CHILDHOOD REVISITED – The Mighty Ducks

Disney tried to market action, comedy, self-awareness, and its mediocre hockey team into a cartoon for kids. The result is nothing short of disastrous.

The Mighty Ducks

What the hell is going on with this show?

By the time Bonkers hit the airwaves, the TV animation bubble was about to burst. Saturday mornings and weekdays afternoons were filled with cartoons, and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were adding their own original animated content to the mix. There were so many cartoons out there now – wacky ones, serious ones, self-aware ones, action ones, compilations – and Disney wanted their hands in all of it. Before, the company was comfortable with creating a single fully-fledged, developed cartoon, one right after the other. Now, not only did they want a piece of the action cartoon market (Gargoyles), they wanted to exploit the easy money of the compilation set (Raw Toonage) as well as double down on their movie properties (Aladdin, Timon & Pumbaa). I guess they wanted a piece of the self-aware goofiness that made Animaniacs and Freakzoid popular as well, for from that thinking sprang forth the mess that is The Mighty Ducks.

The Mighty Ducks is a hell of a reach. To say it was based on The Mighty Ducks movie franchise would be right only in pure connotation. Instead of a cartoon about plucky, smartass kids learning about life and teamwork through the rigors of playing hockey, we’re given a crazy tale about six anthropomorphic ducks who followed some evil reptiles through a portal to Earth, who end up playing professional hockey while, in their spare time, hunt for these villainous Saurians. Sure, this SOUNDS crazy, but in pure cartoon terms, this isn’t much crazier than, let’s say, Herculoids, Space Ghost, Transformers, Dinosaucers, Dino-Riders, Extreme Dinosaurs, and so on. It’s all in the execution. And the execution is excruciating.

Hey, do you like hockey? I mean, do you really, really, really love hockey? Of course you do. That’s why The Mighty Ducks was made, to satisfy your inner blood lust and sexual proclivities for hockey. The Mighty Ducks live, eat, breath, and masturbate to hockey, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When they’re not saving the world, they’re playing hockey, and they know for a goddamn fact you are going to be enamored watching them play hockey. The Mighty Ducks doesn’t even entertain the thought that, god forbid, there may be two or three people on the planet that may have a mere passing interest in hockey, or worse – not even be interested in hockey. People like that are clearly the scum of the earth, and should be beaten every day within an inch of their lives. Life is not worth living unless you embrace everything that is hockey.

That is the philosophy that the show seems to be working under. The Mighty Ducks is an uncomfortable, in-your-face, affirmation of hockey, a cult-like assault of the sport on the viewer’s senses. The very premise of the show is as if L. Ron Hubbard decided he took all he could from Scientology and wanted to take a whack at this hockey thing. In the pilot “The First Face-Off,” the characters originate from Puckworld, which looks like hell but is actually a world where all the ducks play hockey everyday. I presume their systems of laws, education, philosophies, religions, governments, and other various institutions are all based on the foundation of hockey’s rules. Certainly their warfare – their weapons include ice shields, puck blasters, and mystical goalie masks. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that Lord Dragaunus and his minions EASILY conquer Puckworld in about twenty minutes (see what happens when you don’t think about hockey for once?).

Despite a massive, all-encompassing takeover, three of the ducks manage to escape and cull together a resistance, which only maxes out to seven ducks. How this is accomplished is wildly contrived, but after a lazy montage that introduces the audience to every character within the Mighty Ducks core group, they somehow manage to overtake the entire reptilian army, chase the leader and his minions through a portal, and land into our world. Upon arrival, they simply walk into a mall, check out comics books, and release what must have been an exponentially high level of sexual tension in an impromptu game of hockey. Even though these ducks found themselves in a brand new, inexplicable world while chasing a tyrannical alien, they made sure to take the time to play hockey; this is done with such an antagonistic approach that for a brief moment, I wondered if they were truly the villains. All of this is portrayed in the pilot, which is told to the audience via a nonsensical exchange between the police chief Captain Klegghorn and the Duck’s manager, Phil Palmfeather. (Phil is voiced by Jim Belushi, a clear sign we’re in dangerous territory.) By the end of all this, Wildwing is the reluctant leader (after a hilariously unnecessary sacrifice by the resistance leader Canard) of a group of professional hockey playing ducks in the human world, who also – when they can squeeze in the time – search for and attempt to defeat Lord Dragaunus and his henchmen.

Thing one.

I wondered the degree with which this show connected with the actual National Hockey League. Well, according to Wikipedia, an actual Mighty Ducks professional team was founded in 1992, based on the original live-action film. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (their official name) was the property of Disney up until 2005, but I guess there was some attempt to draw in a new, younger audience to the franchise, which is ultimately why this cartoon was made – hell, “Wildwing” is technically the official mascot. It’s telling, though, that the cartoon actually has no legal access to any other official team’s name within the NHL: all of the Duck’s opponents are fabricated. Not even the NHL wanted anything to do with this show, and pro-sports aren’t exactly reluctant to engage in embarrassing expenditures to appeal to the youths (NBA Jam! NFL Rush Zone!).

