Archive for category Childhood Revisited

Gargoyles “Avalon”

Gargoyles Avalon screenshot


Wow wow wow wow wowsers.

After a couple of straightforward, semi-exciting, semi-bland episodes, the three-part “Avalon” is a smack in the face of totality, of aggressive forward momentum that I somewhat complained was lacking since “City of Stone,” really. “Avalon” is a multi-layered, densely-packed saga that is intensely complicated, lying somewhere between a Moffat season of Doctor Who and the sheer audacity of Primer. I actually wondered what it would have been like watching this live as a kid, without the ability to rewatch, rewind, or record. It must have been mind-blowing and frustrating.

I quite enjoyed “Avalon” in the broadest sense, and I certainly will never fault any show for being ambitious and daring. I think it works much better to look at “Avalon” as on full unit instead of each episode separately, mainly because the first two function primarily on flashbacks, and there’s no reason to re-hash past episodes. Needless to say, “Awakenings,” “Long Way to Morning,” “A Lighthouse in the Sea of Time,” “Eye of the Beholder,” “Vows,” “City of Stone,” “The Price,” and other episodes all have a part in what occurs in “Avalon,” and I’m much less interested in how it all fits together (since time travel, like a tower of cards, falls apart the second you start to poke at it) and more interested in how it develops its plot, characters, and themes.  “Avalon” works as three episodes of incredible mind-fuckery; at a narrative, personal, or thematic level, it’s a tad bit more hit or miss.

Thinking about these episodes more, I realize that “Avalon” is really about Magus. I mean, of course it’s about Goliath and his eggs, the mysterious Avalon and the Weird Sisters, the Archmage and the Tom the Guardian. Yet Magus’ role in all this feels the most complete, the most substantial. It is his story of regret and redemption, of pride and unrequited love, and how he went from a slightly insecure, bratty mage-in-training to a powerful, tragic sorcerer. Part of me wish we really got more on Magus’ role in all this, but part of me absolutely loves the restraint put on his story, revealing everything we need to know, and ending his life in perfect tragic fashion. But I digress.

“Avalon” begins with Tom, the little blond boy from “Awakenings,” arriving in New York all grown up and all clad in armor, convincing Goliath, Bronx, and Elisa to return with him to the mystical Avalon. While traveling he recounts the entire tale of how things played out after “Awakenings.” It’s pointless to go over EVERYTHING, but the broad strokes are that Princess Katherine, Magus, and, uh, Tom and his mother (who kinda seem randomly as chosen guardians to bring along) take the eggs to Katherine’s uncle, King Kenneth. Here we get some more DELICIOUS Shakespearean drama, what with the king’s lover, Finella, actually in love with a Lord Constantine who only cares about himself and power, and then he incites a riot, kills the king, and takes control of the kingdom. He then demands Katherine as his wife, but SHE AIN’T HAVING IT, so she and her crew (along with the king’s lover, who finally got over her jealousy and own sense of betrayal), sneak out of the castle with the eggs on their way to Avalon. As soapy as all this is, the episode definitely works through those plot points really fast, which honestly is probably for the best. I mean, half the lover’s quarrel plot is exposited by Tom’s mother randomly, Lord Constantine kills the king rather easily, the king’s son is barely involved, etc. The whole thing was basically “City in Stone” condensed to one-third of an episode, just so we can get the hell out of there.

Before I continue, I feel like I have to mention that Gargoyles has a particularly negative view of not just New York, but the overall world. It’s seems to always be on the verge of danger or violence, which is a bit odd during a time period when New York was specifically fighting its way out of the drudgery and chaos of the 70s and 80s and building itself up into the commercialized, sell-out vision of early 2000 (the city that never sleeps is the city that never wins). The gargoyles seem to fight crimes every night. Tom’s arrival is immediately met with a violent encounter with three thugs seemingly out of nowhere. I know that there are some vicious thugs out there, but even the violent 80s criminals would steer clear of armor-wearing, Scottish-accented, sword-wielding characters. I bring this up to point out that the fight here seems forced, but also to note that, for a series of episodes that should have been produced by Disney’s signature animation studios, we instead are given their third best, Koko (their second best being Jade). Koko does great backgrounds and handles wide shots fine; close-ups they seem to struggle with, especially with spacing out the pacing. The battle here goes from intense to joking, really jarring the viewing on how to interpret the tone of the moment.

