Swat Kats really, really strove to be different.
In the wake of the huge popularity of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, studios and networks scrambled to create the next “badass talking animal superhero” group. Street Sharks, Dinosaucers, Biker Mice from Mars (which they tried TWICE), Wild West Cowboys of Moo Mesa, and Bucky O’ Hare. Large, broad-shouldered, fine specimens of male machismo with animal attributes spout cheesy one-liners as they beat the crap out of embarrassingly incompetent villains within stories of questionable coherency and consistency. None of these really succeeded, and on the occasion I do look back on them, it’s easy to see why.
Swat Kats, however, really tried to be different. Utilizing an anime-inspired character design, darker and muted colors, variable body-types, and slightly-meatier plots, Swat Kats sought, at some point in its development, to change the game around, to bring a more tense and legitimately exciting experience to young kids. And, in all fairness, it worked. It was the highest rated kids show in 1994 and plans were laid for more episodes and other commercial products.
But suddenly, it was cancelled.
Why? They were in the midst of three new episodes when it was unceremoniously shelved. It was shoved into part of some Hanna-Barabara animated block of TV, then dropped of the schedule, before a half-assed DVD set came out in 2010, some four or five years later. Why did one of the highest rated kids show ever get canned so quickly?
After watching the two aired seasons, I can hazard a guess: Swat Kats must have been a FUCKING ordeal behind the scenes.
Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron – (1993)
Director: Robert Alvarez
Starring: Charlie Adler, Barry Gordon, Gary Owens
Screenplay(s) by: Glenn Leopold, Lance Falk, Christian Tremblay
I can only describe Swat Kats as a well-oiled, wonderfully organized mess. And I mean this as a positive. The titular show, in which Chance “T-Bone” Furlong and Jake “Razor” Clawson, disgraced Enforcers (kinda like a police/military government unit), team up in a totally not-gay way as masked do-gooders with masterful technology developed from a junkyard, seems egregiously stuck among the fantasy-tale-trappings of 70s animation, the ultra-male-heroism of the 80s, and the “EXTREME/RADICAL” facade of the 90s. It liberally bounces between time-travel, magic amulets, giant monsters, out-of-control robots, mutated vicious flora, invading aliens, violent underground creatures, doppelgangers, mad scientists, zombie mummies, ghosts and possessions, curses, parallel worlds, and threats of nuclear fallout. The sheer variety of adventures isn’t necessarily the problem; it’s that Swat Kats swiftly rips through them in such a short time period (23 episodes) that it’s impossible to get a sense of what kind of world the actually Swat Kats live in (especially since most of the characters hardly seem particularly phased by these events).
Swat Kats is best thought of as a comic-book-as-animated-series, each episode being a different issue within a different set of circumstances. Some episodes are just paced better, while others seem so forced and calculating and radical that I suspect there was a quite a bit of tension between the creative staff and the executive heads. Christian Tremblay, Glenn Leopold and Robert Alvarez wanted to make a straight-forward, decently action show with a bit of depth and nuance. The studio wanted to shoehorn in previously established popular tropes, like medieval fantasy stories (which aren’t too far outside the realm of the show, but should not have been the THIRD episode), a ridiculously bombastic KISS-esque soundtrack (which was thankfully toned down in the second season), and miles upon miles of exposition.
Oh. God. The exposition.
I’ve seen many, many cartoons, both old and new, but Swat Kats takes the cake in exposition. They explain what they have to do, explain what they’re doing, explain what they’ve done, whether it worked or not, and if not, what will happen if the threat is not neutralized. They do this over and over again. Repeatedly. Other characters will lend their voices to YET AGAIN explain events that are obvious. Not even the worst Hanna-Barbara or Saturday morning cartoons went to the lengths this show did. No writer or director worth their salt would think this is a good thing; I can only suspect that some overzealous executive felt kids wouldn’t be able follow what was going on.
And yet, despite Swat Kats’s frantic, bi-polar, over-explanatory nature… it’s easy to like. Not necessarily enjoy, but there’s stuff along the surface to really engage in. The aerial battles and fight sequences are really well done, and the hand-to-hand, ground-level action sequences are quite exciting. People are flat-out killed on the show; there is no mandated “red shirts jumping out of helicopters with parachutes” creed when they’re destroyed. It has a fairly dark tinge – perhaps not as dark as nostalgia might believe, but I have had moments where I exclaimed, “Oh shit!” in seeing a feline citizen killed under toppled barrels, and a mutated scientist blown-up into goo.
When the cast does anything other than explain the plot, we get some pretty fun characters, although they’re a bit one-note. T-Bone and Razor have a decent “more than just bromance” interplay between each other, although their casual, just-hanging-out conversations work much better than their attempts at one-upmanship. Mayor Manx is the comic relief, a literal scaredy-cat that laughably raises taxes due to the sheer amount of destruction that occurs in their city. Deputy Mayor Calico Briggs is the female “love interest” who keeps the Mayor in check and can contact the Swat Kats at any time. She’s feisty but kinda pointless, although she has her moments. Second season newcomer Felina Feral is more useful as an Enforcer without getting too stereotypically butch, but there’s nothing beyond that. And her uncle, Commander Ulyssus Feral… well, he’s just frustrating. He and his Enforcers are so ineffectual, constantly being destroyed by the threat of the week, yet he always tries to solve every problem by throwing more Enforcers at it. But when the Swat Kats save the day, he gets mad at them for destroying city property, even though the Enforcers cause half of it themselves. Yeah, sure, you can say it masks a seething jealousy, but it doesn’t exactly come through on the screen.
As mentioned above, Swat Kats’s core issue is that it shoots for the stars, piling on conflicts that grow more and more fantastical. It fails to ease viewers into its world; instead, it assumes kids for the most part will just accept every event thrown its way. If you can manage that, then under that surface are some pretty interesting ideas, such as “Razor’s Edge,” where Razor loses his nerve after he believes he maimed an innocent couple. In “The Dark Side of the Swat Kats,” Swat Kats calls attention to the non-lethal weaponry used by the team by warping them to a parallel world, in which the Swat Kat doppelgangers utilizes lethal and deadly force (probably the best piece of brilliant subtlety in a show that isn’t really known for it). And kudos to the show for its willingness to show origin stories, for heroes and villains alike. Although lacking in clarity, we even learn why T-Bone and Razor left the Enforcers:
I spoke with Christian Tremblay via email, who also graciously participated in this reddit Q&A, who said the show was cancelled due to the toy line coming out too late (full interview will be forthcoming). While I can’t argue with one of the show’s creators, a part of me can’t shake the feeling that there’s something else here. A late toy line is one thing, but the show’s popularity should have been able to withstand that. More likely it was a combination of that, with parental complaints and executive concerns, that led to the sudden cancellation. Whatever the case may be, there does seem to be a bit of hope of the show returning, according to Mr. Temblay himself.
Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron threw excitement at you like it was going out of style, but had a love for its premise and characters that can’t be denied, even if that love didn’t know when to be quiet once in a while. Still, it’s a fun show, and after swallowing up some of the groaner gags, it’s almost impossible to hate; any other reaction would be less than radical.
(Side note: The show changed visual styles within the second season, making the character designs more angular and sharper, and producing a much cooler, stylistic opening credit. While working solely with the animation studio Mook, Inc. in the second season was a great decision, I personally believe Mook worked better with the first season’s slightly toonier designs. This is much more apparent with the female characters; Callie and Felina’s flat faces are disappointing to say the least.)