Thing two.

The head writer for The Mighty Ducks was David Wise. Now, I normally would never express a direct opinion on a creator – for whatever issues I may have with the animation, writing, or direction, I try to express them in an even-handed, level-headed state of mind. For this show, I have to make an exception: David Wise is a terrible, terrible writer. Lazy, hacky, and indifferent to his work, David Wise either is under the deluded idea that he is a quality writer, or knows he’s a terrible writer and simply is coasting on his terribleness to cash a paycheck. The first choice implies that Disney was conned into hiring him due to Wise (or his agents) hyping him up as some voice of a generation. The latter implies that Disney KNEW about his awfulness and hired him anyway, assuming that hockey, malls, comics, “attitude,” and blowing stuff up would bring kids running, at the expense of character or plot development. Honestly, I don’t know what’s worse.

Thing three.

For a show that stars alien ducks obsessed with playing hockey, The Mighty Ducks has absolutely no idea how hockey is actually played. There’s a lot talk about hockey being played fair and right – you know, the sport filled with violent glass checks, egregious tripping fouls, and legally-allowed fights. The show doesn’t bother to explain any hockey rules or regulations, never bothering to draw its audience into the interesting world of hockey, which splits a line between sportsmanship and ruthlessness. Either David Wise never bothered to research hockey or they assumed that the audience would know everything there is to know about hockey, or both, which makes things even worse.

Buzzfeed rated The Mighty Ducks number eight on their list of the best Disney Afternoon shows, above Aladdin, Timon & Pumbaa, Bonkers, and Quack Pack. They claim that The Mighty Ducks managed to amass a following because its so strange. I know for a fact this is bullshit. Aladdin and Bonkers have their issues but at least have promise; Timon & Pumbaa draws from classic cartoon inanity through its own unique worldview, and Quack Pack smartly undercuts its Poochie-fication to reveal in its own absurdity (essay coming soon). It’s clear that Buzzfeed didn’t even pay lip service to watching these shows. For a cartoon, The Mighty Ducks isn’t strange, not more so than the absurd animation that came out of the 70s or 80s. The Mighty Ducks is just actively stupid, terribly scripting with average animation and awful, awful comedy.

Bonkers was disappointing because of its aggressively failed potential. The Mighty Ducks is disappointing because it sucks. Terrible premise, terrible execution, terrible stories, terrible characters – there’s not a single redeeming element to this show. There’s no direction here. No one seems to know, or care, how to approach the show or put its absurd concepts into any context. Lord Dragaunus and his minions can teleport in and out of every single place in Anaheim. The limits of teleportation are never defined, so why they don’t appear when one of the ducks is in public and shoot him in the head? Dragaunus makes deals left and right with various businessmen and scientists, but the details of such deals are rarely made clear. The Ducks’ interplay between fighting various threats and playing pro hockey is never portrayed within the utter self-aware, ridiculous frame that it should be – like how the PowerPuff Girls are both pre-school children and world-saving heroines (more on this later).

I could excuse all of these failures if the characters themselves were interesting, fun, or exciting, but they are not. Despite the show’s half-assed introduction scene, the core group of crime-fighting ducks seems sound. They’re cliche, sure, but of the good kind – they aren’t all muscle-bound dudes mixed with one female piece of eye candy. Besides Wildwing, you have Grin, the Zen-following strong man; Duke, the former thief turned suave hero; Mallory, the by-the-book military tactician; Tanya, the geeky but proficient mechanic/explosive expert; and Nosedive, the wise-cracking, youth-demo-oriented representative. Nosedive gets all the “cool” lines, read in some bastardization of a surfer-dude vernacular, and approaches every dangerous situation geared to find the AWESOME in it. He is plucked right out of the worst of what 80s cartoons have to offer. Buzzfeed claimed Bonkers was too annoying, but Nosedive makes the bobcat feel like a monk in comparison.

Still, the grouping has potential. Two female characters, who can be awesome as well as vulnerable! They aren’t defined by being women, either, but by being essential. Mallory is both a great soldier as well as capable of showing off her femininity, and Tanya enjoys her more geekier pursuits without anyone giving her gruff. Duke seemed geared to be the writers’ favorite, what with the whole shady past and slick lines out of his beak. But David Wise can’t be bothered to do the bare minimum. There is a dumbness, a superficiality to the whole affair that ruins these characters. Attempts at development somehow make the characters worse. In “Power Play,” we’re offered a glimpse into Grin’s past as a reckless, angry youth who ended up studying, uh, “Zen-hockey” under Tai Quack Do, an Asian stereotype who doubles as a Jewish stereotype. “To Catch a Duck” has Mallory questioning Duke’s loyalty after a thief from Puckworld turns up and offers Duke a partnership. I understand that in syndication, episodes would be aired randomly, but why would Mallory think Duke was thinking about betraying the team after everything they’ve been through? What would he have to gain joining some dumb-shit thief on a crime-spree in a world they don’t even know? Why would this suddenly come up now?

