Archive for category Television
Goof Troop’s energetic sensibility can’t mask its woefully apparent limitations, marking the first real crack in the Disney Afternoon’s armor.
Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, Talespin, and Rescue Rangers mark the highest points in the Disney Afternoon’s repertoire, although Gummi Bears should be exulted as the glorious progenitor among them. Disney’s foray into TV animation was flying high, mainly due to those show’s unilateral focus on their premises. Simply put, they knew what they were doing, even though it took a few episodes to get there. So it would seem like gangbusters that their next show, one focused on Disney’s most iconic “comedic” figure, Goofy, would be an easy no-brainer. Goofy himself is wacky and inept enough to be put in any situation, creating an endless amount of hilarious gold.
There were problems though.
First, though, we should talk about the pitch. At Comic-Con 2013, during the Disney Afternoon Appreciation Panel, they showed a video, of all things, of the pitch for Goof Troop. In it, they show various visuals of Goofy and his son Max getting into crazy situations. The speaker talks, specifically, of the show being primarily about Max dealing with and adjusting to his father’s inherent goofiness. It’s a trait that he’s embarrassed by but ultimately overcomes, because in the end, family is important, and love conquers all.
There’s a few things here I need to point out. This pitch doesn’t describe the show at all, except maybe for one episode. This pitch is more in line with A Goofy Movie. In fact, Max, in the show, is quite used to and accepting of his father’s clumsiness, adjusting and expecting it (kinda like a child expecting his or her alcoholic parent to be unconscious on the floor when they get home from school – which is a dark metaphor but stick with me here), even using it to his advantage. Also, if the behind the scenes talk is to be believed, then Goof Troop with through a number of iterations before finally ending up being a crazy, cartoony take on The Honeymooners in suburbia. The name of the show actually came from the original iteration, which had Goofy in charge of a Boy Scouts group.
It’s telling that, despite the number of people at the panel (and with all due respect to Rob Paulson and Jim Cummings), that no one in the audience seems particularly keen on discussing Goof Troop. Here over at Mike Peraza’s blog (who is a great guy personally), he discusses working on various pitch and concept work for a new creative director, who struggled mightily with coming up with a firm direction for the show. There’s nothing wrong with a show going through multiple passes or directions during the pre-production stage, but Peraza, an industry vet, clearly implies this creative was somewhat out of his league, bouncing around idea after idea. Of all the creative decisions, Goof Troop lands with the blandest set up possible – middle-class America – made even more blander by design.
Goof Troop tries to function on two sole concepts: six unique characters, and absurd, cartoon action. And to be fair, the show tries their best to making those two concepts work. Beyond Goofy, there’s his son Max, and the neighboring family – Pete, his wife Peg, and their children PJ and Pistol. Each character has a strong comic voice and a comic personality to drive them. That drive allows each character to get so caught up in their personal endeavors that it more often than not results in a wacky, insane bout of comic activity. For a chunk of the episodes, Disney itself took over the animation, outsourcing the work to its Japan, France, and Australian animation companies. This, in all honesty, results in some beautiful visuals, especially with the facial expressions, which must have been hard due to the elongated muzzles of characters like Goofy. Whatever one says about the show itself, you can be sure that two-thirds of the animation will be top-notch (the other one-third was completed by an animation studio called Kennedy. Now, I don’t want to harp too much on this, but Kennedy Animation is AWFUL. They somehow had their hand in Tiny Toons, Darkwing Duck, Bonkers, and other shows, and their rubbery, squishy, off-model style just ruins everything.)
It isn’t as if the characters are lacking. Pete, voiced by Jim Cummings, who pretty much owns the Disney Afternoon VO circuit, is great, with his constant scheming and aggressive malapropisms. Pistol, with her limited role, is actually the star of the show. It seems like writers can mine a lot of great comedy out of innocent, young girls, letting them rant excessively and spout random, on-point commentary on whatever’s going on. Max and PJ have a nice, tight bond of friendship that feels real, even as the show gets over-the-top. Then there’s Goofy himself. I mean, you can’t go wrong with him. The epitome of wackiness, Goofy goes along with pretty much every plot thrown at him, and of course things go wrong fast to toss him into the air or over a cliff, and Bill Farmer throws his all into every scream, laugh, chuckle, and howl. There’s also Waffles and Chainsaw, the pets, who mostly react to all the crazy antics. (You might notice I didn’t mention Peg. I’ll get to her in a second.)
Yet beyond that – beyond the characters and the animation of varying quality – there’s really nothing else there. If you’re going to do a show with limited characters, you have to really make the “world” of the show shine, like Wonder Over Yonder is currently doing. You need villains (more accurately, antagonists) and a setting that seems to grow as the characters do. Goof Troop fails at that. Spoonerville is a town hardly worth mentioning. There’s really no development – not even the cartoon kind. And even though the show really tries its best, it can’t help but feel hollow.
A lot of that has to do with the plotting. About sixty percent of the episodes involve a contest of some kind that Pete wants to win, so much so that he’ll exploit Max, PJ, and in particular Goofy to make it happen. That’s really it. Sometimes, Pete and Goofy will get caught up in something, creating an Odd Couple-type bout of wackiness. On occasion, Goofy will regale Max with “family history” stories, which simply ends up putting the characters in a fantasy or historical setting. All of this feels so forced. I don’t think the show is lazy so much as I believe they really thought they could mind some long-term comedy from a singular location based on the characters. Hell, they managed 78 episodes. Yet with no willingness to adhere to any kind of overall consistency, with characters changing and acting solely based on the kind of an episode they want to produce, Goof Troop only grows blander with time.
