Through 155 episodes, 4Kids’ 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a relatively consistent high quality, but not by committing to the tone of the comics – by committing to itself.
The one thing that every good cartoon needs isn’t great animation, tight storytelling, excellent art direction, or appealing characters. Sure, all of those are desirable, and every creative team should aspire to achieve those goals, but the number one thing necessary to a sustainable, enjoyable cartoon is commitment. Cartoons are, almost by definition, so loose and free and unrestrained, that any ridiculous, unrealistic premise can take surprising form and shape if everyone on board commits to the idea(s) and the ideal(s) of the cartoon. Commitment isn’t something you can put on paper or thrust into a few characters. Everyone has to agree to the set-ups AND the various plot catalysts that are inherent in the show’s premise. Everything that does happen, no matter how crazy, has to somehow come back the the core nature of the show and its characters.
This is a roundabout way of explaining why basically the 2003 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a high (well, appealing) quality through its seven season, 155-episode run. Whether shooting the four brothers across space, cyberspace, dimensions, time, pseudo-time, dream-scapes, or whatever crock-pot crazy story the writers cooked up, the show never shied from some core, committed basics: the natural characterizations of the four brothers and their pseudo-father (and their rich, always-potent familial connection); the intense, well-done action scenes; the unique seasonal choices that threw the cast into unique and varies circumstances; the myriad of diverse, outlandish characters that popped in and out of the turtles’ lives. SO much happened in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during its entire existence, but whatever DID happen, the writers and animators were committed to it. Even its weakest, wackiest premises were given solid, well-told stories: with seven season and one final TV-movie to muck things up, I’d be hard-pressed to declare any season or arc as an abject failure (and I’ll get more into that during this review).
I’m going to put a lot of the show’s success on Chuck Patton and Roy Burdine’s shoulders, the directors of the majority of the episodes (with credit also to the sheer influx of various writers that flowed in and out over the years). Every iteration completely up-ended the show – whether by changing the tone, the designs, the flow of action, the locations, the story-arcs, etc., all at the expense of a (increasingly obvious) shrinking budget and network interference – and Patton and Burdine managed to crank out fantastically energetic, entertaining episodes day in and day out. Even if the Lost Episodes, Fast Forward, and Back to the Sewer episodes disappointed fans (something I’ll get into a bit later), they still managed to produce delightfully watchable television.
All that’s primarily due to the show’s commitment. No matter what crazy event came into the turtles lives, the writers and animators approached it one hundred percent. No matter what insane limitations and forced changes were passed down on the creative team, they bit the bullet and cranked out good work. With cartoon writers these days seemingly struggling with storytelling with a 23-minute timeframe (The current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Adventures of Puss and Boots are two glaring examples), it’s refreshing to watch a show that can handle a solid, straight-forward story with genuinely tight action, real dramatic stakes, impressive characterizations, and actual humorous moments – all done within structurally competent stories and direction.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s major strength probably came from two key aspects: 1) treating the show like a comic, and 2) spending the time to establish every and all major plot changes. The first allows for slick visuals and dynamic animation (including constantly changing aspect ratios, the TV way of mimicking comic panels), particularly around large-scale fight sequences, while the second allows for characters and plot points to breath, particularly important when time/space/dimensional travel becomes a lot more significant. Animators get creative freedom; writers get creative freedom. Combined, the two aspects allow audience members to get drawn into borderline-incredulous storylines. Sure, the basic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story – where Leo is stalked, thrown into April’s apartment; where they all escape to the farmhouse and recover; where they return to New York and finally beat back the Shredder – is there, and smartly drawn out to emphasize the sheer seriousness and intensity of the arc.
When the brothers are warped into some bizarre space war between humanoids and alien-dinosaur people, discover an underground civilization of transformed monsters, battle along side parodies of Marvel/DC superheros, or when sucked into an alternate universe that involves a large-scaled, competitive battle nexus, a la Mortal Kombat – these kinds of stories threaten to completely throw the core nature of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for a loop. But the show maintains its composure, focusing on those two aspects from above, delineating multi-part arcs to ease in the strangeness – mini TV movies, basically. This opens up the door to some pretty crazy, but wildly entertaining stories down the line, both dark and light, and for the most part all intriguing.