That gets to the biggest problem with The Mighty Ducks. No one thought this show through. At all. They literally went to series with no idea what they wanted to DO. There are so many plot holes, so many irregularities, so many inconsistencies and random occurrences that it’s embarrassing. I’m not sure if they wanted to play the action straight, comedic, goofy, or self-aware. It feels like they’re trying to be some gross mishmash of Gargoyles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Freakazoid, but there is no agreement on tone. The whole concept of “hockey-playing alien ducks coming to earth to play hockey and also fight other aliens” is played in this nonsensical space of cheese and indifference, of a laziness so apparent that it becomes physically painful to watch. The Mighty Ducks is a trainwreck, and the “can’t take my eyes away” kind. It’s a vicious, bloody, chaotic mess – quite possible the worst cartoon I ever saw.

The villains represent the show’s tonal disconnect and lack of professionalism in this show’s production. Lord Dragaunus does little else but overread his exposition without any comic flair. The guy is voiced by Tim Curry! If you can’t bring the requisite campiness to a character played by Tim Curry, you fucked up. I’m also not sure what Lord Dragaunus wants to do. Does he want to take over the planet, blow it up, or return to Puckworld (there’s no mention of what happened to Puckworld after his initial takeover). Also, Dragaunus and his henchmen is seemingly able to teleport anywhere, or create portals to other worlds with ease, so I don’t know why he doesn’t warp into a nuclear facility and blow it up, or send the ducks to a world with no air, or even pull an actual Ozymandias. Instead he seems content with making backroom deals with other humans/aliens to create pointless distractions for the ducks while he takes half-assed measures for his various, ill-conceived plans.

Speaking of his henchmen… so there’s this idea that Saurians sacrificed their magical ancestors’ history for science and technology, which is a weirdly complex idea worth developing. Wraith, a brown-noser warlock, constantly complains about this, but he also sucks at magic, so maybe the Saurians made the right call? (This seemed like something that would’ve been developed in a season two, but I seriously doubt David Wise would’ve bothered.) Then you have the Chameleon, who is just as annoying as Nosedive, who shapeshifts into classic 70s comedians/actors, regardless of the fact most kids wouldn’t get those references, nor would it explain how an alien from another planet even knows who these comedians/actors are. Also, when he shapeshifts, he’s supposed to keep the green skin, but sometimes he doesn’t, because plot. Siege is useless.

Characters like the Chameleon and Phil (who complains about the Ducks missing marketing events because they have to save the world, because it’s funny he has his priorities switched, right???) make me think that they WERE trying be more like Freakazoid, especially when they start being meta: referencing that they’re in a cartoon, mentioning sweeps week, commercial breaks, the lack of episode time, etc. The thing is, Freakazoid was committed to its meta-commentary – the show’s self-aware absurdity was built into the show’s DNA from the start. The Mighty Ducks tosses out such commentary haphazardly, making things more awkward than funny. It doesn’t help that various villains don’t seem to be in on the joke; hell, it doesn’t help that most characters aren’t in on the joke. (I’m not sure the writers, directors, or animators are either.)

There is one episode that kind of, sort of approaches something that seems to maybe represent the kind of cartoon The Mighty Ducks may have been striving to be. “Puck Fiction” is a not-great parody of Pulp Fiction, but it also has the kind of ridiculous, absurd, Freakazoid-esque jokes that a show like this really needs. From the inexplicable fear of the 1927 poem “Desiderata,” to self-aware gags involving a flashback and the show’s own title sequence, to the goofy gangsters, to the random Scooby-Doo reference involving Old Man Jenkins and a haunted amusement park, The Mighty Ducks starts to feel like a cartoon that’s just having fun. The PowerPuff Girls always had a tinge of comedy to it, a “sad trombone” aesthetic that always kept the show in a space where the creators enjoyed the silliness of the material. For a brief, shinning moment, viewers got the impression that The Mighty Ducks was in on the joke, an elaborate excuse to parody the macho-group-superhero formula and have fun with the bizarreness of the ludicrous premises that such formulas produce.

Yet that was not meant to be. The Mighty Ducks, for most of its run, resorts to the stupid, infantile action/comedy that marred action cartoons for years. The show is neither funny or entertaining, a random grab-bag of references and poorly-stages action sequence enacted by one-note, annoying characters. The animation is merely passable; nothing really stands out, but it isn’t egregiously embarrassing, except when they recycle scenes or frame action sequences with little tension. The only thing that works is the design of the Ducks’ battle costumes, and to be honest, they aren’t that great. The Mighty Ducks is an awful show, and it needs to be remembered as such.

