by the Bell; if there’s a certain self-awareness about liking something terrible, it’s ironic, but if there’s a fondness for that terribleness, its sincere. The line between the two is obviously muddled, but a lot of that tends to cleared up by how much interest in paid into the creation of the entertainment in question – the actors, the crew, the producers, the networks/studios, and so on. Liking The Mighty Ducks might be ironic if you laugh at its awfulness, but it may be sincere if you immerse yourself in Mighty Ducks lore, discuss the writing of David Wise, talk with animators about their time on the show, etc.]
Part of the appeal of the man-child (and a lot of the aspects of Scott’s piece, particularly with his sections on Beyonce and Taylor Swift) is the emphasis of the individual’s stake in his enjoyment. Pushing against the social tract that tended to instill adulthood at one’s mid-20s, which included marriage, kids, a home, a job, a car, and “most importantly,” the dismissal of all forms of children-marketed entertainment, man-children (and their female counterparts) thrive and proudly embrace their love of such pleasures, like video games, comics, cartoons, and young adult books. These are people who absolutely believe they can take care of their responsibilities along with loving what they love, even if such responsibilities will have to occur months or years later. And let’s be clear: these people are one hundred percent right, but there is an asterisk, as that passion can be all-consuming. Criticisms against such behavior and/or the juvenile media tend to come off as a personal attack, which can explain things like more aggressive sides of gamergate, the MLP fandom, and lovers of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
Life’s always been about the balance between one’s responsibilities, particularly the ones associated with adulthood, and pleasures, although back in the day, the pleasures were always of the “adult-ish” kind: fishing, vacationing, playing a sport, reading. There was a distinct line between the two, too – there was a time for work, and there was a time for play. Blurring the line was a strict no-no. Ducktales and TaleSpin, for example, were clear to make this distinction. Scrooge McDuck was absolutely serious about his pursuit for business and financial deals; his pleasure, ironic enough, came from literally dipping into the money he earned. Scrooge has always been an “adult” in that way, and any sense of his business acumen as a symbol of being uptight and suppressed was rare. In only a few instances was his “greed” portrayed as a real issue for the character, and that greed was always set in some “character-removed” manner. In the “Treasure of the Golden Suns” saga, the greed was only a problem when he became fully afflicted with gold fever. Additionally, it’s in this five-part pilot that he gains a real family, the “other” mark of adulthood, emphasized later in “Once Upon a Dime.” Everything about Ducktales was built around characters being and embracing adulthood, and the insanity culled from it.
With TaleSpin, Disney is directly tackling the man-child idea, delineating the idea that pleasures are okay but only up to a point. Going beyond that point is more trouble than its worth, or prone to cause trouble. Baloo is a safe man-child, a lazy, baffoonish bear who thrives solely in his skills as a pilot. His juvenile behavior often masks his crippling insecurity, pushing him to levels of petty ridiculousness, like his conflict with Ace London in “Mach One for the Gipper,” or Louie in “For a Fuel Dollars More,” or even Becky in “The Bigger They Are, the Louder They Oink.” Yet that push also drives him to be level-headed at times and even heroic, like when he called out Becky’s reckless business behavior in “A Touch of Glass” or when he went up against Don Karnage’s laser gun in the pilot. TaleSpin shows often that while there’s a certain value to Baloo’s goofball antics (like in “My Fair Baloo,” where, it should be noted, that the goofball antics are tied directly to hands-on, working class intuitiveness), that there is a limit. When things go too far, things go bad; it’s only when you act like an adult do things fall in line. (Becky learns this lesson in a most serious way in “Her Chance to Dream,” dismissing the pleasure of leaving the stress of life behind in order to stay and raise her daughter).
The Disney Afternoon was emphatic on adults cartoon characters needing to act like adults, comic or cartoony-slant be damned. Gummi Bears were marred in the need to care for Gummi Glen. Darkwing Duck’s more ridiculous pursuits were tampered by his need to take care of his daughter (and his struggles with his girlfriend). Rescue Rangers overall was about its characters coming to terms with various degrees of adulthood – Monterey Jack tackled his addiction, Gadget confronted her insecurities multiple times, Chip often dealt with his role as a leader. Dale might seem the exception, but the show, like TaleSpin, delineates Dale’s behavior. When he goes too far, things go bad (and likewise with Chip, when his practical jokes go too far in “One-Upsman-Chip”). The show makes it clear that Dale’s childishness is necessary in the sense that its unpredictability gives the team an edge, and when it comes down to it, Dale indeed will pull up his metaphorical pants and get to work. (In truth, it probably wasn’t until Donald in Quack Pack did the Disney Afternoon push against the role of adulthood. Goof Troop and Bonkers, despite their problems, emphasized its characters attempting to be responsible grown-ups.)
