Posts Tagged Comedy
Early 2000 was a weird moment for television. It was before the critical consensus of our current “Golden Age of TV,” and no one knew what do with comedy (“cellphones ruined comedy” was the running commentary at the time). Seinfeld and Friends ended, and mainstream audiences seemed to want that again; at the same time, the quirky, alt, weird comedies were slowly coming out and making headway with niche audiences but could not make any real splash. This era had Family Guy, Futurama, Dilbert, Home Movies, The Oblongs, Arrested Development, Mission Hill, Clerks: The Animated Series, Clone High, and the Adult Swim lineup, and all but Adult Swim were cancelled. We seemed to want the next Simpsons (the winner of that line of succession was King of the Hill) or the next South Park (the winner of THAT succession was to be Family Guy upon its return). Or maybe we wanted a new Friends (which is currently Big Bang Theory), or the next Seinfeld (Curb Your Enthusiasm, and then Two and a Half Men, unlocked that achievement). The truth was that comedy audiences were splintering, other networks were stepping up their original programs, and it was a creative free-for-all.
Our expectations at the time was bizarre. Comedy wise, we wanted the same thing, but different. We seemed to be unable to judge things on its own merits. Everything was compared to the big four: South Park, The Simpsons, Friends, or Seinfeld. We just would not allow a show to stand on its own. The Oblongs were consistently compared to South Park and The Simpsons, but by now everyone knows how it’s really should’ve been acknowledged in its own right. And we’re all aware how cruelly The Critic was snatched from us – an occurrence we’re paying for today. And nothing represented this more than the fall of NBC’s Father of the Pride, a show doomed by everything by the critical and public thrashing of the aspects around it, and very little had to do with the content of the show itself. Almost ten years removed from that era, can the show stand on its own? A good question, but it’s important to take stock of those occurrences first. History, doomed, repeat it, etc.
Father of the Pride was destroyed by an onslaught of forces so random and problematic that it seemed God himself had issues with the show about a family of talking lions interspersed with the insanity of two eccentric showmen. At the time, it was the most expensive TV show to ever been produced. The marketing and early reputations emphasized its broad, mature jokes – sex and cursing, basically – something that just didn’t happen in a talking animal show. Critics were quick to point out the Dreamworks connection, bemoaning the inevitable movie tie-ins that were sure to come – hell, a lot of that was derived from the “Donkey from Shrek” guest appearance in episode “Donkey.” And, to make matters worse, the actual Roy from Siegfried and Roy was attacked by his own lions. The show made it to air, but after a critical thrashing and hemorrhaging viewers, the show was immediately cancelled.
I remember specifically not liking it at the time, so upon my rewatch of the series, I expected to be doubly embarrassed. To my surprise, I found myself quite liking it. It occurred to me, as the show passed through my retinas, that comedy, and our expectations of comedy, have changed, and all those original critical complaints that were levied at the show at the time became the norm. The emphasis of sex, gay, and crude jokes; the mindless pot-shots at celebrities; the nonsensical storylines and bizarre plot points – the things that we seemed to hate back then are so engrained in the current comedy climate and are part of the DNA of current critical favorites like The Venture Brothers and Community. And the Dreamworks connection (among other product placement)? Please. Product placement is so common now its to be expected, and crossovers/connections are in effect Adult Swim’s stock-in-trade, and soon to be Disney’s and FOX’s as well.
Father of the Pride isn’t a great show, but it decently funny and rather inspired at times. In some ways, the show is about three people – Larry, the father/husband, Kate, the mother/wife, and Sarmoti, her father – and their increasingly strained relationship to one another. Sierra and Hunter, the children, are really nonentities, points of interests only to serve as reflections of the turmoil between the adults. Among the crude gags – and really, they aren’t crude at all, just occasionally poorly timed – are rather deep and poignant conversations about marriage, love, family, legacy, passion, generational divides, and balancing it all.