There is one clever moment in an episode called “Dungeons and Ducks” where the ducks are warped to a parallel earth where magic exists. They watch a commercial on crystal ball of a bunch of magical creatures advertising cereal. It’s a smart, little gag, but it’s a gag that belongs in a better, more reliant cartoon. Disney tried to make hockey, ducks, action, and comedy cool without understanding any of them. I’d like to think that, in a parallel world, a goofy, entertaining version of The Mighty Ducks is airing its third season on a Jumbo-tron amidst a population of hockey-obsessed fans, but there’s no timeline that could possibly make that happen. The Mighty Ducks mightily sucks.

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Gargoyles “Grief/Kingdom”

Gargoyles_Kingdom_screenshot

Apologies for the sudden drop in recaps. To say work has swallowed me up would be an understatement. I’m getting a heck of a lot of OT though!

So would Goliath, Angela, Eliza, and Bronx if they were getting paid for their troubles (like my segue?). “Grief” and “Kingdom” are continuing the strong surge of episodes that the World Tour allows, and they also double down on my argument that this whole World Tour thing was, broadly speaking, unnecessary but established to dole out plotlines in easy, bite-sized chunks. Complexity gets a lot of love but it doesn’t quite work in Gargoyles’ favor, not because it’s hard to follow, but because it’s not a show that can give its various developments time to breathe. Now it can, and the show is better for it.

Gargoyles 2×30 – Grief

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I should be punished for not paying attention, for all that little banter between Xanatos and Owen pays off here – well, to be specific, one of their many discussions does. Specifically, their past talk of the Emir has to do with a well-versed sorcerer trying to find yet another spell granting immortality for Xanatos. I spoken about Xanatos desire to live forever; he fears dying, but not so much the exact prospect of death, but the inability to control and desire that death would bring. So the Emir was sent to discover an Egyptian spell and call forth the god of death, Anubis, to grant his benefactor that power.

“Grief” is about death and dying, up close and personal. This is not an easy episode to watch, more “disturbing” than Demona’s stone destruction back in “City of Stone.” But it’s an important one, I think. I can see people thinking its too intense for kids but there really isn’t nothing wrong with telling a story in which kids are confronted with their own mortality, as long as there’s an understanding as death as a real, unavoidable fact, and that there’s a dark but important value to it (as Hudson implied so long ago). Still, the scene where a bunch of alligators are turned into skeletons is a shock.

So we find the Emir dangerously close to finalizing the spell, under the protection watchful eye of the remaining members of the Pack – Coyote, Jackal, Wolf, and Hyena, all of whom have been transformed into robotic/monsters by Xanatos. Their role is to make sure that the Emir is following through, but the Emir has his own plans; namely, to demand that Anubis return his dead son to him. My nit-pick is that we learn nothing about the Emir except his dilemma, but Tony Shalhoub (yes, Monk!) sells his grief so expertly. I mean, the man is arguing with DEATH INCARNATE about how he will punish him unless he brings him back his son; obviously the guy has done nothing else with his life except focus on his child’s reincarnation.

The Emir’s purpose in life is clear, re-emphasizing the show’s theme of needing a purpose in life to live on, and nothing is stronger to base that theme on than death of a loved one. But what about the Pack? Coyote is just a robot, following orders. Hyena is… well, she’s attracted to Coyote. Sexually. I don’t know what to think about this. Coyote is just a program, and we ain’t working with Her material. I guess this is supposed to be a joke but I kinda feel like this is a disservice to a fairly strong female character. Wolf is kinda there, just doing what he has to do. It’s Jackal that’s the oddball out.

I never would’ve thought that the Pack were entering otherkin territory. I mean, the various names of the Pack were given to them for a TV show. Gargoyles doubling down on their names as a life-agenda was always a risk, but worked so far because they were just nicknames given to criminals. Jackal eying Anubis as “the original model” is taking it a step into an area that the show isn’t quite prepared for. The Jackal isn’t an Anubis worshiper. He isn’t modeling his combat skills to a jackal. He’s not a furry. Maybe the show is trying to establish Jackal as a guy obsessed with power. Yet he was the one more prone to having sadistic fun with his murderous behavior, so this doesn’t fly. Again, the strength of the VO work and the writing allows us to push through all this, but let’s be clear: there’s a definitive correlation gap here.