A lot of fans disliked the fourth season take on Leonardo, who became a darker, more emotionally-distant brother after the crazy events of the third. I thought it was a bold choice; the show clearly didn’t take Leo’s view as gospel, and the remaining brothers/Splinter tried desperately to help him. It was a real challenge, and it worked well, making Leo’s breakthrough all the most satisfying. It unfortunately led to The Lost Episodes, which didn’t originally air at first. They were released after the Fast Forward season, and it’s clear why. It feels like the creative team wanted to try a “Turtles, but in school” set-up, but also attempted to go for the strangely popular Dragon Ball Z fanbase. Clearly cobbled together in a rush, The Lost Episodes are, while not awful, definitely way out the creative team’s range. But they try, and the very attempt makes it a lot more watchable than it has any right to be. Still, The Lost Episodes are by far the weakest season.
Fast Forward, meanwhile, definitely feels like network interference. Throwing a cast of familiar characters into the future was always a go-to move to try and revitalize a series. It’s also a bit more sillier, with Serling’s robotic annoyance, Constable Biggles uselessness, and Mikey’s more mischievous, goofier behavior taking up more screen time. But the writers, being professional, still make the most of it, with some solid, tense episodes and pretty intimidating villains. That season’s potential was also cut short, with a bunch of episodes left on the storyboard wall as Back to the Sewer debuted. It has the same tone as Fast Forward, more or less set up to finish up the series on a high note. Even though that season also was clearly cut short, time-and-budget-wise (nothing comes of the first episode’s “three Shredders” set up), the season is still relatively strong, its characters still on point, and its stories still well told, with a rushed but wonderfully resonant finale that sums up the entire season as a whole. “Wedding Bells and Bytes” exemplifies the show’s core strength – it’s constant commitment to whatever change comes its way.
The glowing praise here can’t mask the show’s few flaws, which are, while tiny, rather significant. The main one is that every single villain is a mustache-twirling figure of evil of some type, heavy on exposition and rants with little in terms of development. They do try to explore Stockman a bit, but his life story comes a bit too late, his massive ego way too ridiculous to pull back from. (Bishop’s arc overall is much better, although he’s was so much more entertaining as a villain). Stockman’s literal, constant dismemberment is also disconcerting, as being the only major minority character on the show; watching his hubris, submission, and destruction to others is a bit uncomfortable to watch, time and time again. Poor treatment of female characters is also the show’s flaw. April is established as a scientist but only occasionally exercises that level of intelligence; her training by Splinter never results in anything, either (Karai, on the other hand, fares better). Generally speaking, the characters are second-fiddle to the scope of the show, which is fine, but major players like April and Stockman deserve better.
Yet despite the flawed characters, changing premises, shifting tones, and various character designs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles never really lets up, constantly chugging out engaging episodes and real character moments that remained at a high caliber. The series ended its run (and celebrated its 25th Anniversary) with “Turtles Forever,” a fantastic, high-energy trip down memory lane, with the 2003 team meeting up with the 1987 team and battling 2003 Shredder, Karai, 1987′s Shredder, and 1987′s Krang. It’s filled with cameos and references to the various versions of the franchise, culminating in a self-referential (and self-deprecating) battle with the 1984 Mirage Comics version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s hilarious and amazing, with top-notch animation and clever touches, making it one of the best parodies/homages in ages. It also makes a fantastic capper to a fantastic show, a distillation of a series that ran its paces and constantly delivered.
Turtles forever, indeed.