Take “Axed By Addition,” above. Max tries to help PJ cram for a math test, after his father threatens to destroy his life if he fails (I’ll get into this questionable family dynamic in a second as well). This escalates more and more, as PJ starts to freak out about eggs, which leads to more Max scheming, which leads to a bucket-list like scenario where PJ thinks his father is literally going to kill him and Pete mistakenly thinks PJ is dying of a sickness. It’s a lot of stuff, and Goof Troop thrives on “stuff,” for better or worse. Yet all of this deflates when PJ’s report card comes in and he gets an A. There’s a big gap of development here, and all that elaborate comic momentum leads to nothing. We don’t learn about the school, or other factors adding to that A, or why Pete is suddenly so obsessed with PJ’s grades, or what Peg thinks of all this, or why Max isn’t taking the same test. I’m not saying the show needs anything extreme like continuity, but Goof Troop is too focused on the set pieces and less on the characters in relation to the set pieces. The rest of the episodes overall aren’t like this, so Goof Troop can’t even set a consistent tone.
That’s just it, though. Once you “get” Goof Troop, that’s it. There’s no hidden surprises within the characters or the world. There’s nothing to marvel at, nor is there any reason to get antsy. Each episode engages with its premise and tries so hard to make it work, to its detriment. The appeal is ultimately determined by how much you can enjoy the hugely exaggerated, wildly insane physical antics, with ridiculous, wacky chase sequences and extreme bouts of animated action. If animated by Disney, in particular their Australian branch, the visuals can be strong enough to at least make it fun to watch. If the storyboarders and writers fall flat, everything pretty much becomes a slog, a repetitive, semi-forced series of stories based on misunderstandings, scheming, or competition.
Every so often, Goof Troop goes surreal, which by default makes them more interesting, but not necessarily better. Breaking even the limited logic of the show’s premise allows for some Wackyland-esque developments, like an anthropomorphic band of brass instruments that constantly play When the Saints Go Marching In (“Dr. Horatio’s Magic Orchestra”), or a talking hat that grants genuinely magical powers to Max (“Talent to the Max”). Yet because the overall world of Goof Troop is unclear, indistinct, and awkwardly malleable, both from a diegetic and non-diegetic perspective, nothing worthwhile sticks. So a potentially rich episode where Pistol gets so caught up with an imaginary friend to the point that it becomes alive and threatens to whisk her away, due to Max’s and PJ’s neglect, has no substance since the show, overall, doesn’t function with that kind of drama or character development. It just comes off random, a throwaway attempt at some kind of pathos (“Pistolgeist”).
Goof Troop E71 – Pistolgeist
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That being said, there are some significant dynamics at play, but whether the creators were aware of them or not, it’s hard to say. There’s a distinct class distinction between Goofy and Max, who frequently struggle with maintaining finances and making ends meet, and Pete’s family, who own a boat, a pool, and a huge screen TV. Goofy’s homespun wisdom and sympathy come in direct contrast to Pete’s overzealous, scheming, conservative worldview, which includes inciting fear and confusion into his son PJ. It’s played for laughs but that is one child that is seriously going to need some therapy. And to be clear, Pete and Goofy are funny in their own ways, but because they fail to interact with anyone else, because there’s nothing to the show beyond the main cast and their two houses, it starts to get old, fast. The children tend to be the better set of entertainers, because they have potential to interact with more unique situations, but rarely does the show allow this. Pistol’s hyperactivity and passion for whatever thing she likes currently is fun but inconsistent, and far too often Max and PJ get drawn into their own low-key schemes and contests, rarely dealing with them actually growing up. (Their dated slang works because they’re frequently portrayed as losers, and really only start to spout “radical” lines when excited.)
Then there’s Peg. I’m hit or miss on Peg, who comes across as a misappropriated feminine icon. April Winchell is perfectly cast as Pete’s wife, who can go from sweet and loving to loud and vicious in an instant. Peg is a darling, always helpful to Goofy and shrill to Pete, especially during his most crazy schemes. Yet, it’s rare that her big mouth actually results in anything. Peg doesn’t really get to do much. She rarely stops Pete’s ridiculous plans, just re-routes them, and only doles out the punishment after everything goes wrong. She also tends to give into Goofy’s more stupider actions, to the point that, sometimes, Pete comes off as right. Peg is a real estate agent, so she definitely has potential, but actually see her work maybe once or twice, and Pete’s always getting in the way. We don’t learn about her job or what she thinks of it, always running back to this awful, awful man and stooping to his level. The one episode where she’s the lead has her trying to force her way into high society (“Goofin’ Up the Social Latter”). Forget for a second that, as a real estate agent, she’d probably have enough access to high society already. It’s wildly out-of-character for her to act stupid to get in touch with a “better” class of people.
But in the end, this really isn’t her fault, or some failure in female characterization. The fault lies at the show itself, hoping to bypass the lack of structure and development at the core of the show via top-notch voice work and wacky action. This only works for a few episodes, before spiraling in a rut of sameness and repetition. Even when going surreal (like a fish piloting a robot shark) or classic (with Goofy’s forays into a task narrated by a voice reminiscent of some old-school Disney shorts), it can never push past its basic setup, because there IS nothing else there. Goof Troop masks its hollowness and lack of ambition like Pete’s Used Cars – nice on the outside, but easily broken apart with the slightest prodding.
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 accomplishes 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 Severus 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. Golitath 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 Severus 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 him 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 Severius) 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 Severus 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 Sevarius 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 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+
Let’s talk about chicken and waffles.
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.]