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Monday, January 27, 2014

Simply Anime: Cartoon Network PRIME TIME

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For my second offering of Simply Anime, I wanted to tackle a different brand of animation.  American cartoons, and in particular Cartoon Network's prime time line up of animated shows. I can already hear the groans and complaints about how this particular review is supposed to be dedicated to anime and not cartoons, or some rubbish like that. Well folks, these reviews are about animation, so be prepared to sample my insight into a wide variety of shows that the medium offers. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here's a little history or my crib notes version of how we got to where we are in regard to Cartoon Network's current prime time lineup. It all started in 1993 with Donovan Cook's 2 Stupid Dogs. This show would signify the rebirth of Hanna-Barbera.  An animation studio of using homegrown creators who produced original animated shorts the likes of which hadn't been seen since 1984's the Snorks. Then, two years later in 1995, the first ever “What a Cartoon” debuted on television and changed the game. The brainchild of Fred Seibert, this revolutionary show and format gave birth to and was the launching pad for not only shows that many of us grew up watching, but for their creators as well. Such shows included The Powerpuff Girls (Craig McCracken), Dexter's Laboratory (Genndy Tartakovsky), Johnny Bravo (Van Partible), Codename: KidsNext Door (Tom “Mr.” Warburton), Cow and Chicken (David Feiss), Courage the Cowardly Dog (John R. Dilworth), Whatever Happened to Robot Jones (Greg Miller), the Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy (Maxwell Atoms), and a show called Larry and Steve (Seth MacFarlane) which would ironically become the format for a little show called Family Guy.

Even if the names of those creators are lost on you, their shows most certainly are not. The Looney Tunes style presentation (minutes-wise) would become the hallmark of nearly every animated show that would be aired on Cartoon Network. In addition, What a Cartoon, (which would become its own show), would birth clones of its own on rival network Nickelodeon and produce even more shows. All of this would lead to a long string of shows that some see as the “Golden Age” of Cartoon Network. This age would not only boast many of the aforementioned shows as stand alone half hour programs, but also bring about shows like Ed, Edd, n Eddy (Danny Antonucci), Time Squad (Dave Wasson), Sheep in the Big City (Mo Willems), Samurai Jack (again Genndy Tartakovsky), Megas XLR (Jody Schaeffer and George Kristic), Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends (again Craig McCracken), Camp Lazlo (Joe Murray), My Gym Partner's A Monkey (Julie McNally-Cahill and Timothy Cahill), Class of 3000 (Andre Benjamin and Thomas W. Lynch), Chowder (C.H. Greenblat), TheMarvelous Misadventures of Flapjack (Thurop Van Orman), and the juggernaut known as Ben 10 (Man of Action). There are many more wonderful shows that were a part of the the “Golden Age” and if you are interested knowing just what they are, you can see them in all listed here.

In 2009, Cartoon Network began to make changes in format and pushed toward live-action programming.  That push fell flat. (Certainly did with me at least. Though, I was not their target audience.) A year earlier, they would acquire the rights to Johnny Test.  A show many viewed as a much worse version of Dexter's Laboratory. Although there are many similarities between Test and Dexter, they just weren't the same. Cartoon Network would also make a move at this time that hurt me deeply. Always lauded for its balance of comedy and action cartoons, they would inexplicably change format again.  This time moving from an action oriented evening lineup to a more comedy-centric approach that remains to this day. Gone were shows like Generator Rex, The Secret Saturdays, and Teen Titans. In its place, more Johnny Test. It wasn't just that action cartoons were gone or were only on sporadically. It was the type of cartoons they were replaced with. Finally, a bright light was cast back on the action cartoon wasteland when CN announced the DC Nation block. It would host DC original shorts as well as shows like Green Lantern the Animated Series and Young Justice. With a super strong lead in show like Ben 10, it seemed like a slam dunk. Alas, it was not to be. Green Lantern the animated series was canceled after only one excellent season (Shout outs to Giancarlo Volpe) and Young Justice would also suffer the same fate after only two seasons. Their replacements would be Beware the Batman (now on indefinite hiatus) and Teen Titans Go! (a chibi version of the original Teen Titans show that features the same voice cast).

So now that you know the history, whether you wanted to or not, let's get to the reason why you're here. Cartoon Network's current prime time lineup. Let me start by saying that I was not entirely fond of many of the shows at first.  And as a recent Game of Thrones quiz has shown me, I can have some Ned Stark like qualities when it comes to change. That being said, once I've given something a shot objectively, I can say that it is either enjoyable or not. Many of the shows that CN is currently boasting in the prime time slots I can say I highly enjoy and recommend.  Especially if you're looking for something a bit different, or just looking to continue riding the high from Sunday night after watching the Simpsons, Bob's Burgers, Family Guy and American Dad. To start off, let's begin with Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time.