The show doesn’t start off on the right foot. Being so egregiously caught up in its own “I can’t believe they’re getting away with this” hype, Father of the Pride’s first episode, “What’s Black and White and Depressed All Over” doubles down on the sex gags, beginning with Kate in heat and a horny Larry wanted to bone her, only to be interrupted by a distressed panda named Foo-Lin who’s alone and depressed with having no mate. So they play matchmaker to a new panda named Nelson, only for him to fall in love with Kate. It’s not exactly a well-plotted episode, and seems more concerned with getting away with talks of intercourse, virginity, and curse words, and it ends with a somewhat grim speech where Sarmoti tells the pandas that, essentially, they’re losers and alone, and they’re the best they’re gonna get. It works, but barely, and seems like a rushed ending to something that wasn’t quite right in the first place.
In relation to the entire show, however, it’s actually a sad speech that acts as a foil to Kate and Larry’s marriage. Early on, in the throes of his romantic/misguided crush, Nelson mentions how Larry doesn’t treat Kate with romantic affection and spontaneity. Kate admits that Nelson has a point, and to my surprise, this theme of a marriage that lost its luster is a constant and decently-handled concept that pervades the show. It’s not great, per se, but it’s there, and relatively consistent. It ends with a Larry trying his hand at singing a Billy Joel song to Kate, who promptly tells him to stop so they can fuck (there’s also a running gag of Larry’s obsession with Billy Joel songs and people telling him to stop singing). Kate is as shallow and flawed as Larry.
This becomes a lot more clearer in “Catnip and Trust,” where both Kate and Larry showcase their distrust and hypocrisy towards Sierra, accusing her of using catnip, only to inadvertently use it themselves. “Possession” is another surprisingly decent episode, where Larry randomly steals a TV from their hated tiger neighbors Blake and Victoria, and Kate covers for him. The thrill gives their marriage a spark – but it really doesn’t, it only makes the sex better. Adding to the complication is seeing Blake and Victoria’s free-wheeling and seemingly healthy marriage, the couple directly embracing and making out on the floor of their own party.
In fact, Blake and Victoria are particularly wonderful characters, over-the-top and melodramatic standouts despite the lack of screentime. Blake (voiced by John O’Hurley) is just an arrogant, attention-seeking wuss, clearly working his ways into the upper echelons of the compound hierarchy less because he cares about the community and more because he loves having an audience. There’s a gag where Blake dresses up chimps in drag while they play instruments. At the time, it was a weird, inexplicable gag, something that seemed to be weird for weird sake. But upon rewatch, it’s funny because it’s Blake – of COURSE he’d do something like this. It’s a dumb visual gag that was more for character than comedy. Hell, in “Larry’s Debut And Sweet Darryl Hannah Too,” Blake sabotages Larry’s show to become lead tiger, only because, as he mentions, just because he craves attention. Larry whoops his ass, but they remains acquaintances; like the Rick James caricature in The Chappelle Show, sometimes you have to physically put Blake in his place, but once there, he’s tolerable. And Victoria (voiced by Wendie Malick, who is a perfectly fine substitute for “old drunken, attention-seeking crone” when Jessica Walters is unavailable) introduces herself to Kate and the audience with the line, “Congratulations! You’re out of vermouth.” (Another attention to detail plot point – the characters leave their front doors open, so people can walk in and out randomly). The show implies they have an open and extremely kinky marriage, and it’s remarkably healthy, especially compared to Larry and Kate, and it’s a pretty remarkable development for a show on NBC.
And the suffering marriage is made worse by Larry’s crotchety father-in-law, Sarmoti, a character who stereotypical badassery is slowly given context over the course of the show, and whose relationships becomes a real source of little expressed tension. Sarmoti at first is a walking one-liner machine, criticizing Larry and the characters in randomly mean ways (“Are we still pretending that he’s not gay?” is a cringe-worthy line, considering its aimed at his grandson), but it becomes clear that Sarmoti was a terrible father to Kate (and budding to be a terrible grandfather to the kids) and is seeking round-about ways to rectify it, along with his fear of losing his manhood and influence. In “Road Trip,” he goes through a hell of time to reunite Larry with Kate, acknowledging how he lost his own wife in a similar way.