Tonal shifts hurt Avalon than it believes. When Princess Katherine head over to Avalon with her team, they face the Weird Sisters, who are apparently just the guardians of Avalon. The reveal that these powerful beings are simply guardians is somewhat disappointing, especially when “the sleeping king” of Avalon fights like a regular guy. These powerful beings lose to Magus, and there’s something off here, what with the sisters being transformed into owls after Magus reflects their spell. I don’t know. It seems like the sisters lose too easily. I guess it’s because the Grimorum is really powerful, but “Avalon” kind of implies that its nothing compared to the magic of Avalon, a place where one hour equals one day. I think its because there’s no rules or scale to the magicks in this show, no clarity of power. Like, no outside magic is allowed on Avalon, but it’s never explained why.  Does Magus read spells from the Grimorum or can he just cast them? Later in the saga, the Eye of Odin, which caused Fox’s physical transformations in “Eye of the Beholder,” allows the Archmage to control the power of the Grimorum when he eats it (I’m going to get to that in a second). Since when does the Eye have that ability? It was created on Avalon, so now we’re back to Avalon’s magic being stronger than human magic?

This becomes more convoluted when present-Archmage, who is a magical badass, travels back in time to teach his wussy past self how to be awesome. This is really where all those episodes I mention above come in, as the Archmage works a Xanatos-like scheme in gathering the magic items, as well as pulling the Weird Sisters, Demona, and Macbeth to their side. Seeing if all this works out at a narrative level is beside the point; the important thing is how the show pulls this off, which it does with a bit of skill, comedy, and oddness. Watching the pieces come together is definitely fun, and present-Archmage shitting on past -Archmage is humorous. “Bending the rules without breaking them,” however, doesn’t work really, because it isn’t as if they found loopholes so much as the show reached way out there to make things work. I mean, the Archmage gets the Grimorum onto Avalon by eating it, which is the kind of logic that allows dogs to play basketball (the rules didn’t say you couldn’t DIGEST the book!).

Disappointingly, the entire Archmage character is simply a mustache-twirling villain. He just wants power and revenge, which is surprisingly shallow from a show known for complex, fully-realized bad guys. Gargoyles, as always, is a show about finding a purpose for moving on, for living and powering through even the roughest of circumstances. The Archmage’s purpose is certainly driven, but it’s buffoonery at the most simplistic levels. I mean, the guy, who is basically a god now, keeps toying with his victims on Avalon, which includes a half-assed invasion of the castle and a ridiculous (and poorly animated, even for Koko) sand/beach fight. I think the Archmage is supposed to be laughable though, since see says stuff like, “At dawn, you will die. Get used to it.” How was that not followed by a maniacal laugh?

The Archmage’s lack of character is tragic because it crushes an angle to Magus’ story, a man who secretly loved Katherine and cursed the gargoyles for a thousand years in a fit of emotional rage. He was torn by this act, as well as his feelings for Katherine, which greatly affect his confidence in magic. He struggles with spell casting and age, reflecting his battled feelings, watching his love fall for Tom over the years on Avalon. He doesn’t believe his magic is strong enough to go up against the Archmage or the Weird Sisters. The guy is in a tailspin, keeping up his facade for the eggs and the hatched gargoyles running around, and it’s wonderful stuff to watch. He was a student of the Archmage, and it sucks that this part of his story wasn’t explored further – how would he feel about his teacher becoming a monster? He should’ve been the one finally going up against him. Instead, he fights off the Weird Sisters, who come quite close to besting him, but he draws power from the sleeping king’s parlor, sacrificing his life to save everyone on Avalon. Watching him fade away with Katherine and everyone by his side was a truly powerful moment, ending one of the better character arcs on the show’s run.

The other battles are fairly uninteresting. For one thing, I’m still unclear why Demona and Macbeth are so hard to beat. Yes, they have weapons. Yes, they’re trained in battle. Yes, the gargoyles are not fighters. But they have sheer numbers and know the layout of the land and magic of their own. The fights feel strangely isolated, with scenes of Demona going up against Elisa and Macbeth going up against the sleeping king, which everyone else standing around and, uh, watching? Oh, the sleeping king is King Arthur, who is awoken by Elisa and Magus after a bunch of trials and tribulations. Yet he’s useless (without Excalibur) and doesn’t seem particularly powerful, but he does beat Macbeth, so that happens. Demona is beaten when Katherine fires a laser gun so a shitload of debris falls on the gargoyle, which I guess was supposed to be an AWESOME FEMALE MOMENT, but, I mean, Katherine doesn’t know how to use a laser gun, and why not shoot Demona instead of wall above her (yes, I know, S&P, but the whole point of laser guns is to get away with shooing other characters without repercussions). Also, Goliath beats the Archmage with ease, which of course he would, and it’s also uninteresting because the Archmage does all the stupid-villain stuff you see in lamer TV shows, like talk too much and be arrogant and make terrible decisions in battle. (Goliath rips the Eye of Odin off the Archmage’s head, and he can’t control the power of the Grimorum he ATE, and I guess this goes against the rules of Avalon so Avalon kills him. Again, the rules of magic are rather unclear and arbitrary.)