It works so well though, mainly because of the Emir/Anubis dialogue (I kinda don’t want to get into the part where the Pack leads a captured Elisa/Goliath/Angela/Bronx into another room to kill them, only for them to escape, when they could’ve easily killed them earlier. Kids cartoon… kids cartoon… kids cartoon…). Emir tries to channel Anubis’ power over life and death, but Jackal forcefully takes it from him, absorbing the power and kicking ass. It’s odd, again, that Jackal suddenly is lusting for power, and while his behavior in god-form is in-character, the lead up to it isn’t (nor was transforming his sister into a baby). Yet even though he ages Goliath and Angela, the two still manage to take him down long enough for the Emir to transfer the power from Jackal to him. The new ability gives the Emir the true perspective over life and death, realizing his desire for his dead son’s life is moot and inescapable. He brings the entire place crumbling down, not allowing anyone to derive this power ever again.

The Emir’s true purpose has been fulfilled; in some ways, he and Egypt are a snapshot of Goliath’s team and Avalon, figures on a journey of discovery and realization. Disney’s A-Team animation did this episode, although some of the visuals are a bit murky, particularly the fight scenes (I think the storyboards are what really what throws things off here). Still, “Grief” is powerful work due to the strength of the writing and the work of the actors. The Emir has found his peace. Here’s hoping the World Tour team can find their own.

BUT LET’S CHECK IN ON THE MANHATTAN  CLAN, HUH?

“Kingdom” returns us to New York as we check in on Hudson, Broadway, Brooklyn, and Lexington, all desperately looking for their compatriots. I was surprised to come back to these guys, but honestly, I did miss them a lot, and it’s great the show is taking the time to acknowledge they’re still trying to get along, even if things are in disarray.

Toon City took the mantle for animating this episode, and they kinda remind me of Startoons, particularly in how the characters talk. They do passable work, but they seem to approach a lot of the visuals and movements in a goofy, semi-jokey affair, particularly in a tonally-off scene where Claw has to pantomime the immediate events that occurred to Fang. Honestly, though, I think -everything- is off about that one scene: the character, the staging, the layout, and the music. In fact, there are a few things off about an otherwise exciting episode, which sucks as the writing tends to get away from itself from time to time.

We find the remaining gargoyles scouring the city to find their friends, to no avail. Brooklyn, the second in command, is in a panic, holding out hope that Goliath will turn up, but more worried that he isn’t ready for the leadership role he was given back in “Upgrade.” There are a lot of questions and angles to this, after all: how far and how long do you keep searching? Who do you look into, and much do you push it? How do you respond to the concerns of the people you command? Brooklyn isn’t up to the task. Luckily, Broadway and Lex are patient, and Hudson takes up the de-facto leader role until Brooklyn gets his head straight. I love how subtle they play Hudson here; he makes good suggestions slyly to Brooklyn can pounce upon them in “leader-ly” fashion, helping him out until he comes into his own.

Their search first leads them to the Labyrinth, a nondescript underground area that seems to be an abandoned subway station [note: it’s an Cybernetics lab, but it looks different – much bigger than the design of the place we see in “The Cage”] large enough to house some homeless people. But here we find the Mutates, who took up roost. Talon is dedicated to protecting the people, but Fang his planning his own bit of treason, exploiting the poor people of their goods and otherwise terrorizing the people that live below.

Part of the issue here is that Fang is voiced by Jim Belushi. I… don’t really want to get into a whole thing about the “lesser” Belushi, but while he was fine as a light-hearted, take-whatever-comes-his-way mutate back in “The Cage,” having him carry an episode is a mistake. His voice is way off from the Shakespearean intonation of the rest of the cast; maybe that’s why Toon City was chosen for the episode, to double down on his more cartoonish voice? Fang is a fine character and his traitorous motivations are sound, but Belushi really is all wrong here.

Basically, the remaining Manhattan clan along with Talon head off to Xanatos, assuming he has their missing friends, while Fang executes his uprising. After a bit of a shootout (and where Broadway continues to show that he’s the best fighter), they inadvertently tell Xanatos the news while searching the place, and we already see his mind reeling with ideas. We’ll probably be seeing him again. But they don’t find anything, and Brooklyn flies off double-frustrated and double-doubtful. Fang, down below, randomly finds some laser blasters, which is a little bit far-fetched, but it allows for some more shooty scenes. After a bit of a battle between Talon and Fang, Talon trades places with a captured Maggie, who rushes to the Manhattan Clan for help. Brooklyn, finally given the right motivation (the right purpose, if you will), orders his clan to assist.

And while we get a good ol’ fashioned battle, I do like the little trick Brooklyn and Maggie play to get the upper hand on Fang – play emotional while sneaking Talon out of his prison. There are some staging issues – I was kinda surprised they played the stolen keycard bit so long, showing where it was taken from (off Fang’s neck), and I think they’re were trying to show Claw as being conflicted about where to place his loyalties, but some scenes show him as a scared little wuss, which hasn’t never been the case for the silent Mutate. But the theme of leadership, and understanding the nature of that leadership, is what drives this episode, and it drives Brooklyn and Talon into a mutual understanding, as indicated by the handshake above. Never give up hope, but protect your people in the interim.