Adult characters in cartoons were simply adults, flawed and broken of course, but not so much as the crazy world around them. Rocko’s Modern Life was perhaps the clearest example of this, the show about a young adult just simply trying to run his life, notably away from his parents way back in Australia. It’s the world that’s insane, not the character, and the comedy was in watching Rocko try to do simple, mundane, adult things, like the laundry or going to the beach or getting to work on time. Hefer, Rocko’s friend, is definitive the show’s man-child, and at no point does the show suggest that Hefer’s behavior is warranted or ideal. The show’s clearest direction of adulthood, oddly enough, is created through Philbert, the one who literally has to go on a pilgrimage to become “a dolt” (note the play on words here), and he’s the one who ends up getting married. Rocko gets a lot of discussion over the various ways it got away with adult gags, but it’s ironic that a show known for its juvenile gags masks its emphasis on maturity and growth.
Somewhere along the lines, the cartoon philosophy changed, and we can’t quite place the blame on Nickelodeon. CN brought us Johnny Bravo, starring a character epitomizing the worst of the man-child, a walking Dane Cook-esque “bro-seph” who only loves himself and treats women terribly. The show, of course, makes it clear that Bravo’s behavior is absolutely abhorrent, that his sexist actions result in him put through physical pain. Yet Johnny has no job and no prospects, and he lives with his mother (more or less), emphasizing his separation from adulthood. We are meant to laugh at Johnny and in no way look up to him.
Then there’s Spongebob Squarepants. I mean, it’s easy to just call this show as the catalyst for the man-child adult run in animation today, but Spongebob is a curious case. At least prior to the movie, Spongebob relished in his pleasures, such as blowing bubbles, jellyfishing, and karate, all of which are representative of his immaturity (in addition to his complete inability to get a boating license). However, Spongebob owns his own home and he works at a job that he not only loves but he’s actively good at. Spongebob engages in the things he enjoys, but even he knows when things go too far, and he always keeps his job (and taking care of Gary) first.
I think Nickelodeon took the wrong information from show’s popularity. Instead of observing the various components that made the show function so well – in that a character who enjoys his pleasures also is relatively dependable, to a fault – they saw “man-child adult” and doubled down on it. This in some ways explain Spongebob’s current failings – the character is a lot more irresponsible, dangerous, and stupid, like marrying Krabby Patties, and it also explains Nick’s current off-putting shows, like TUFF Puppy and Breadwinners.
The titular lead in TUFF Puppy, in contrast to Johnny Bravo, is supposed to be admired, I think. We’re supposed to laugh at Dudley similarly to how we laugh at Johnny, but while Johnny’s behavior leads to bad, comical scenarios, Dudley’s behavior is, at worst, a comic distraction, and, at best, heroic. The similarities are uncanny – both live with their moms, both are moronic to a fault, both wear black shirts – but while Johnny falls flat on his face, Dudley is rewarded with a new job, friends who tolerate (and accept) him, and amazing ass-kicking abilities. (Note how Johnny’s martial arts are a joke, hyperbolic posturing, while Dudley’s nonsensical movesets can handle all sorts of criminals). In a way, Dudley is more akin to Rescue Rangers’ Dale, but Dale, as mentioned, is distinctly tempered. Dudley, meanwhile, is free to go overboard, and the show goes along with him, with its criminals and fellow agents free to go ridiculous as well, consequences be damned. I’d argue that there was a minor attempt in the first season to bring some sort of pathos to its man-children setup, with the show attempting to establish strong if goofy relationships between Dudley and characters like Kitty, the Chief, and his mother. That pretense was dropped quickly, turning all the characters (even Kitty) into unrepentant goofballs. TUFF isn’t so much a crime fighting agency as an unsupervised playground; the show isn’t so much about balancing work and pleasure as its about unrestrained comic inanity.