Two of my favorite episodes deal explicitly with the sour relationship between Kate and Sarmoti, and also speaks to the show’s strength and weaknesses. “Sarmoti Moves In” quickly sets up the quiet father/daughter rage when Kate, in a fit of unrestrained anger towards her father, rips up and destroyed Sarmoti’s prized possession – the pelt of his best zebra kill when he was living in Africa. In extreme desperation, and one of my favorite plot points of the show, Larry and Kate come dangerously close to killing an innocent zebra to replace it. It’s a great moment, especially hearing Larry and Kate discuss the murder with matter-of-fact dialogue straight-out of an American Dad episode, but it’s limiting because, for some reason, they restrain Kate’s involvement. Considering lionesses are the hunters, it’s a missed opportunity and reeks of networks notes demanding to represses Kate’s viciousness. Still, it opens up the wounds between Sarmoti and Kate, and it’s a dramatic delight to see them so vulnerable.
This happens again in “The Thanksgiving Episode,” when Kate, during PTA elections, casually comments that all turkeys look alike, which causes an social uproar. Here, Father of the Pride’s limits are used as an advantage, as it doesn’t overplay the racial parody hand, making Kate’s attempt to host the turkey’s anti-Pilgrim holiday both awkward and effective, neither overdoing the “racist” or “redemptive” angle. Kate also rails against Sarmoti for filling her head with such a derogatory attitude, at which Sarmoti scoffs; he still believes turkeys are a comically dumb combination of black and Native American stereotypes. The episode ends when a turkey is caught stealing Samorti’s watch, and it’s easy to assume this episode turns back on itself; however, it calls out the lions’ prejudices while also pointing out that turkeys ought to call out their worse members instead of misguided blind support.
This kind of detailed world building for a talking animal cartoon seems unheard of, and passed by most audiences radars, including mine, so it was quite a revelation to see that kind of detail in the show. And it even relates to the sillier portion of the show – the wacky, insane antics of the humans Siegfried and Roy. The more cartoony aspects occur with these two around, with their insane magic tricks and eccentric behavior and talking style. At the same time, they play comic dedication to long-term ideas, like Roy’s innate anger at his unseen father, and Siegfried’s indifference at his man-whorishness. The writers clearly have more comic fun with these guys, and they are funnier, but there’s nothing beyond that, which can be grating if you’re not quite used to that.
I also thought the early TV CGI animation wouldn’t hold up; considering that I watched an episode of Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness beforehand, I felt I could explicitly notice the difference. Honestly? It held up quite well. The colors were more muted, and the movements were stiffer and jerkier, but the facial expressions and mouth movements were fine, and after a while you get used to the animation on the whole. The only problematic things are any fast-paced scenes; CGI had yet to perfect the squash-or-stretch or blur movements, so the hit detections and body physics look like shit. But other than the decision to render fur, which kinda works but must have been a pain in the ass to do, the show looks fine and holds up relatively well. But then again, I’m fairly adaptable to different animation styles, so one’s mileage may vary.
In the end, though, Father of the Pride, along with the above-listed brethren, was taken from us before we were ready and willing to see it. I hesitate to say that it was before its time; that implies it has layers of brilliance that the world just did not understand. But in terms of basic tone, style, and sensibility, Father of the Pride was indeed one comic generation delayed, quite before we accepted those aesthetics as the norm. It, like those shows above, aren’t great, but they were a forbearing of things to come.
There is an unaired, unanimated episode called “The Lost Tale,” presented on the DVD and online in animatic form. It continues the show’s direction, with perhaps Siegfried and Roy’s most craziest tale – the sudden desire to build a Jessica Simpson robot – while looking into more of Larry and Kate’s marriage in their approach to their son’s birthday, as well as showing that Samoti’s biggest turn-on happens to be women who genuinely challenge him, like his ex-wife (it’s never made clear if she died or simply left). Perhaps the fan-fiction community can continue this tale, since the show was cancelled, but it’s good to know that, for all the crap leveled against this show, justified or not, it was definitely on the right track.