“Grief” A-/”Kingdom” B+

 

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Eek! the Cat

Eek! the Cat found hilarity in suffering, which is no easy feat.

Eek the Cat

For a cartoon centered around a chubby purple cat that constantly and consistently gets hurt, Eek! the Cat coasts wonderfully on an earnest, endearing sensibility. It physical prat falls and sly references never overshadow the sheer positivity of the show, which makes watching Eek! the Cat a treat and a delight to watch. Creators Bill Kopp and Savage Steve Holland clearly had a distinct vision and commitment to its premise, ostensibly parodying and satirizing the very nature of the “cute helpful animal” icon via Eek himself, yet expressed their quirky, comedic talents within their affection for the characters.

Eek! the Cat may not have been the best cartoon of the 90s, but it was without a doubt the most rewarding, which makes its disappearance from the public conscious all the more disappointing. If I remember correctly, it had a pretty sizable following – and with five seasons under its belt, FOX KIDS felt so as well. It’s a funny, hilarious, and occasionally subversive show that follows its titular character through some of the strangest, most surreal situations, who always approaches every encounter with an infectious optimism. Even when Eek is smashed by a door, crushed by a piano, or blown up by a bomb, he still wills himself to help others, his mantra “It never hurts to help!” guiding him through the pleasure (and pain) of altruism.

Eek! the Cat follows the principle that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” (even literally, as in “Eek Goes to the Hot Spot,” where by holding a place in heaven’s line for another mischievous cat, Eek is sent down to hell by mistake). The show’s approach to the misery that is life resembles that of another memorable cartoon, Rocko’s Modern Life. Yet while that show focused on life’s malevolent eccentricities with a Fleischer-esque absurdity, Eek! the Cat uses its characters’ inherently helpful nature to push through broader, crazier adventures via a Tex Avery-template, all in the name of saving the day, whether emotionally or physically.

As I’ve mentioned before in previous pieces, cartoon pilots are mostly about setting the tone and comic sensibility of the show, which tends to leave character development lacking, which makes Eek! the Cat’s first episode, “Misereek,” somewhat disappointing. It lacks confidence, but it does showcase some early crackpot, physically gags, where a desperate, hungry Eek tries to get the attention of his family, but ends up bouncing all over the neighborhood in increasingly absurd ways. Other than Mittens (who is fairly out of character), there are no mention of any side characters who will become central to the show’s development (well, there’s the family – Mom, Wendy Elizabeth, and J.B., but as the show goes on they become less important).

“Bearz N’ the Hood” is when the show comes into its own. The line between Eek as a talking pet and anthropomorphic character in world filled with them becomes blurred as Eek tries to get the autographs from the stars of “The Squishy Bearz Rainbow of Enchanted Fun Minute,” only to become the Squishy Bearz’s only ally when they’re on the run from the the law. (The line between “animal as pet,” “animal as animal,” and “animal as legal person” is not just blurred, but utterly irrelevant – trying to understand this is missing the very point of the show.) It’s a great episode, working with what Eek! the Cat does best – subverting yet another batch of cutesy characters (this time, the Care Bears) through a crackpot lens. And even as the show breaks apart that “mascot animal” trope, it still embraces them as real characters trying and eventually succeeding. This isn’t Happy Tree Friends. Eek! the Cat wants to break down the helpful, curious animal character trope and mold it into its own image.

The writers do depict “molding” in a variety of ways, like in “Eek vs. The Flying Saucers,” where a cute alien creature arrives on Earth and Eek tries to show him the beauty of what our planet has to offer. Of course, they encounter the worst of humanity, but even beyond that, the alien is wholly unimpressed when he’s shown “true beauty,” which is kind of a big deal – I don’t think I ever seen a piece of entertainment, animated or live-action, present the natural wonders of Earth with a mediocre shrug. I suppose it’s a moot point though, when the alien reveals himself to be Voltar, a multi-eyed creature bent on destroying the planet. (This is kind of a disappointing reveal – I loved the alien’s blase reactions to the greatest things the world has to offer and wish he was a regular character.) Or take “Cape Fur,” in which Eek’s family finds a cute pink bunny stuck in the rain and bring him into his home. Eek is more than happy to help him, even as the bunny (hilariously voiced by the late Phil Hartman) starts to exhibit obvious sociopathic behavior. Eek doesn’t even entertain the idea that this rabbit is a thief and murderer until he sees a report about him on the news, and his family doesn’t believe him until its almost too late. A Cape Fear parody is the perfect template in which to break down the fluffy helpful animal trope. Then there’s “Catsanova,” in which Eek sees the massively obese Annabelle and falls in love – of course someone like Eek, who sees the best in everything, would be completely blind to Annabelle’s weight (a running gag involves Eek responding “Really?” to everyone who mentions how fat she is). In order to declare his love for Annabelle, however, Eek has to get past Sharky the Shark Dog.