Breadwinners, likewise, portrays its workplace and its workers as instruments of chaos. To Buhdeuce and SwaySway, delivering bread isn’t just a job they enjoy but a massive game to them, an endeavor that allows them to be wildly goofy and destructive sans consequences. Breadwinners has a slightly better handle on its character relationships – the strong bond between the main characters; the easy-going connection with their mechanic, Ketta; the tense relationship with the antagonist cop Rambamboo – but again, it’s all a means to an end, excuses to have its characters engage in juvenile behavior within (ostensibly) a working environment. There’s no meaning to their role as breadwinners other than it’s vaguely important, and, like Dudley, their chaotic behavior often saves the day more so than it ruins it. Notably, both Breadwinners and TUFF Puppy can’t define their workplaces or relationships with any clear-cut boundaries, since that would break the protagonists hold on their childish behavior. In other words, these are characters who can essentially do whatever they want; forces that try to tamper that down just don’t get it, despite such dangerous behavior. No one even questions it.
It’s sort of why the 7D never feels like it’s getting off the ground. Like TUFF Puppy and Breadwinners, 7D seems primarily concerned with its workplaces and relationships as excuses for its characters to be comically nonsensical. There’s little hint that the dwarfs’ mining or the queen’s ruling is other than a means for hilarious stuff to happen. And, like Kitty and Rambamboo, 7D’s Starchbottom (note the name) is the show’s stick in the mud, since he’s the only one who takes his job with any sort of seriousness. Locales and relationships, again, are ill-defined, since that would interfere with the joke-telling. Grim and Hildy, the show’s antagonists, are married, but there’s no sense that the marriage is anything beyond the comic scolding of Hildy’s aggressiveness to Grim’s submissive stupidity. In 7D, TUFF Puppy, and Breadwinners, (wo)man-children rule, with nary a thought.
There are two holdouts to this questionable trend. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, for its faults, is refreshing, since its six main characters have real, adult-ish roles and pursuits (even Pinkie-Pie, who pursues her childish passion for partying with an adult-level fervor). The world of Equestria is chaotic, but there are rules and limits, and the characters are forced to pay attention to those limits to thrive. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness is wildly flawed too, but at its best, it strikes the right balance between Po’s love of childish things and the need to engage in responsibility. It does struggle with this at times, but it does showcase Po’s childishness within a “work” environment as problematic, not rewarding.
I’m ending this this piece by mentioning Wander Over Yonder, which is quite analogous to Rocky & Bullwinkle – a childish “adult” (Wander) who is guided by a more mature figure (Sylvia). Both shows are loose enough allow their man-children characters to behave chaotically unchecked, but, like its forebear, the show is loose enough to plop its characters in random scenarios to let the comic behavior breathe, and the episodes balance the sillier stuff within its own brand of satire (“The Hero,” “The Troll”), and again, it’s clear when Wander’s behavior goes too far or is portrayed as dangerous (“The Void,” “The Box”). Here, man-child behavior is celebrated but is distinctly curbed – there’s a time and place for it. That’s really the issue in a nutshell: the best shows embrace the enjoyment of adult characters and their “toys,” yet understand that there’s a time to put them away. THAT’S the lesson I fear is being lost.
Project GeeKeR was one of the coolest comic books ever that made the mistake of being a cartoon.
Can we truly separate the art from the artist? Or, more accurately, can we separate the art from the artist and live with ourselves?
Social critics, I think, have pushed that excuse heavily into the public to justify watching, critiquing, and enjoying certain works by controversial creators like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and (if the court of public opinion wins out) Bryan Singer. We might as well add Skyler Page to the list, as the show Clarence, while not particularly great, works on enough charm and innocence to skirt by as an easy-going show, despite the abhorrent behavior of its creator. I suppose this puts me into that category of social critics, particularly as I struggle through the output of Doug TenNapel.
TenNapel is by far one of the most entertaining content creators out there. He created Earthworm Jim, a smartly hilarious and surprisingly tough video game, and, along with animation writing vet Doug Langdale, turned it into one of the most funniest cartoons very created (I should write about it, but needless to say, it’s great, particularly with its fantastic cast of voice actors). He also created the well-known game The Neverhood and penned an episode of AdventureTime. He has a quirky approach to his output that easy to get into, and despite the weird and eccentric nature of his content, it’s clear that there’s a fun sensibility to it all. He’s also an outspoken conservative and homophobe.