I came into Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers fully ready to be disappointed by it. I knew that there was no way that the cutesy show of high-pitched rodents saving puppies, children, and other helpless animals could possibly hold up in any way. Heck, it wasn’t may favorite show as a child, so if it was lukewarm then, I figured I’d hate it now. I could see the leading line now: “Rescue Rangers signaled the cracks in the Disney Afternoon’s impenetrable armor.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. In a complete and unexpected twist, not only did I deeply enjoy Rescue Rangers, it actually became my favorite show of the entire lineup. Let me be clear: it’s not the best show of the afternoon block – Ducktales has much more exciting and fun adventures; Darkwing Duck is funnier, more subversive, and more stylistic with the format; TaleSpin has richer characters and distinct relationships. Rescue Rangers, on the other hand, feels inventive. It feels clever, ambitious, and confident. It has this indomitable free-spirit couched in a wildly creative world of rodents and animals living their own lives among a bunch of humans. It doesn’t take itself seriously, only when it needs to. In a word: it’s fun.
Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers – (1989)
Director: Alan Zaslove, John Kimball, John Zamboni
Starring: Tress MacNeill, Corey Burton, Peter Cullen, Jim Cummings
Screenplay(s) by: Julia Luwald, Tad Stones, Dev Ross
Here’s the thing you should think about: when it comes to the idea of rodents living beneath humans, nine times out of ten, there’s a hidden message. Most of the time they’re about humanity’s wanton destruction of the environment – The Secret of NIMH, Ferngully, The Rescuers Down Under – or they’re about contrasting humanity’s cruel treatment of each other and the world at large, as compared to life underfoot – The Rescuers, Capitol Critters – or maybe they’re allegorical – Watership Down, An American Tail, Animal Farm. The exception might be the fantastic The Great Mouse Detective, but that’s in a league all its own. In fact, Rescue Rangers is more analogous to that film than it is to The Rescuers films that it is based on; it is the completely tonal opposite of Capitol Critters. While that show portrayed its mice and roaches as refugees and scavengers desperate to stay alive, Rescue Rangers showcases its pint-sized cast as normal critters comfortably attuned to the humans overhead. Humans are more like natural phenomenon – forces you have to deal with and handle, forces that can be dangers but also can be extremely helpful and exciting to behold. Getting around by car in Capitol Critters is a dangerous venture; in Rescue Rangers, sliding down a drainpipe and launching yourself onto the bumper of a speeding car is Tuesday.
That kind of commitment and normalization of its pip-squeak world is what makes Rescue Rangers so much fun. It reminds me a lot of Phineas and Ferb, a world that also spritely normalizes miniscule characters (the kids) and their outlandish worldview. No one really comments on the kids purchases or their incredible abilities, nor the sight of a hat-wearing platypus or the alarming number of mad scientists in the Tri-State Area. Likewise, no one bothers to comment on the sheer number rodents and small animals wearing clothes, or their surprising efficiency at building planes or go-carts, or the ease in which a superhero dog can be a huge TV star, or a crazed scientist wearing a bumblebee outfit is fighting five tiny rodents on a live stage using bees. Things just happen. The humans and animals live with it. The audience just enjoys it.
And even the most exciting stuff needs a great core cast, and incredibly, they deliver. Individually, Chip, Dale, Gadget, Monetery Jack, and Zipper would probably be annoying, but together, they’re fairly efficient and create an interesting dynamic. Chip is a solid leader, if impatient and somewhat dismissive. It’s a flaw that works, especially when certain episodes reflect Chip’s flippant responses to other characters as being genuinely hurtful. Then there’s Dale, the goofball, comic relief character that probably rubs a lot of people the wrong way. I was okay with him though. There are some moments where he takes things too far, but for the most part, Rescue Rangers showcases Dale’s wackiness as inherently important to the crew. His outsider “silly” status often positions him outside of trouble, often by luck, leaving him the only person to save the day. A goofy show uses Dale’s unpredictability to add to the circumstances instead of forcing inane comedy relief to every scene. This is particular notable in “Chocolate Chips,” one of the strongest episodes of the series. Dale’s wacky passion for chocolate leaves him the only one not hypnotized by a cloud of malicious mosquitoes, and there’s a genuinely tense sense where Dale is running for his life as the bugs give chase.
Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers 2×25 – Chocolate Chips
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Gadget is a lot of fun. A brilliant, absent-minded inventor based on the character of Jordan in the 1985 film Real Genius, Gadget functions like an endearing robot, thinking and speaking intelligently but putting very little emotion behind her decisions. It’s interesting to see her bounce between her genius and her awkward insecurities, which is addressed often, like in the “To the Rescue” five-parter and, specifically, “The Case of the Cola Cult,” another classically brilliant episode that gives Gadget a badass moment. Monetery Jack, the muscle, regales the cast with his broad, outlandish tales that may or may not be true, but also able to back it up with brute force. He’s addicted to cheese, at some points treated like a comical take on alcohol addiction. He’s brash and self-sufficient, to the point that he’ll dismiss the team and strike off on his own. He always comes back though, understandably needing the team as much as they need him. “Love is a Many Splintered Thing” is his signature (and fantastic) episode, delving into a past love life with tragic consequences. And then there’s Zipper, the tiny fly whose fast and nimble, able to help out the team in a pinch. He even gets his own standout episode, “Zipper Comes Home.”
You may have noticed I mentioned a lot about various episodes being “brilliant”. Because they are. What’s remarkable about Rescue Rangers is that a majority of the episodes are written so well. They’re tense, intriguing, mysterious, and fun, but from a narrative perspective, their tight, focused, and crafted well enough to gradually raise the stakes throughout all 22 minutes. Not every episode is a winner, though – some of the earlier episodes, like “Out to Launch” and “Bearing Up Baby” hue more towards a classic Disney-short sensibility, where the Rescue Rangers randomly find themselves in a crazy scenario and work their way out of it (“Bearing Up Baby” even brings back Humphrey the Bear, a classic Disney character.) These episodes are merely okay, especially since a lot of the show mines comedy from the old school tension between Chip and Dale from the 60s.
The truly great episodes are that follow a formula, a formula specifically built for the show: 1) introduce a weird event, 2) introduce a team conflict, 3) slowly explain the weird event while tying the team conflict, 4) show how the team cleverly solves the mystery and saves the day. Points 3) and 4) are the key to why Rescue Rangers works. Sure, as an adult, it’s easy to predict the stories and the twists (“When You Fish Upon a Star” might keep people baffled until the end though), but how they’re told is remarkably well done. The show wisely doesn’t spend too much time on building mysteries though; after they’re exposed, Rescue Rangers shows how the team actually saves the day, with smart (if albeit silly) use of various small objects and talismans and charms and whatever’s on hand, which is wonderfully endearing, especially when they use their fully capabilities to beat the most clever villains, both great and small.
Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers 2×01 – To The Rescue – Part 1
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The “To the Rescue” five-parter is not only an excellent series, but an abject lesson in character introduction. The story of a mastermind villain that manipulates a retiring cop in order to enact a hilariously ridiculous plan that actually works, “To The Rescue” shows each character coming to life – Chip matures into his leadership role and Dale shows his silliness as an asset. Gadget establishes herself as separate from her late father as an inventor. Monetery Jack and Zipper finds his place with the team after losing their home. Fat Cat is a ambitious, flashy mob villain and Professor Nimnul is an eccentric mad scientist. “To the Rescue” is notable because it brings out the characters flaws and creates dramatic tension with it, which is something increasingly rare in kids’ cartoons (oddly enough, Kung Fu Panda seems to an exception, for better or for worse). It also just an enjoyable hour and a half of TV.
The show, overall, is both charming and exciting, with beautiful animation from the unstoppable TMS for a majority of the episodes. The character designs are lovely, to the point that… well, let’s just say that crushing on cartoon characters is quite alright. I was somewhat surprised by the amount of sexual tension on the show, both intentional (Gadget is quite often portrayed in, um, “form-fitting” outfits, complete with accompanying jazz chords) and intentional (I’m not saying that shipping Chip and Dale is a thing, but it could be). There’s also a fair share of 90s violence and language, with quite a number of instances of “Shut up!” and “Stupid!” being tossed around. Hell, when Chip and Dale meet Monetery for the first time, they get into an all-out brawl with each other, which is hilarious but definitely evocative of an era long gone.
The creativity behind Rescue Rangers is what gives the show an edge that makes it stand out. It’s a delight to look at the miniature world underneath our feet and see how these animals re-purpose various things for their daily use. The Ranger-Mobile, for example, is a skateboard with a hairdryer attached to it with a bottlecap as a wheel. Chip and Dale use a record player as a treadmill. Surround sound is a pair of headphones above the couch. Being able to make and utilize paper airplanes for semi-long distance travel is must. A lightbulb doubles as a fortune teller’s crystal ball. Part of the appeal is pointing out the various little things that everyone uses for themselves. Sponges are mattresses? I love it.