I feel like “Avalon” also missed out on re-acclimating Goliath to the gargoyles on Avalon. The gargoyle seeing his clan’s eggs hatched and all grown up should’ve been something significant, but it kinda feels glossed over for that silly sand/beach fight. It’s especially odd, considering Goliath has met his daughter for the first time. I’m not too worried about this, since I imagine he’ll be learning more about her later. Still, I feel like the show kind of did a disservice here, especially in keeping Demona under a spell and unable to react to seeing her old clan’s descendents. They kinda have a moment where Goliath snaps Demona out of her trance, but the Archmage immediately resumes control. The ending simply flops Macbeth and Demona onto a boat and ships them off, which finalizes what seems like a missed dramatic opportunity .

Despite my criticisms, though, “Avalon” handles it all fairly well, via great pacing and fun characters with excellent VO work, selling every moment with A+ appeal. It’s really just a lot of fun, which is the most important thing, animation and plot points aside. At this point, Gargoyles begins what is known by the fanbase as the “World Tour,” where Elisa, Goliath, Bronx, and Angela (who is his daughter) travel to random locals and deal with stuff. It’s CRAZY that the show completely decides to shift gears to more randomized episodes; I guess they too found “Protection” a lot of fun and wanted to do more of that. I’m sure that the will be more serialized aspects in the upcoming episodes, but the emphasis will be more on being episodic, and hopefully this will allow things to be looser and freer, in a way. Unfortunately I will have to get to those episodes at another time, as I will be taking another break due to work, vacation, and the upcoming episodes of the remaining television season. I’ll be back to you this summer, Gargoyles!

“Avalon” A-


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Gargoyles “Protection/The Cage”

Gargoyles "The Cage" screenshot

Gargoyles has reached a point where it has enough characters in its arsenal to simply enjoy itself. After these two episodes it has become clear that the show isn’t quite as interested in developing events over a long-term story arc (although that aspect is there) so much as its just enjoying making things complex and exciting, which seem to occur pretty much after “Outfoxed.” I mean, “Protection” only stars Goliath and Broadway, and “The Cage” completely redesigned Derek Maza/Talon with nary a mention. If I could go back and adjust some grades, I might add half a notch, but they’re set in stone like the gargoyles at night. BOOM.

Gargoyles is playing around with story structures and genre styles, and “Protection” takes on the undercover racket. The only thing about these more episodic programs is that there’s less to discuss in terms of character development and overall story arcs. This episode focuses on Elisa as it seems like she’s gone rogue, pushing in on Anthony Dracon’s protection turf. Remember when he was arrested way back in “Deadly Force?” He’s free now, via a couple of bribes and connections, and he’s now extorting businesses for money, and the cops are on his tail.

“Protection” tries to portray Elisa as a cop who actually went bad, which is ridiculous. In fact, the fact that Dracon even entertains the thought makes the notorious villain seem idiotic. To its credit, the episode handles it surprisingly well, with a number of clever visual cues to clue you in. Elisa disappearing for several days; key conversations among cops when criminals are within earshot; Elisa’s continued flirtiness (which I still don’t like – seeing her with jacket down and her shoulders bare is just not right – but I’m not gonna discredit a cop who knows what she’s doing.). I love in particular the scene where Elisa is suspended by the chief right outside of the interrogation room, door wide open so Dracon’s henchman can hear. It’s such an obvious plant! I’ll admit I was a bit miffed at that, because 1) if it was a real suspension, then the lack of protocol was horrendous, or 2) if it was fake, then the bad guy would clearly know it was fake. Yet as we all know, some criminals are dumb fucks, and of course the henchman that overheard all that BS while in the interrogation room called his boss and told him all about it.