Sharky the Shark Dog

Sharky the Shark Dog is television’s greatest forgotten animated character. A viciously violent yet classically refined canine who only speaks in barks and whimpers, Sharky is one of the few creations that can flawlessly fit the role of protagonist and antagonist, depending on the episode’s needs. Maybe because I have Hannibal on the brain, but Sharky as being both brilliant and destructive reminds me of NBC’s sophisticated monster (exaggerated, of course), which posits him perfectly in the elastic world of Eek! the Cat. He becomes central to the show, especially when the second season drops the 22-minute length episodes and starts with the 2 x 11-minute approach. The show loses the endearing helpfulness of its one-off characters since it can’t really work them in the shorter time length, but after a somewhat rocky start, Eek! the Cat, which is now known as Eek! And the Terrible Thunderlizards, changes its focus to insane adventures and broad parodies, using a number of the characters to riff on pop culture and pop culture tropes. It also “pairs” Eek and Sharky up on these adventures – as both partners and enemies, which works excellently.

The compilation era of Saturday morning forced the shorter length, and Kopp/Holland paired it with a new creation – The Terrible Thunderlizards. Parodying the machismo 80s’ “talking animal” action cartoon, The Terrible Thunderlizards is about three supposedly sadistic dinosaurs released from prison in order to destroy two humans whose very existence threatens to destroy dinosaur-kind. The show really functions along three premises: 1) through the humans, where Bill always finds himself in tremendous pain when Scooter’s comical attempts at human ingenuity goes awry; 2) the Thunderlizards themselves, who, in the midst of their mission to eradicate the humans, find themselves up against the the Thuggasaurs, an evil group of living, fossilized dinosaur bones; 3) the hate/really hate relationship between the Thunderlizards and General Galapagos, which has a broken-domestic quality to it (a hilarious recurring gag involves Galapagos turning to the camera in desperation, deadpanning “We dinosaurs are just doomed” whenever the Thunderlizards screw up).

The Terrible Thunderlizards lack the loose, wild freedom that Eek! The Cat has, but it has enough to function within Kopp’s and Holland’s themes of “comedy-through-suffering” and genre parody/satire. The Thunderlizards come off as tough, cruel, take-no-shit badasses, but over the course of the show it becomes clear that they’re really clumsy, good-hearted wusses with a surprising skillset when they’re focused on the true enemy. Things start off funny enough with a Roadrunner/Coyote-like battle between the Thunderlizards and the humans, where Bill and Scooter’s unlikely escapes are mistaken for military brilliance when the Thunderlizards’ weapons backfire (I love in particular Squat’s panicked tantrums, reminiscent of Bill Paxton’s “Game Over” reactions in Aliens). It’s a template that can’t last on its own, though, so the story mixes in a secondary element, the battle against the inept Thuggasaurs, which soon becomes the primary thrust of the show. It’s for the best, really, as it gives the show a specific genre to lambast, while working to endear the prisoners-turned-heroes. Even as the “heroic” dinosaurs find themselves smashed, crushed, and demolished, the writers understand to ensure their victory against the Thuggasaurs’ typically goofy plans. Hell, the very reason the Thunderlizards were put in prison was because they rescued an injured Thuggasaur; it’s funny to see the writers turn the show from abject parody into comical legitimacy. The Bill/Scooter elements, on the other hand, are amusing enough, although you can sort of feel the writers struggle to do more with it, introducing Babes (a female human of dated women stereotypes), Huckleberry (a dinosaur child that owns them like pets who is strangely dropped from the series), and educated, upperclass primates (which doesn’t go anywhere either.) It isn’t as if the human stuff is bad, per se, but the show gets so caught up with the Thunderlizards/Thuggasaurs action that the humans angle starts to feel perfunctory.

As mentioned, though, Eek! the Cat retools itself within the new 11-minute format, focusing more on inserting its eclectic cast into thin but obvious parodies which not only allows for some wild, absurd gags (most hits, some misses), but allows the characters to… well, I don’t want to say “develop,” but are allowed to be seen in a new light. The show starts to group the cast more frequently, giving the show a new approach by playing around with the comic relationship with each other. “Quadrapedia” is an ambitious musical, where all the characters sing to hilarious rock toons when Eek and Elmo goes on a quest to save Annabelle. “Mountain Groan” is a character free-for-all, where Eek, Annabelle, Elmo, and the Squishy Bearz go camping only to be kidnapped one-by-one. “Paws” is in my top ten, where a mutant goldfish infests Wendy’s kiddie pool, and Eek, Sharky, and Mittens have to set sail to find and capture it. The episode has a lot of fun with spacial distortion, portraying the five-foot pool as a massive, deadly ocean to explore, but the real comic drive is the insane but enjoyable interplay among the characters.