That kind of creativity sneaks into the writing, which, well, could probably annoy some people, but it really requires a particularly keen ear, since a lot of gags are more of the guise of passing puns and references. These puns and references are not THE joke, but canny watchers might spot them and laugh/groan. At one point, Monetery Jack mentions helping a talking barnacle “out of a scrape.” A villainous mother-and-son, who are kidnapping birds out of the sky to make meat pies, are known as The Sweeneys; the son’s name is Todd. They also have two cats named Jack and Nichols, who – you guessed it – sound like Jack Nicholson. One character calls Chip “Alvin,” and follows it up with, “all you chipmunks look the same.” A more obscure allusion lies in a story Monetery tells when he once went off with a bunch of flying squirrels to Frostbite Falls to hunt for mooseberries. Gags like this are peppered into the show, particularly for older viewers, but they aren’t driven into the ground, making their discoveries all the more wonderful. (My favorite, random gag comes in “Pound of the Baskervilles,” where Chip discovers a blood-stained manuscript during an unrelated investigation, which is completely ignored. It’s an out-of-left-field, bleak non-sequiter that made me laugh more than it should have.)
Rescue Rangers builds so much good will with it’s energy and spirit. It creates a nice balance between the human and animal characters, deriving characters and conflicts from both, and letting the team work to their strengths and weaknesses to deal with them. The world-building, in its own insular way, is just fun to watch, with various one-off characters adding to the kind of adventures that take place underfoot, like Sparky the lab mouse (who sounds like Christopher Lloyd), Rat Capone the rat gangster, and fan-favorite Foxglove, the bat lover for proper Dale shipping. Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, and TaleSpin work in their own individual ways, but Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers works because it has a vision, a formula, and a creativity that’s unmatched. As cliche as is sounds, Rescue Rangers is proof that great things comes in small packages.
If you keep your ear to the ground, you might hear a lot of people grumbling about the second season (or Book) of The Legend of Korra. Even the most hardened fans of the series seem to be slightly taken aback by some of the current development threads. Bolin has been redefined as the comic relief, part of a wacky side story to the events that involve an intercontinental war. The “dark spirits” angle that should be important comes across aloof since the struggle against these beings seems to be brought up only when convenient. Until recently, Mako was such a useless character, and Eska and Desna are ill-defined (man, what does Desna even DO?). Oh, and the Tenzin side-story is only mildly interesting, which is a simple way to damn it with faint praise.
The biggest concern is how Korra herself is acting. She’s making bad decisions – terrible ones, in fact, that seem to make her character utterly frustrating and unlikeable. Granted, there’s a lot of adults around her that are both mentoring her and manipulating her, and she’s in an increasingly desperate situation, what with a war looming, her parents in danger, and her role as the Avatar in question. It would be a lot for anyone to handle. Still, while I don’t personally have as much of a problem with her character as most people do, I do see that there are problems here, problems that aren’t necessarily regulated to The Legend of Korra. TV shows often have problems with writing teenage girl characters, but the question is, why?
The grumbling has extended to the third season of Homeland, where teenager Dana Brody has checked out from therapy after an attempted suicide. She is clearly struggling with the news that her father has been outed as a terrorist, news that is affecting her a lot more than the rest of the family. This becomes a significant point in the second episode “Uh… Ooo… Aw…,” but the awkwardness to get there includes a whole lot of longing looks at a cute boy from the same therapy sessions, an ill-advised nude selfie, and one egregiously annoying “running away from home” moment. The actress, Morgan Saylor, does the best she can here with the material given here, but the narrative choices are hard to justify without undue rage at these pubescent girls.
From 24 to Revolution (Charlie isn’t a teenager, but c’mon, she sure as hell acts like one), from American Dad to Kim Possible, teenage girls have always been, and continue to be, the bane of writers’ existence. (Oddly enough, Family Guy gave up on even trying to give Meg, its teenage character, any agency, which is the fucking worst, especially since they kinda did a pretty good job with her early on). Young women, who within their teenage/young adult lives struggle to grow and change, often make stupid mistakes in their way to adulthood – but this goes for everyone. So why do these young girls seem to continue to frustrate writers and audiences alike? One would think that kind of internal turmoil would be easy to mine for narrative gold. Instead, the minerals they do mine tend to incite riots. Why?