It’s honestly a very tough idea to balance, a tough idea to accept – that one of the most creative minds out there can have such narrow, bigoted views (for a look into his mindset, check out the comments of this post, where he mixes it up with the commentary). It’s hard to rally for his creative endeavors while knowing he’s actively working to oppress a group of people. (Sad to say, Butch Hartman seems to be in the same boat). As mentioned above, we try to believe that there is a line between art and artist: that we, in our own way, are taking the art away from the artist and all that he or she represents, for when the art is released, it is no longer the creator’s content, but the public’s. But it is tainted, because those most influenced by the art were to seek out the creator and find that vitriol present, particularly if they were targets of that vitriol… I’m sorry, I’m not sure how to end that statement.
So it’s with this black mark that I tackle Project GeeKeR, one of the more stranger and unique cartoons to ever exist. I like to think of these projects primarily as Doug Langdale’s, as he was the story editor and main writer of the team (and likewise with the Earthworm Jim TV show). And even with its Blade Runner-inspired setting, its Poochie-fied character of a backward-cap-sporting T-Rex with a laser blaster, and its comic relief star as a goofy, random cartoon character come to life, Langdale infuses it all with a strict narrative focus and a knowing, self-aware sensibility. Project GeeKeR has its tropes and cliched characters, but carefully undercuts them all with pinpoint precision; it’s the most original comic book story ever brought to television. And being on television is exactly what hurt it the most.
Project GeeKeR asks, “What does it mean to be human?” It’s a question that has thematically dotted the landscape of both film and television, yet Project GeeKeR is poised to be the first kids show to bring that question to the forefront. It’s interesting to note that neither Lady Macbeth (a female punk with a cybernetic arm), Noah (a surprisingly calm T-Rex with a baseball cap), and Geeker himself are what you could fully call human – Lady Macbeth is the closest, of course, but her quick anger and difficult personality tends to keep her at arms length (pun, and symbolism, intended). The most human character in the show, Mr. Moloch (the villain), is purposely cold, calculating, and robotic – the most stereotypical of stereotypical villains. I will get into more about these characters, and how the show quite brilliantly handles them, but we need to keep in mind the question of what defines humanity. Is it looking human? Acting human? Being human? Understanding the full range of human emotions?
Project GeeKerR seeks to explore this question via Geeker himself. Geeker is both a fascinating piece of work, both as a character and as a construct. A genetic construction financed by Mr. Moloch himself, GKR (which stands for Geno-Kinetic Research) is a completely amorphous, pure being of limitless mass and energy. He literally can do anything and become anything – GKR is, quiet frankly, a god. Yet Lady Macbeth stole him by accident, prior to his final programming, and upon realizing Moloch’s true intentions, is forced to keep GKR out of his hands. But GKR (referred to as Geeker) is less concerned about being caught and more concerned about understanding what it takes to be a human.
What’s fascinating is how the show examines the various angles Geeker takes to be a real human. His initial thought is that he just needs to grow a fifth finger, which he just can’t do, which in its own way acts as a physical/mental representation to Geeker’s ultimate pursuit. Over the course of the show, he tries to connect with others at an emotional level, and even at a romantic level. He keeps a diary. He tries to establish a sense of independence. He desperately tries to win the attention and affection of others. But he’s always off – and not just because he’s a being of pure chaos. Geeker lacks a brain, but he can learn, and he has a heart; the strongest episodes showcase how, even in the midst of the insanity that is his existence, he can indirectly be a figure of hope – if not to the dystopian world around him, particularly to the two charges dedicated to protecting him.
The pilot establishes all of this, albeit in a generalized way. It grabs your attention with the plot itself, where Geeker is set to explode unless he returns to his creator to disarm him. There’s a lot of great stuff here, particularly with the action sequences, but also the little character moments that subtly but concretely reinforce the theme. Lady Macbeth exudes a tough-girl attitude, but it’s fairly clear that she’s a softy inside, yearning for some kind of genuine connection. Demanding people call her Lady Macbeth instead of Becky is her way to keep herself stoic and powerful, and she snaps and lashes out to maintain this facade (“If I wanted your opinion, I’d beat it out of you!” she yells to Noah at one point.) It’s telling, though, that she can’t quite find herself to drop Geeker, the experiment she stole to ostensibly sell. Geeker is an object that becomes a person to her, a “friend,” in that his inherent goodness and innocence touches her, seeing a beauty in humanity in Geeker that perhaps the world around her has never revealed to her.