In the episode “Help Wanted,” Harry Boyle has to let his truck driver go after yet causing another accident due to his poor eyesight. Yet for some reason, everyone around Harry gives him gruff about this. He was such loyal worker, they claim, but no one seems to acknowledge the fact that he was terrible at this job and a threat to people’s lives, let alone Harry’s self-made business in selling cookware. Things grow to absurd levels as characters push Harry’s search for a new truck driver into what we might categorize as “social justice warrior” territory; his new worker has to be representative of African-Americans, or gay people, or women, implying that this egregious pursuit for political correctness goes against the “oh-so-simple” fact that Harry is just looking for the right man to do the job. At no point does this episode suggest that one of these minorities could be a fit; he’s hiring a truck driver, so anyone with a license and a modicum of experience could do it. Laughably, Harry is coerced to go to the government to assist in finding a minority hire; the government rep he meets with is portrayed so incompetently that Harry – white, male, middle-class, Protestant American Harry, who is the only person in this world that has any sense, hahaha – has to basically coach him through using his own census machine.
To underline this episodes abhorrent point, an African-American gentleman stops by to sell magazines. Harry politely declines, which for some reason compels Harry’s family – the hippie and comically overweight daughter Alice, the hippie and lazy son Chet, and even the loyal but frustratingly misguided Irma – to call him a bigot. Just so we’re clear, this show’s approach to affirmative action policies consists of the belief that white men has to accept all offers from minorities, practically or not; otherwise, those damned young liberals will call you racist. In desperation, Harry re-hires the dangerous worker to drive his truck again, accidents, mortality rates, and liabilities be damned, since Harry is just so sick and tired of fending off those interfering activists.
Wait Till Your Father Gets Home 05 Help Wanted
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Dear readers of Total Media Bridge: it is with great restraint when I say that Wait Till Your Father Gets Home is vile, lazy shit.
But let’s back up for a bit.
In 1971, All in the Family changed television. Produced by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, the CBS hit show nailed the provocative changing landscape of the 70s, engaging in the heady and serious topics of feminism, sexual assault, racism, and sexuality, through engaging characters, tightly-woven stories, and top-notch comedy. It topped the Nielsen ratings for five years in a row and cemented itself as one of the most important and influential comedies of all time. Practically every show today takes its cues in some way or another from All in the Family, including The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Hanna-Barbera is a difficult company to categorize. The two animators brilliantly streamlined animation for the low-budget realm of television through simple techniques like recycling backgrounds and covering up characters’ necks. Their hit shows bring a lot of charm to its characters too; there’s an aesthetic verve to shows like Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, and even Space Ghost that stand the test of time. They’re also incredibly, undeniably lazy. All three shows have been incessantly recycled into other awful, broken shows (Jabberjaw, Magilla Gorilla, Shazzan for example). And the company has been co-opting live-action (and itself) hits for ages. The Flintstones is a stone-aged knock-off of The Honeymooners. The Laverne and Shirley in the Army show gave the the two female stars a talking pig for some reason. Wacky Races just cobbled together past characters in what might be charitably called the first “shared universe.” Hanna-Barbera quite frequently just grabbed whatever that was out there and repackaged it in sub-par, if striking, animation.
So it comes as no surprise to see Hanna-Barbera co-opting All in the Family with Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, which ran in syndication on NBC in 1972. Starring Tom Bosley as head-of-household Harry Boyle, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home sought to snatch, in animated form, the kind of edgy provocation surging through America that All in the Family was thriving in. The set up was similar, too: Irma was the Edith, Alice was the Gloria, Chet was the Meathead (Mike). They were also given a younger son, Jamie, and a dog. That might have been the largest amount of creativity and thought put into the show; beyond that, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home is utter, utter crap.
This may come off a bit biased, as the show is clearly espousing a more conservative viewpoint, a direction that runs counter to my own politics. It also may seem like I’m speaking from a contemporary point of view, beyond the show’s temporal setting. I assure you, I’ve taken all of that into consideration. I can watch All in the Family and relate with Archie Bunker, despite his abject bigotry. The writing is sharp, the direction is fantastic, the acting is nothing short of incredible, and, most importantly, the show understood all the angles of a debate. Wait Till Your Father Gets Home doesn’t give a fuck about the issues. Harry Boyle, according to this show, is the oh-so-poor victim of a growing scourge of progressivism, forcing him and his self-made image/business/family through inconvenient assaults on his personhood and American righteousness, via the most laziest arguments ever.