And I can buy that. My question is, why not at least let the gargoyles know? Why didn’t Elisa tell them that she would be off the grid for a while because she’d be undercover? (The younger gargoyles would explain to Goliath what that means.) It’s sort of “illegal” for a critic to get fanboy-esque in over-explaining details not within the show itself, but I think that Elisa needed the gargoyles in the dark. The plan was executable without them, but she allowed a bit of room to engage them (and slightly manipulate them) in case they interfered. So when they arrive to mistakenly save her when she’s about to meet with Dracon, she talks them up, which actually ups her cache with the crime boss.

I’m not sure how much my explanation holds up with the true intentions of the writers. There’s a certain amount of leeway you have to swallow, especially when Goliath and Broadway burst into the meeting between Elisa and Dracon, only to accept being accomplices without being privy to the entire sting operation. In its own way, it’s about trust, a deep trust that exist between Elisa and the gargoyles. Goliath knows that Elisa wouldn’t have truly changed (a stark contrast to the doubts cast upon a “treacherous” Goliath in “Double Jeopardy”), so I can see them joining in on the racket, knowing full well that Elisa would reveal her endgame. Goliath also is committed to protecting Elisa no matter what. (This opens up a quandary: would Goliath follow Elisa if she did go evil? Trick question! She’d never go evil. The question is moot.)

I enjoyed this episode and the underlying sleezeball quality among Dracon, Glasses, and the rest of the crew. In some ways, I  kind of wish the show eschewed developing plot threads and settled into a grove of good police work and some badass gargoyle action. The sting goes as well as you’d expect, and now with Dracon and his gang in jail for the second time, I can’t imagine we’d be returning to them. Beyond having a smooth voice, Dracon is in no way a major player in the large scheme of things. He’s a one-and-done criminal, a nice distraction for Elisa, Matt Bluestone, and the gargoyles (well, at least two of them) to practice with.

“The Cage” has a bit more going for it. We revisit Elisa’s brother, Derek, who was mutated way back in “Metamorphosis” into a fake gargoyle. It seems he and the rest of the experiments have not only banded together, but went ahead and re-joined Xanatos’ side. (They are referred to as the Mutates.) Which is pretty sketchy from an outsider perspective, since, no matter how you slice it, it’s basically Xanatos’ fault that Derek became who he is. Yet Derek is absolutely convinced that Goliath and Sevarius actions are the cause of their current grotesque state (during their rescue of Maggie, they accidentally destroyed the cure). Since he thinks Severus is dead, Derek – excuse me, Talon – is obsessed over Goliath’s involvement, and wants him dead. It looks like Derek has gotten a shave, haircut, and dye job while away. Ballsy on the part of the show to flashback to his original design and not even comment on the transformation, which looks to be from wolf-thing to panther-thing. Perhaps its for the best?

Elisa thinks she saw Talon outside her window. Goliath basically confirms it, and they head over to Xanatos’ castle to at least try and talk to the guy, upon which they are immediately attacked by Talon’s “henchmen,” Fang and Claw. Things only go downhill from there: even though Elisa explicitly tells Talon Sevarius isn’t dead, he doesn’t believe her. He’s so obsessed with revenge over Goliath that he thinks the real gargoyle is manipulating her. When Maggie, the innocent lady who was transformed in “Metamorphosis,” suggests that maybe Elisa is right, he only swears revenge on Xanatos as well. And this episode slightly loses me.

Part of the issue is time. We’ve spent so much of it away from any mention of Elisa’s and Derek’s relationship. So Derek immediately dismissing Elisa’s claim seems forced. I mean, I get it, but that Talon doesn’t even kind of entertain that possibility seems awkward. Even though he and Elisa disagreed so often, what made them work so well together was that, when it came to the bottom line, they understood each other. Watching Talon blindly rage over Goliath (and by proxy Sevarius) doesn’t work so well. The other issue is that I’m somewhat unclear of Talon’s motivation. Does he want revenge, or does he want a cure? Part of why he’s still hanging around Xanatos is that there’s a promise of one; upon hearing Sevarius is still alive, he wants him dead. Wouldn’t he want to, at the very least, hear more?