Seasons two and three are at the show’s strongest, really blending the absurdity with great characterizations. “Shark Doggy Dog” is a hoot, with the actual Don Cornelius guest-starring as he develops Sharky into a hit rapper (Cornelius notoriously hated rap music but attempted to soften up to “youths” by making appearances like this). “Eek Sneek Peek” takes an Animaniacs-like approach to telling its audience how a cartoon is made, in typical wacky fashion. “Lord of the Fleas” re-tells Lord of the Flies with penguins, really just so they can have a penguin yell out “SHUT UP, PIGGY” in a hilariously bad British accent. One of my favorites is “Try Hard,” which only uses its Die Hard reference as a locale; it’s really a Professor Clouseau-esque romp as multiple Sharkys try to eradicate a clueless Eek, but they just can never nail him. It’s a tight, physical-comedy focused episode, a massive improvement from the pilot, and has some of the show’s best visuals gags.

Eek! the Cat starts to lose its focus by season four. It never gets bad, but it seems to struggle with plotting, inexplicably moving away from the goofy interplay of its immaculate cast and focusing broadly on the “dog-chase-cat” antics between Eek and Sharky and the parodies/meta-gags/references. Before, it was all about the characters within those parodies/meta-gags/references, but it becomes all about the parodies/meta-gags/references at the expense of the characters. The first few episodes of season four are great – “Valley of the Dogs,” “Pup Fiction,” and “Outbreek” – but you can see the show slowly drop the meticulous plotting for more random, stream-of-conscious pacing. There’s more references to overwrought 90s events – the broken Hubble Telescope, the public’s seeming fascination with Melrose Place – and guest stars start to approach The Simpsons’ levels of uselessness. While Don Cornelius and Mr. T (in Thunderlizards) were perfectly inserted into Eek’s wacky world, the show stops all momentum to more or less heap unearned praise on John Landis, John Walsh, and Weird Al Yankovic, the latter being a particularly waste of a cameo. “The Gradueek” is a particularly late-season highlight, giving Sharky a real, palpable arc of sorts, but its telling that it his real crush, Platinum, is never mentioned. Subsequent episodes are funny but more scattershot; it’s not that they ran out of ideas, so much as they ran out of enthusiasm.

Part of that may be due to the failure of Klutter, which only managed seven episodes before disappearing. The problem with Klutter, which stars a monstrous living pile of clothes that get into silly adventures along with its tween cast, is that the show is immutable. The parody is clear – the anthropomorphic “thing” brought to life to help kids out – but unlike Eek! the Cat or Thunderlizards, Klutter is genuinely helpful and the kids are too “real” to be broken down, physically and metaphysically, and reshaped into something new and subversive. The writers has to play it straight, and the show is at a lost, with long, drawn-out sequences and scenes that pad for time. “The Klutter and I” for example, wastes almost five whole minutes with the kids trying to stay awake while bland TV parodies play over them. Without the ability to put them through a cartoon-physical hell, those attempts to play it straight fail; the situations are wacky and absurd, but the characters can’t match that tone. (One character’s hair color fails to be consistent across episodes.) Klutter isn’t terrible, but it’s unworkable.

Klutter wasn’t the distraction that hurt Eek! the Cat/The Terrible Thunderlizard’s final episodes. It wasn’t even that they ran out stories to tell. It seems more like Kopp and Holland were losing interest in the show and struggled with pushing it in any interesting directions. The fifth season is funny but feels hollow, uncomfortably focused solely on Eek and Sharky (and not their weird partnerships but the lazy antagonisms), which does the show an unfortunate disservice. Removing Mittens, Elmo, Annabelle, and the Bearz from the full scope of the show loses a lot of comic momentum, and even though the energy is still palpable, it leaves a wanting feeling. The final episode, “Rock-Eek 6,” ends with Sharky asking for Adrian (since it’s a Rocky parody through-and-through), and feels fleeting, reference for reference sake. The previous episode, “The Sound of Museek,” feels like the correct finale, with the show’s passion for music and the characters getting together for a genre-smackdown festival for yet-another Timothy ailment. Seeing the abstract band getting back together makes for a nice moment, a proper endgame.

Eek! the Cat revels in its cartoon absurdity, utilizing such icons as anvils, pianos, safes, and especially mallets to harm and maim is characters, whipping them out from the magic worlds that exist behind their backs. It’s a classic cartoon trope, but here, it’s specifically used to – sometimes literally – break apart other classic cartoon genres in order to create something that feels both new and old, familiar and subversive. Eek! the Cat wasn’t the 90s best cartoon, but it deserves to be counted among the best.

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