It was in the character of Candice from Phineas & Ferb that I begun to devise a theory. Candice embodies the typical traits given to so many young, female characters: brash, self-centered, whiny, materialistic. She’s embarrassed to talk to the cute guy, then she gets the cute guy, then she obsesses over the cute guy. Candice, for a while anyway, frustrated me as much as any other bevy of teenage girls out there. But what creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh do to win her over to the audience is important. They exaggerate her flaws so that we laugh at them. The audience knows that these flaws and petty concerns are silly. Candice, herself, knows they’re silly. She can’t help herself though! That glint of self-awareness, coupled with the gradual attempts to work through her issues, makes Candice come off much more likeable. In addition, her obsession with busting her brothers (also played to comic extremes) is couched in a genuine love for her brothers. She doesn’t hate Phineas and Ferb. She simply hates that they somehow get away with so much stuff. That’s a really important distinction.
We can compare Candice to Kim, the titular character from Kim Possible, who is a stark contrast to Candice. While my review of the show will come much, much later (update: here’s the review), what I noticed was how “insular” Kim feels. Kim is a Mary Sue, a perfect, ass-kicking character who nonetheless has female teenager problems. But the contrast between Kim’s ability to save the world multiple times and her issues with, let’s say, babysitting her twin brothers is a contrast that does not (and, arguably, can not) jive. Even if played for laughs, even couched in a certain degree of self-awareness, it’s a hard pill to swallow. It doesn’t help that Kim’s annoyance at her “tweebs” (twin dweeb brothers, which, ugh) is wildly unfounded. They rarely bother her, content to cause chaos in their own little world. But there she is, sighing and rolling her eyes at their antics, despite them never truly interfering with her life. Her frustrations are distinctively petty, but the show works to make them seem important, and they’re simply not. (The show makes no qualms about focusing a majority of the episodes on Ron Stoppable, Kim’s sidekick).
That may be the issue stemming in this season of The Legend of Korra. The sheer scope of the issues that plague this world are bigger than I believe the writers want it to be. So when Korra spends an uncomfortable amount of time worried about what Mako thinks, it’s frustrating. When she justifies various forms of rebellion – against Tenzin, against her father – they seems petty up against the arrival of monstrous dark spirits and a burgeoning civil war. Also, she’s the Avatar, embodying a great deal of power and strength. Not that the Avatar shouldn’t have personal and/or emotional struggles, but those struggles should really tie directly with the real world consequences. Bryan Konietzko makes a good effort, but watching Korra shed tears after she breaks up with Mako is a narrative stumble for the character we knew, compared to the the situation she finds herself in. Maybe, just maybe, balancing these minor concerns with the major ones are impossible – or, if not impossible, an extremely difficult balance that just isn’t worth going into.
That’s the core issue with young teenage girls as power figures. Really, it’s the core issue with most young people as power figures. The scenarios they come up against are so potent, so world-changing, so incredible, that young people retreating back into their world of high school strife is wildly jarring. Harry Potter went through the same issues. At the very least they justified it by 1) noting that Hogwarts was rightly the safest place he could be (until it wasn’t), and 2) attempting to normalize Harry Potter’s life as much as possible. Still, by Order of the Phoenix, watching Harry be frustrated by another difficult class is laughable. And the less said about his love-life foibles, the better. Kudos for the last book for getting Harry out of the school surroundings.
Young teenage girls seem to get the worst of it because writers seem mandated to keep these girls’ concerns to the forefront no matter what situation they find themselves in. Candice, rightfully, always has the bigger picture in mind – busting the brothers while simultaneously protecting them – while Kim and Korra seem focused on emotional responses in relation to the fate of the world. (To be fair to The Legend of Korra, the show seems to emphasize that her approach IS wrong, but considering this was established in the first season, it’s hard to thematically justify it again and maintain a strong amount of interest.) When even exaggerated comedy can’t work, we may have to acknowledge that this juxtaposition between global warrior and emotional pubescence is simply not going to work.