Obsession is one of those things that for the life of me I can’t really get into when it comes to entertainment (and yes, I have issues with Vertigo). It always seems to me that a lot of creators sacrifice motivation for the drama that obsessions can create, despite the fact that obsession is essentially motivation unchecked. So when a mysterious winged figure kidnaps the alive-and-well Sevarius, we’re led to believe that Talon is behind it, or at the very least, someone on his team. Yet Talon’s comment clearly implied that Sevarius’ fate was death if he fell into the Mutates’ hands in any way. So, as unlikely as it seems, the kidnapper is none other than Goliath.

Even though Derek’s motivational actions aren’t clear, Goliath kidnapping Sevarius and forcing him to make a cure is. He truly cares for Elisa, and he can’t bear to watch his friend go through so much pain. His actions are distinctly, um, “gargoylian,” and Elisa tells him that despite meaning well, his actions aren’t helping. It’s a nice moment, reinforcing their friendship and loyalty to each other. Another really small but nice moment occurs between Maggie and Brooklyn. Maggie inadvertently leads a raid onto their clocktower, but they fight them off. Brooklyn, who in particular, walks on all fours in a crawling position, reinforcing a wounded-self-image reflected off Maggie’s perceptions, lets them go to gain a bit of trust in the freaked-out girl. Maggie herself was so obsessed with finding a cure too, yet part of her was willing to listen to outside points of view. The contrast between Derek and Maggie is striking. Derek closed himself off, refusing any other suggestions, while Maggie, who was the most desperate to change, is now entertaining different perspectives, and even starts to embrace her mutated state.

Two other things to note. Even with a limited amount of time, I will give “The Cage” props for developing Fang and Claw in such a tiny amount of time. Claw took a vow of silence since the change, while Fang clearly embraced his transformation, with a few quips and actions that made him my favorite character (outside of Matt Bluestone, of course) by bypassing the whole “angst” aspect. The other thing? I’m not sure how Talon figured out Xanatos was bullshitting him this entire time. At the very end, the episode kinda gets convoluted, especially since everyone’s true motivations are muddled and aren’t portrayed clearly, but the gist is that Xanatos saves Sevarius (he’s too valuable to be killed), and Talon’s clan ostensibly joins Goliath’s clan. There’s a wonderful moment at the end when Elisa introduces her family to the transformed Derek (as well as his transformed buddies) and it works out surprisingly well. For an episode predicated on anger, obsession, and revenge, ending on such a nice, redemptive note does this show wonders.

The final shot of the cage Goliath kept Sevarius in? Not so much.

“Protection” B+/”The Cage” B+


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Let’s talk about chicken and waffles.

The Proud Family logo

When, in the intro to Disney’s The Proud Family, Oscar begins to chow down on a plate of chicken and waffles, I cried fowl. It’s impossible to not point out how this show came out along side Kim Possible in 2002. These two shows had different core premises, but ultimately focused on two young teen girls in a family that seemed oppressive but loveable. Kim, of course, had access to everything, enjoying a sense of privilege that Penny Proud did not. It’s wholly tempting to suggest that Disney, which always has its pulse on the attitudes of the nation’s youth, foreshadowed the cultural divide that took shape in early 2000 and created two similar but distinct shows to explicitly exploit the two different groups. Kim Possible enjoyed the top tier of talent, from animation and staff, while The Proud Family got the short stick, the BET-ening of Disney love and attention. So seeing Oscar chowing down on chicken and waffles seemed like Disney gearing its urban demo in the worst, most racially insensitive way, all on the cheap.

But then I watched a number of episodes. And I got to thinking about TV, about the golden age of TV and about the new, emerging interest in TV history and engaging in the past stable of television shows. Renewed interest in television’s past is a wonderful thing, but there’s a dearth on interest in what we’d probably would call black TV shows – shows with predominantly black casts. There’s a couple of things out there about The Jeffersons (which tends to be lumped into the Norman Lear opus, since it was a spin-off of All in the Family), but everything else is ignored or cast aside, like Roc or Living Single. Early goodwill about comedians Martin Lawrence, Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx ultimately became contempt, and their FOX/UPN shows didn’t help matters. Everyone Loves Chris, The Bernie Mac Show, and My Wife and Kids were critically great, but now its as if those shows never existed. And look what happened to The Cleveland Show. Are you surprised that finding all the episodes of The Proud Family is nigh impossible?

