The season finale of The Aquabats SuperShow! completely shattered television conventions, and you didn’t see it. Here’s how The Hub’s strangest show made the Sopranos’ season finale look like a joke.
To adequately explain how The Aquabats SuperShow! brilliantly yet subtly subverted television convention, it’s important to understand what The Aquabats SuperShow! is: a bizarre combination that parodies both various ’70s “children” shows – with their terrible costumes, D-list actors, and cheap sets, all surrounding around even cheaper animated shorts – and the assortment of ’70s Japanese action shows that built themselves around the same concepts, except replacing the animated shorts with poorly choreographed fight sequences. It’s in effect The Banana Splits mixed in with cheesy tokusatsu action, updated in its sensibilities, so that all the cheesiness and cheapness are now part of the joke instead of being anachronistic embarrassments.
The set up of every episode is similar: the Aquabats get involved in a weird situation and ultimately prevail in a goofy, rick-rollicking manner. All of this is mixed in with various music cues (they are a band, after all), fake commercials from “Gloopy,” and most importantly, animated shorts that star the Aquabats themselves in scenes straight out of a random Hanna-Barbara action cartoon. This is all part of the joke of the show. So what’s the big deal?
During the season finale, specifically the cartoon segment, the Aquabats meet a space-god type figure who forces them into what he calls an infinite time loop. The team is whisked away, appearing in a somewhat familiar scene: performing a song at a party by a pool. Eaglebones (oh, the names!) mentions they may have done this already, and indeed, it seems rather familiar to the audience of the show in a vague sense. Cut back to the live-action part. The team is up against a large maniac with a powerful headdress that shoots lasers. The battle lasts for a while, with the team really working together to defeat who is dubbed Space Monster ‘M’ (and oddly enough, this is a particularly dark battle, with people actually dying and what one might call real stakes). Eventually, Space Monster ‘M’ is stopped, but not without hurling the Aquabats into space. They are stuck floating inside their Battletram as they drift off into the void. And, suddenly, this looks very familiar too… because, in the case of the cartoon and the live segment, this is where viewers entered the series during the premiere. In the very first episode, the live-action portion began with them performing by the pool, and the cartoon began with them floating helplessly into space. The series didn’t just metaphorically come full circle – it LITERALLY did.
I doubt any TV show has even come close to this kind of mind-fuckery so unabashedly clever and surreal, so in-tuned to its internal trappings and mechanisms to pull something like this off so successfully. It helps that The Aquabats itself is already surreal, but it’s nothing that far removed for a number of parodies out there (Wonder Shozen, Black Dynamite, everything Adult Swim) so as to be particularly unique. And there’s nothing particularly unique about a show utilizing meta-comedy to comment on the structures and tropes of television. Animaniacs made a name for itself doing just that. Frank Grimes on The Simpsons lived it. Invader Zim’s pilot episode had a great moment upon returning from its commercial break with a “5000 Years Later” title card. Ren & Stimpy goofed a bit on it in “Space Madness.” And Louie works on those meta-levels in ways that no comedy before has done.
But The Aquabats didn’t just comment on the structures and tropes of TV; they didn’t simply satirize and parody Hanna-Barbara, the Krofft brothers, and the Super Sentai franchise. It was a direct commentary on the nature of repeats and syndication, the “infinite time loop” that has characters essentially redoing they same thing over and over again at another time or on another channel. In this case, The Aquabats internalized the gag in an almost self-defined Moebius strip, of live-action and cartoon being one and the same. The live-action Aquabats, upon finding their cartoon in various, auspicious places, are indeed watching themselves, and not just a goofy version of themselves.
Such a reveal completely changes how to view the first season, which at first comes off as a surface-level goof-fest of fun, camp, and comical excitement. Now, looking back, it all makes sense beyond comic sensibilities. The “Previously On” sequences (which mix together actual events from the previous episode with random and completely absurd shots that has nothing to do with anything) are purposely nonsensical from a practical standpoint, as these previous events rarely have anything to do with the situation the Aquabats find themselves in at the beginning of the episode. And yet, strangely enough, the Aquabats cartoon is continuous; each animated short directly connects the to next one in the next episode. It’s visual gibberish, which seems to reflect the random order of TV scheduling, whether its new episodes, repeats, syndicated shows, or marathons. Think you’ll be lost watching a random Aquabats? You will be… and yet, you won’t be. Like time-travel, thinking about it too much will probably make you go cross-eyed.
Bravo to The Aquabats SuperShow, rewarding its cult-following to arguably the biggest mind-fuck in TV history, bigger than Lost, St. Elsewhere, and The Prisoner. They somehow pulled off the idea behind La Jetee/12 Monkeys in a satirical kids cartoon on a brand new network, and almost got away with it. It will be interesting to see how things are pulled off in season two, but The Aquabats have enough freedom to pull off whatever bullshit it needs to do to escape its original trappings… and it will be awesome.