The rundown of “Help Wanted” is a perfect example of the show’s misguided narrative; “Permissive Papa” is even worse. Alice wants to date a boy who exhibits nerdy and hippie-esque attitudes, which has Harry thinking of the boy as a potential pervert. So he sets Alice up with a typical conservative middle-class boy instead. When she returns on her date, disheveled, Harry becomes angry, thinking the first boy sexually assaulted his daughter. As he should be. But when Alice revels it was the second boy who attacked her, Harry only reacts with a big “Ooops” for interfering in his daughter’s love-life. To be clear, Harry was going outright kill the hippie kid for non-consensually touching his daughter, but the supposed “normal” kid gets a pass. And never mind the actual attack on, and the well-being off, his daughter, as the whole thing is just gleaned over.
Wait Till Your Father Gets Home 27 Permissive Papa
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The show possesses a direct, single-minded approach to Harry and the “persecuted” role of the white middle-class male, truly believing that it’s everyone else encroaching on his normal lifestyle. Everyone else – women, activists, gays, the government, hospitals, and ESPECIALLY kids these days – are just in the way and just don’t get it, man. Certainly not to say that there weren’t problems with the more aggressive set of “liberals” in the 70s, but to completely ignore their good points and/or their genuine struggles is uncanny. Sure, there’s Chet, who refuses to get a job and lazes around the house, only to go to the soup kitchen to feed the poor a few times a week. Yes, there is a problem there, but could the show at least pretend that there’s some value in the boy’s charity? Not so. Harry can only shoot out snarky comments, which are supposed to be ironically funny (coupled with the worst laugh track in history), but come off more dickish and insensitive.
Wait Till Your Father Gets Home fares the worst with feminism and women rights. (It’s right there in the title of the show – only the father will solve THIS problem once he gets home, I’ll tell you what!) It’s as if the writers had no conception of why exactly women were all “up in arms” back then – because, well, they didn’t. Alice gets a lot of shit, but it’s Irma who gets the worst of it. First of all, she’s wildly inconsistent. One episode, she’s acting like an idiot, the next, she’s smart as a whip. Irma constantly gets caught up in random issues – charities, or the idea of working, or keeping up with random, snooty neighbors – and always fucks things up, leaving Harry to put her in her place and solve everything. My favorite bout of laziness, though, has to be the show’s attempt to make Harry’s “ding-a-ling” a thing – Archie’s “dingbat” to All in the Family’s Edith. Hilariously they only use it one episode.
Lest some of you think Harry is too conservative and, perhaps, missing the point, the show introduces Ralph, a conspiracy-minded ultra-conservative who’s insane ideas are meant to be the extreme versions of Harry’s ideals. “See?” the show asks. “Harry is middle-of-the-road compared to Ralph’s militant extremism!” The show’s writers are terrible, though, so while it might seem Ralph’s extremism is heavily exaggerated for comic effect (kinda like a proto-American Dad), but save for a few comic moments he just comes off racist and idiotic. Which raises the question: why does Harry even hang out with him? Harry clearly hates the guy. Because this show is insufferable.
The entire (liberal) world is out to get Harry, who is just trying to be a normal middle-aged white guy with his own business! Why is every single person, with their “issues” and “concerns” and “opinions” always on his case? Why can’t people just leave him alone? These liberals are always interfering in his life, forcing Harry to spend a lot of money, money that Harry constantly complains he never has. He’s buying pools to impress neighbors and dresses to constantly make Alice happy, despite his complaints about prices and costs and extravagance. Yet he never actually puts his foot down on buying these things. The show tries to present Harry’s financial middle-class issues as a real thing but never follows through. If Harry lacks the money to buy something, then he should be unable to buy it. The show wants to present Harry as a run-of-the-mill, check-to-check member of the underclass, yet he’s somehow able to “scrape together” enough funds for the most lavish of expenses. It’s as if Fox News went back in time and animated a show.