And so I looked at the chicken and waffles. Specifically, I looked at the scene that contains the chicken and waffles. Oscar is about to chow down on that plate of chicken and waffles as the theme song plays. Penny distracts him. As Oscar looks away, Penny gobbles up the chicken and waffles in a goofy, cartoony way. Oscar glares are her daughter. Penny returns a sheepish, “did I do that?” look of affection. It’s a scene that has been done to death millions upon millions of times in cartoons since the silent era. Here, they just happen to use chicken and waffles. And then I realize the show is trying to be “…funny.

The Proud Family isn’t funny. But it’s not racist. At least, it’s not trying to be. It’s trying to be “…funny,” which is probably best explained as being comical in its own terms: in this case, through a specific, culturally black worldview. If we were to think about the most resonate black shows in the public conscious right now – The Chappelle Show, followed by The Boondocks (Key and Peele is getting there, but not quite there yet) – we could argue their success is couched in a direct engagement with the race issues they satire. They confronted race head on, which both critics and audiences loved; yet, oddly enough, not Dave (and, if the rumors are to be believed, nor Aaron McGruder). These shows had to punch audiences in the face with context, and still people didn’t get it, which caused Dave to leave the show and The Boondocks to remain an Adult Swim oddity.

All of this raises a question: can a black show stand on its own without being some sort of scathing satire? The Jeffersons, perhaps, but that was some thirty years ago, in an era of change and conflict. The Cosby Show? That’s an interesting case. Bill Cosby made it perfectly clear he wanted to make a show depicting a successful black family, which aggressively kept it in a upper-class position and distinctly kept itself at arms length away from ideas and concepts within middle or lower-class black communities. Maybe The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? It’s depth and power has been overshadowed by its meme-ification and post-contempt of Will Smith (yet another black comedian pushed to the edges – although I will agree that a lot of this was spurred on my himself). Regardless, this show has been removed from the critical conversation as well. [Note: recently, it has been slowly propped up more and more, as a number of black people confided in me how this show helped them to confront their blackness in a world surrounded by whiteness, balancing a dangerous side of urban culture – the world where Smith’s character comes from – and the upper crust society in which he’s thrown into. The interplay and intersections of both worlds, of white and black, of upper and lower class, and the conflicts they create, may truly be something that is worth exploring in this show. That’s an issue to explore later.]

Fresh Prince might be the most analogous show to The Proud Family – as the Fresh Prince engages in its sitcom tropes, retooled to work in its more black social aspects, so too does The Proud Family engage (or more accurately, tries to engage) in its animation and cartoon tropes, as taken through a black lens. So it’s probably best to think of The Proud Family as Bebe Kids: The Show. It’s not racist, but it is racial – and the show exhibits a confidence in being both animated and black, despite the quality of the show being extremely lackluster. The Proud Family knows what it wants to do, and that kind of confidence is ambitious and admirable, even though the execution is questionable. Which goes to explain the chicken and waffles scene in a nutshell: a typical scene that has been done over and over again, retooled to fit in a black paradigm, which fails in the long run, but rather bold in its initial attempt.

It took me a while to note the connection between both Bebe’s Kids and The Proud Family – after all, Bruce W. Smith was the head man in charge of them both. Bruce Smith is a capable animator, but I’m not sure I could quite categorize him as a capable director. Bebe’s Kids pulls a lot of strings to stretch out the late Robin Harris’ comedy routine about four mischievous kids from a mysterious, notorious figure named Bebe. The hidden theme about neglect and lack of role models in Harris’ routine seems lost to the film, save for an ending that emphasizes Harris’s transformation instead of the kids’ comprehension of the truth of their situation (yet another black issue misconstrued by cultural and executive forces at large). As a result, Bebe’s Kids is random and wild, stretching out the film with inane love stories and unearned musical cues. In other words, the perfect precursor to The Proud Family.

Here’s the thing: there is a distinct difference between a show knowing what it wants to be, and a show knowing what it wants to be about. The latter point is about the premise; the former is about the approach, tone, and execution. Smith, both in Bebe’s Kids and The Proud Family, know what he wants his works to be about, but struggles mightily to explain what he wants his works to be. Like, do you want to do something that’s really just a slightly-exaggerated vision of realistic characters, somewhat like Recess, Hey Arnold, or Rugrats? Do you want something slightly over-the-top and with an snappy edge, like Powerpuff Girls or Gravity Falls? Or maybe you’re looking for something loose and free enough to really be wacky, emphasizing physicality and meta, self-aware comedy, akin to Phineas and Ferb or the Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy? Neither Bebe’s Kids nor The Proud Family knows, so they both take a personal approach, grabbing an assortment of everything and ultimately doing it’s own thing in a “throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” manner. It’s an admirable idea, but it’s also a wildly flawed approach.