The pilot delves lightly into other characters too, which are expanded on in unique ways through the show. The most “human” character, the character who tends to be the most level-headed and empathetic, is the dinosaur. Noah is a cool, strong character, completely opposite his vicious nature, prone to relaxing on his hammock and reading, which is as human as it gets. Episodes later on will push against this sense of humanity, when we see humans aggressively oppressing dinosaurs (“Geekasaurus”), and when a microscopic device causes Noah to revert back to his dinosaur roots (“Noble Savage”). Yet Noah continues to stand by her side, even as their trust weakens. Lady Macbeth sees Geeker as a figure of hope to be protected; she sees Noah as a partner and a brother-in-arms, two figures of sadness in a world they can never hope to belong in.
That’s because Mr. Moloch and Doctor Maston make it nigh impossible. Moloch is introduced in cliched fashion, speaking a cold, distant voice, seated in a massive chair, and ranting about global takeovers. Interesting, though, that’s no one is really scared of him; in fact, most people see his ultra-stoic attitude as confusing at best and ridiculous as worse. The show smartly calls out the cliche without diminishing his his threatening nature, mostly through Dr. Maston. A brilliant scientist and the creator of GKR, Maston sees his self-worth in his intelligence and the recognition of it, even going so far as be willing to die for it when Geeker is about to explode. It’s a surprising character moment, but the show smartly undercuts that as well, with a lot of Maston’s sly, self-aware comments, particularly towards Moloch’s more stereotypical behavior.
All of these characters exist in a huge world brimming with potential, with interesting creatures and surging with ideas. But… it’s a kids cartoon. It’s limited, not only because of ratings, but because of its 22 minutes, and its tendency to focus on stupidity for stupidity’s sake (mostly due to the lazier writers). The pilot had a shot of a man shivering and clutching himself while on the streets of this dystopia; clearly, he was on some kind of “medication”. Project GeeKeR can’t explicitly explore that though, for obvious reasons. Nor is it immune to cartoon writers’ most lazier habits. “Smell of the Wild” is hurt because the “broken Geeker” idea just isn’t strong enough for a full episode, where the titular character emits a terrible scent that he can’t control; the broad idea is copied in “Geekasaurus” when Geeker is stuck as a dinosaur. That episode is also hurt when it implies dinosaurs are being treated like second-class citizens by humans, but it can’t get into the utter tragedy of it all, and given that we rarely see normal dinosaurs beyond that episode, the true dinosaur situation is unclear at best, another issue that would’ve been explored deeper in comic form.
Yet even with its flaws and limitations, Project GeeKeR still manages to keep the question of the nature of humanity at the forefront. Whether it’s the abhorrent treatment of dinosaur citizens, or the trapped Larry in “In Space, No One Can Hear You Sneeze” – an antagonist forced by Moloch to find Geeker, but discovers a sense of freedom and friendship through the friendly creation – the show is interested in exploring the full nature of such a question. Is humanity defined by freedom, which Larry seeks? Is it acceptance – like in “GeeKMan,” where Geeker tries to win the admiration of the city by being a superhero (and subsequently failing)? Or is it love – like in “Thing Called Love,” where Geeker falls for a strange Siren-like creature, completely counter to the notion that Becky believes, that something like Geeker can’t possibly understand love? Maybe it’s raw intelligence, like what Maston believes, or perhaps its independence, as addressed in “Independence Daze”?
Maybe it’s all of these things, or none of them. Maybe the nature of “humanity” is as nebulous as the full extent of Geeker’s powers. Humanity is what we make it. The last episode, “Future Shock,” suggests that nature of humanity is in hope. Future-Moloch (who, need I remind you, is the most “human”) has captured Geeker and become a god; upon seeing that, and his future, senile-self, Noah becomes depressed and gives up on his team. He sees the future as unchangeable, but Geeker absorbs some of the ranting elder dino’s words, using them to save the day, inspiring Noah to escape his depression. Perhaps its about fate, about knowing that humanity has free will and is in charge of its own destiny. Project GeeKeR wanted to explore all that, in a fun, subversive way, but was hindered by its medium and its network. It was cancelled despite being a hit.
Project GeeKeR was a smart, entertaining show held back by forces being its control. Maybe that’s what humanity is all about: pushing back against the limits and restraints of society, striving to be something better. It’s something that the show really could do on the comic pages; as it stands, Project GeeKeR is promising as hell, but just lacking in the things it needed to be truly human.