If you can call it “animated.” Wait Till Your Father Gets Home might’ve been tolerable if the art was decent, but let’s be frank: this show looks like shit. Inconsistent character models and terrible walk cycles are placed upon legitimately unfinished backgrounds and washed-out colors. With a bit of effort, the unfinished look could’ve come off as a unique artistic aesthetic (and, to be fair, some of the nighttime visuals have a bit of a style to them), but even basic artistic concepts are failed here. Doorways and thresholds are unfinished, with linework not even reaching the top of the screen. Very little thought or effort was put into this program, and it shows.
The worst part of Wait Till Your Father Gets Home is the absolute casualness of its politics it exudes. Provocative-if-lazy shows at least attempt to shock or be edgy, but Wait espouses its crap with an unearned and misguided confidence in its worldview, presenting “shocking” elements only for the great Harry Boyle to crack wise, then tell you how it really should be. It’s The Newsroom before The Newsroom was a thing, but without the hint of a creative/technical mastery of the form. Wait Till Your Father Gets Home has no redeeming value; there’s a reason that only about six episodes have been re-aired within the last twenty years.
Actually, I’m only somewhat wrong; there is one thing that’s kind of well-done (aside from Dan Adams guest-star appearance, who was funny despite the awfulness of the episode he was in): Jamie. In a surprising bit of prescience, the show seemed to predict the 80s generation’s focal concerns for money and greed, portraying the young kid as sort of a savant who treats allowances with the business acumen of an up-and-coming Wall Street executive. But make no mistake: Wait Till Your Father Gets Home puts in the most pedestrian of efforts in order to ride the coattails of All in the Family, making a show that’s lazy, offensive, indigenous, ugly, and flat-out stupid.
At least Hanna-Barbera’s other animated efforts had a talking animal.
I wasn’t planning on doing a best/worst end of year list, which is partly why the episodes here are all relatively recent. I still feel strongly for them though, and I’ll definitely have a more “year summary” type of list for next year. For now though, you should seek out these episodes post-haste.
5. Phineas and Ferb - “Night of the Living Pharmacists”
No one really talks about Phineas and Ferb, which is strange, but at the same time, it allows the show to really have fun and mess around with genres without having the marketing pressure that Nick pushes with Spongebob or Cartoon Network pushes with Adventure Time. Phineas and Ferb is somehow both immensely popular and under the radar, which seems impossible, but that’s how Disney works its TV properties (Fish Hooks has been on the air for years now with nary a peep).
Honestly, it was a tough call between this episode and the Star Wars special. Both are wildly entertaining and immensely funny, but I’d give “Night of the Living Pharmacists” the edge. Despite the goofy set up, where Doofenschmirtz’s Repulse-inator actually transforms its victims to look just like him, the episode leans hard into the horror premise, becoming a genuinely tense experience (as opposed to the Star Wars episode, which was more of a parody/homage to the franchise). The pacing and atmosphere of the hour-long special is air-tight, balancing the show’s usual comic sensibilities with a fairly scary zombie-like scenario. Coupled with the sweet, endearing admission of Isabella’s affections for Phineas, the whole episode really clicks. Unfortunately, the episode ends with a superficial “reset button” development, but even that’s undercut with the show’s rare but pointed moments of surrealism.
4. Gravity Falls – “Into the Bunker”
The already excellent Gravity Falls continues into its second season strongly, pushing forward with its overall mythology while working on its tightly-woven characterizations. While there are some minor issues (mainly that it seems adverse to addressing Mabel’s crush-driven motivations), Alex Hirsch’s show continues to be a high-mark for the Disney Channel.
“Into the Bunker” is the series best episode. Similar to “Night of the Living Pharmacists,” “Into the Bunker” is a genuinely creepy, tense episode while also dealing with Dipper’s crush with Wendy in a mature, direct way. Dipper’s heavy-handed attempts to woo Wendy was always a weak element to the show; the fact that the writers finally dealt with it means we can truly move on. It also helps that Wendy gets a lot of solid characterization and some great ass-kicking moments, and the shape-shifters’ animation is fantastically unsettling. I’m less concerned about the show’s overall plotting than most, but even I’m fascinated in learning what comes next.