It’s hard to fully describe what I mean. The Proud Family just wiggles itself into its own niche and direction, seemingly unfettered by any Disney notes to broaden itself. It wallows in its black trappings with a smile on its face. It embraces its “sassiness,” enjoying its urban style of dialogue and black, witty references, rarely loosening itself up for younger audiences. When a character says, “Look, JJ, the good times are over,” I chuckle, more surprised that the show was allowed to let a joke like that go. Likewise, when an effeminate character named Michael dresses up like Luther Vandross for Halloween, but is quick to mention he’s dressed like “skinny Luther,” I laugh, not only at the joke itself but the gall to spout a gag like that, in 2002 no less. Sometimes, that snappiness can reach some inspired moments, such as letting guest star Kobe Bryant speak fluent Italian, since he grew up there. No show, animated or live-action, would engage in that.

Yet, those kinds of references (among other issues I will get to shortly) make it hard to really advocate for The Proud Family. If my sources are correct, Disney was more or less letting Smith and his team do their own thing – a creator-driven approach – which isn’t necessarily a good idea if the creator is too scatterbrained to focus on one, single direction. Let’s look at the pilot, “Bring it On,” where Penny Proud first meets her new neighbors and oncoming antagonist, Lacienega Boulevardez. Already we have to slow the fuck down. I mean, we have a character here named after a major road in Los Angeles, which seems like the kind of joke that might have been tossed around early in pre-production, but the fact that they kept it in the show is bizarre. But here we are, introducing the new kid as a stuck up, self-centered, manipulative jerk, the perfect conflict for Penny to go up against.

The pilot, in its own, insular way, defines the kind of show we’re watching, which, again, revels in its own comedy, its own worldview and approach, completely indifferent to its audience. There’s a scene where Lacienega sniffs the air in Proud’s kitchen, asking aloud, “What’s that wonderful smell?” To which Penny replies, coldly, “Chitlins.” Okay, we need to slow the fuck down here again. First, how many people (kids) even know what chitlins are? Second, a black middle-upper class family (who frequently mention that they’re Republicans, which opens up so many bizarre observations and commentaries that it’s worthy of its own separate essay) making chitlins for dinner is highly unlikely, so it’s the kind of joke that’s less character-based, and more social-based, because it would be funny if “that smell” was “chitlins,” cause “chitlins” is a funny black word, right? Thirdly, chitlins don’t really have a smell, so Lacienega shouldn’t be smelling anything! See? Like, if that chicken and waffles opening scene was confusing, perhaps the chitlins joke would give it more context?

The show dives into gags like that with nary a concern. It doesn’t bother to ease its audience into its worldview, its approach, its references. Which, to be fair, is something that many critics and audiences want more studios to do – let creators do their own thing. However – would this approach be appreciated and acknowledged by the critical and/or the mainstream media at large? Like, could a black showrunner create a “black show” of its own design, sans explicit satire, and hope to appear in any critic’s or lay person’s top twenty favorite TV shows?

This is why I find The Proud Family more fascinating as an idea than the actual show itself. In watching it, it’s clear that, while the show was given carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, it wasn’t under Disney’s Eye of Mordor. The Proud Family wouldn’t have been allowed to reference Marion Barry, the Washington DC mayor arrested for illicit sexual behavior. And it wouldn’t have allowed for the really sloppy, tonally random episode “A Hero For Halloween.” It starts off well enough, with Penny giving up on Halloween because she believes she’s too old for it. Then it gets wildly off-track when a ghost arrives to repossess the Proud house, and somehow Penny gets superpowers and fights him off, which causes Penny to realize she… isn’t too old for Halloween? The episode doesn’t connect these two threads at all:

(Oh, and that animation. Not every episode is as stiff and listless as that – I mean, look at those walk cycles! – but this gets into the budgetary constraints I alluded to earlier. The sound design, in particular, is atrocious. While the clip above sounds terrible due to the Youtube copy, Luis’ laugh has been an auditory sore point in the entire run. It’s clearly a different voice, but it’s so goddamn loud and scratchy and completely unconnected to the final mix, and they don’t actually fix this until late into season three. It’s clear that the show isn’t working with the same resources as Kim Possible.)