Even it we step away from the power figures, like with Homeland’s Dana or American Dad’s Hayley or 24’s Kim, another thing becomes clear (especially when viewed through the post-Candice lens): why do the writers approach these young girls in such insular ways? By which I mean, why do these young girls never seem to interact with the people or the world beyond their personal foci? I don’t mean that these girls, character-wise, tend to be primarily focused on their own personal stories. I mean, they seem to narratively interact with people that ONLY are involved in their own personal stories. Dana talks to her mother and the cute boy. Why doesn’t Dana talk to her brother? Or the other people from her therapy group? Who are the other people in Kim Possible’s class? What’s her relationship to them? I am aware that Korra’s and Lin Beifong’s relationship is questionable, but why doesn’t she talk to her? Or Bolin? They had a nice time together in Book 1. (That ties into how poorly they’re developing Bolin).
There’s really no broader social aspect to these young girls. The universal focus is on these girls and their goo-goo eyes at cute boys, mixed in with their poo-poo faces at people who annoy them. What about everyone else? The original Avatar: The Last Airbender used its travelogue format to play around with how the gang of Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph gauged the world around them. Some of the best parts in that show are Toph’s annoyed indifference at the wealthy environs she grew up in around Ba Sing Sei, and Katara’s growing frustration with the Northern Water Tribe’s dated sexist views. Avatar mines a lot of variations to the world, tosses the cast at them, and let the characters work. Korra, on the other hand, is trapped in a realm of mentor-searching and bad judgements. This isn’t necessarily Korra’s fault, but the writers don’t do her any favors. Dana, again, bounces between the cute boyfriend and the frustrated mother, when there’s a lot more she could be, and should be, interacting with. Entire seasons of American Dad go by that fail to star Hayley in anyway, despite the fact that American Dad’s universe is clearly ripe for situations for her to get involved in. There’s an interesting and comically rich idea of Kim Possible’s Kim getting a job, meeting various co-working and grasping the corporate environment. Instead, she gets a job because she wants to buy a jacket (“Bueno Nacho”). Kim could learn about the work of janitors and janitorial services, perhaps humbling her and giving her an insight into blue collar work. Nope – the janitor is a spy, which seemed to be the only way the janitor could earn Kim’s respect (“Job Unfair”). I wish there was a Dana that dealt with the fallout of her father’s betrayal on her own terms instead of via a desperate rush to the arms of a character we don’t even know about.
Why are all these young girls so restricted? What if, to be speculative, Dana retreated into a realm of a video game, an MMO? We don’t see too many young women with nerdier pursuits, and I’m sure even teenage girls with a passion for computers would also be emotionally torn asunder if her father was revealed to be a terrorist. Can a violinist also be given superpowers? How would a young girl handle phenomenal abilities while being uncomfortably privy to the uncomfortable reality of growing up in a lower-class family? Or how about a young black girl dealing with larger than life situations while handling the burdens that come with not only her gender but also her race? The myriad of choices and ideas available to writers break down in the realm of the teenage character, often leaving her to bounce between boy-toys and parents that just don’t understand. The best writers and the best actors can’t creatively do anything if limited between These Two Things.
Also… where is the humor in these characters? They certainly don’t need to be laugh-riots, especially since Dana certainly isn’t in a position to elicit a lot of comedy, but all these characters come with an air of angst and frustration, an overall unwillingness to “laugh” at themselves. They seem trapped, stifled, and their avenues for answers lie in parental figures and boyfriends. (If they’re lucky, they might have a best friend who’s usually less than helpful). Failing to give these young women any chances to explore their situation outside of these the parental/significant other dynamic inevitably creates a charismatic blackhole, which leaves the audience frustrated with them more than anyone would like them to be. Their agency is limited.
To think that I would suggest to people that Candice from Phineas and Ferb is the example professional writers ought look at for a clear idea of a quality teenage female character only suggests how problematic the state of young female characters in TV is. But with the the general malaise given to characters like Dana and Korra this year, and Hayley and Charlie in years prior, writers should really work to open up these characters and their relationships beyond family units and potential loverboys. Let these young female characters breathe. Stop stifling them in unrequited angst.