3. Steven Universe – “Space Race”
Steven Universe is one of the most charming and endearing shows on TV right now. The unique relationship Steven possesses with his Gem guardians is both wonderful and questionable, allowing the show to play around with the ambiguity of literal out-of-this-world beings and their attempts to connect with the most delightful members of humanity. The contrast between these alien beings and mortal citizens of Beach City keeps things weird but engaging, the show careful to dole out bits of information along with bits of warmth and growth.
Nothing epitomizes that goal quite like “Space Race.” Following the revealing two-part episodes “Mirror Gem” and “Ocean Gem,” and the thematic fallout of “House Guest,” “Space Race” pits the natural paternal instincts of Pearl and Greg (Steven’s biological father) against each other. Or, more accurately, those instincts are set up in contrast to each other — Greg’s uses Steven’s interest in space to fake-build a spaceship mostly to bond, while Pearl does the same thing, but gets caught up in the moment to build a real one. Both “parents” truly want to connect with Steven, but Pearl’s passion to bond Steven to his Gem side goes overboard as she almost rockets herself and Steven into space within a ship that’s not even close to being ready. There’s love, and then there’s understanding, and both Greg and Pearl struggle with that concept when it comes to how best to approach Steven’s upbringing, but it’s that struggle that makes it the show’s most ridiculous events truly heartfelt.
2. The Amazing World of Gumball – “The Man”
There was no way to predict the amount of growth and substance that has been added to The Amazing World of Gumball. What began as a visually-interesting but character-lacking show with mostly lazy gags has transformed into a fantastic blend of animation/graphic-rich aesthetics, crack comic timing, and powerful, distinct insights into surprisingly real characters with real stakes. It’s by far the most impressive cartoon on the air right now, due to how dedicated the writers’ and animators’ commitment to the show’s world are.
Showrunner Ben Bocquelet expressed his passion for “The Shell,” which is indeed a game-changing episode, in reference to the relationship between Gumball and Penny, but “The Man” is truly where the show is firing on all cylinders. Thematically following up on the events on “The Authority” (which revealed that Richard’s mother, Granny Jojo, overprotected him all his childhood, thus explaining his current “mental deficiencies”), “The Man” has Jojo finding a new boyfriend, which gets Richard really upset, since, mentally, he’s still waiting for his father to return from the store — 42 years later. Gumball treads some fairly heavy material with a deftness rarely seen on TV. Unlike, say, Bojack Horseman, Gumball doesn’t lapse into CTRL-ALT-DELETE seriousness by keeping the comedy coming and the characterizations strong; watching the Wattersons work with Richard to come to terms with that truth is a treat, utilizing strong, if wacky, family values.
1. Wander Over Yonder – “The Gift 2: The Giftening”
Wander Over Yonder is a creative smorgasbord, filled with massively unique planetary locales and a host of strange, versatile alien lifeforms. Wander and his partner, Sylvia, travel the cosmos and encounter a variety of beings — but all of that is really an excuse to come fast and furious with great jokes and even greater animated bits. While some of the various characterizations can be a big off-putting — the relationship Sylvia and Wander is strong but can sometimes be a bit unpleasant — at its best, the show is a fascinating visceral treat with some surprisingly pointed, clever commentary.
So how did “The Gift 2: The Giftening” win best episode of the year? By being structurally perfect. The art of the wacky cartoon is all but dead, with arguably, only Spongebob and Breadwinners really thriving in that field; the former is way past its prime, while the latter is merely an ugly, meme-centric knock-off of the former. This episode, by contrast, is a wonderful homage to the fast, loony shorts by Tex Avery, filled with wildly exaggerated expressions and break-neck insanity as Lord Hater zooms around the universe to escape Wander’s terrifying “gift.” It’s just hilarious, and chances are you won’t see anything like it unless you pull up a Droopy Dog short. As a bonus, the episode emphasizes the power of positive reinforcement, just at the expense of the show’s best character. There’s a real lesson behind the comedy, but the comedy itself is just that strong. (With a little tweaking, the episode, posited as a Halloween special, is inverted as a Christmas special in the following “The Gift,” which is the show being immensely clever and well thought-out.)