This actually happens again in “Camping Trip,” where the kids (consisting of Penny, Dijoney, Zoey, and Lacienega, who is suddenly hanging out with them because…?) complain excessively while on a camping trip. Suddenly, there’s a disaster, which basically turns into an Oscar and Felix (those names though) cartoon, the two falling into wacky shenanigans while searching for help and food – which include being fed by a pterodactyl. By the end of the episode, the kids learn to appreciate nature, but they didn’t earn that appreciation. Or take “Adventures in Babysitting,” where Dijoney tricks Penny into babysitting her siblings (all named after spices, seasonings, and condiments, because black names are funny I guess). The lesson Penny learns is while she can’t trust Dijoney, she can still be her best friend, which is the most absurd, tonally-off kids lesson in the entire world, to the point that it’s almost like a parody or subversion of such lessons.

And yet… there’s a sad truth to it. I have to admit that my mom has “friends” that she hangs out with, yet you couldn’t trust with your life. There’s a certain lower-class social paradigm that The Proud Family gets, whether getting the tone of a Soul Train show right (called Hip-Hop Helicopter) or overplaying a post-Michael-Jordon-like hold on corporate enterprises (Wizard Kelly, voiced by a consistently-underused Aries Spiers). There’s an episode where Sticky joins a gang of singers called The Altos, which is ridiculous but comes from a understandable place – Sticky’s parents are divorcing. The show doesn’t delve deeply into the struggle of young people from complex homes who fall into dangerous crowds, but it understands that, which is something you wouldn’t see in animation, really.

To be fair, the characters at an individual level work, but their interplay rarely do. Sugar Mama’s sassiness is funny although it’s odd that she hates Oscar so much and prefers his brother, Bobby, who is basically the show’s best character, the epitome of 70s funk music. The mother, Trudy, starts off as the put-upon nag, but later on she breaks out and becomes an aggressive, take-no-bullshit female (too bad her voice actress can’t really handle the change all too well). Sticky seems to be some kind of nerd/inventor, but they don’t make him into a social outcast with a whiny voice (but they also don’t commit to his inventor side, which is weird but on par with the show). In fact, The Proud Family’s approach to nerd characters is wildly refreshing. When a rumor implies that Penny is dating a nerd character named Myron, Myron doesn’t shell up or grow uncomfortably obsessive over her. He becomes a miniature pimp, a confident little lady’s man. I want desperately to watch “Who You Callin’ a Sissy,” where Michael, who’s always been portrayed effeminate, tries to be more manly. I’m wildly curious how the show would approach the idea of black men not fitting the tough-guy role. Sadly, this episode is impossible to find.

As of finishing this, only five episodes are accessible on Youtube, four of which are on the official Disney Youtube channel (the least offensive ones, of course). If possible, though, at least try to get your hands on The Proud Family movie, which represents everything great and terrible about this show. It has its references (Bessie Coleman!) and its commitments to loving your family, but it also struggles with its wackier plot involving a peanut-controlling, clone-creating mad scientist named Dr. Marcus Garvey Carver (of course, everyone gets the George Washington Carver reference but miss the Marcus Garvey one). The film, like the show, bounces wildly all over the place, never able to focus on one single theme or narrative thread. (A random dance-off with a few peanut clones exemplifies this – since black people love dance-offs? – but the show makes fun of this, yet doesn’t? So frustrating!)

That’s just it, though: Bruce Smith, through both the movie and the entire show, uses its black tropes (like dance-offs) to subvert, even break, animation cliches; unfortunately, both lacks cohesion and focus to make those broken cliches significant or meaningful in anyway. It fails to be self-aware of its narrative manipulations, taking its subversions in stride, which makes everything seem like a random mess. The Proud Family can’t decide on what it wants to be. It wants to be everything – familial, social, subversive, clever, referential, absurdist, wacky, musical, and so on – but it ends up being none of those things. Sad, too: with a little more focus, this show could have been something of which Disney could truly be proud.

[PS: “Why are the Gross Sisters blue?” The Gross Sisters are kind of a strange group. They’re bullies but inconsistent. Sometimes everyone scared of them. Sometimes everyone stands up to them. They’re used in whatever fashion needed to fit the narrative. Their blue color, I think, is due to the limitation of the animation and color palette. In the pilot, Sticky mentions the Gross Sisters being “very ashy,” which is something most (white kids) wouldn’t get. I assume it’s the animators way of portraying the “dry flakes on black skin” distinction, making a quirky weird blue color.]


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