Adventure Time follows the life and times of Finn the last human boy on the planet, his magical dog and brother Jake through their adventures in the Land of Ooo. The show is laced with continuity that won't alienate new viewers (which is something that nearly all the shows do quite well also) along with comedy for both adults and children alike. Of all the shows currently airing, I would say that Adventure Time was the one that took the second longest to grow on me. Once I really gave it a shot, however, I came to really enjoy the show. Now let me say that all these shows are aired in the same Looney Tunes style format of 7 minute or so shorts.  So character development is going to be a bit tough. Motivations are either revealed quickly over the course of many episodes, or in the case of the Ice King, in special episodes like “Simon and Marcy”. Adventure Time also pushed the envelope when it was implied that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the vampire may have been involved in a relationship in the past. To my knowledge, the topic of homosexuality had never been covered on a show geared toward kids before. For the record I applaud the writing staff and all involved with the show if that was the case. If only because it is something that is very real in our society.  Parents SHOULD be watching television with their children and be there to explain things in a prosocial manner. My mother certainly did. (And off my soapbox) Occasionally dark, but always fun, Adventure Time is excellent show.

A personal favorite for me, my friends and anyone born in the 80's is J.G. Quintel's modern masterpiece Regular Show. In it, you follow the dynamic slacker duo of Mordecai the blue jay and Rigby the squirrel as they live out there strangely entertaining lives. Mordecai and Rigby have terrific comedic chemistry together, but the unsung strength of the show is its amazing cast of supporting characters. From the ironically bad bodied Muscle Man, to Skips the yeti, to the large headed, yet sweetly insane Pops, to High Five Ghost (The name says it all) to their uptight gumball machine boss Benson. This show fires on all cylinders. There are doses of dark humor, death (You don't come back unless magic is involved), friendship, adult humor slid in, and 80's music every now and then. This show gets it right more often than not.

The Amazing World of Gumball, created by Ben Bocquelet, was a show that I had a hard time getting into. I wasn't happy that Chowder (Which I was slow to get into) and Flapjack had come to an end, so I was very resistant to Gumball without ever seeing a full episode. I initially was not a fan of the animation style and judged it only on that. I. Was. So. Wrong! This show continues in the rich history of silly, madcap comedy. Gumball Watterson, the titular character, is a 12 year old, unapologetic, d-bag cat that finds himself constantly in trouble. He is joined by his adopted brother Darwin Watterson.  Darwin is a goldfish that is often innocent and often times follows Gumball to their comedic ruin. Anais Watterson, is their 4 year old genius sister that is a rabbit that goes to the same middle school as Gumball and Darwin. Their parents are Nicole Watterson, a parentally responsible cat and Richard Watterson, the laziest rabbit in town. This show is clever in its delivery and a pleasure to watch.

Then there is The Annoying Orange created by Dane Boedigheimer.  I simply can not get past the opening credits. It's just, no. Simply no. I can't do it. Maybe you can, but even I have limits. And this is one.


Peter Browngardt's Uncle Grandpa is a show that I mentioned in my first podcast and I panned it. I had only seen a a few episodes and I honestly was barely paying any attention to it. The promos for the show where a special brand of annoying and I quickly lumped it into the same category of disdain that I hold for the previously mentioned Annoying Orange. Uncle Grandpa is everyone's Uncle and Grandpa, and puts children in unnecessary adventures or hijinks. I'm not overly crazy about him, but I do enjoy his sidekicks Pizza Steve and Mr. Gus. Pizza Steve is a self absorbed living slice of pizza who is the life of the party. (Because why else wouldn't pizza be the life of the party) Mr. Gus is a dinosaur (although he reminds me of the Creature from the Black Lagoon) that plays straight-man to all the calamity going on. There are other colorful characters in addition to the kids and adults that also fill out the show. Uncle Grandpa may not be for everyone but the characters play well off each other and I am giving it more of a chance then I originally did.

Rebecca Sugar's Steven Universe is my absolute favorite show in the prime time lineup. This was the other show that I mentioned in my first podcast and I errantly did not give Sugar her credit for the show as much as I lauded it. Rebecca, you have made an excellent show and I look forward to Monday nights to watch it. Your protagonist is Steven Universe (Yes that's his name), a young boy that has inherited his mother's quartz gem and is learning how to control his powers. His teachers are Garnet (Voiced by British signer Estelle) who is the unofficial leader of the Crystal Gems (The group of which Steven is apart of) who seldom speaks but is the powerhouse of the group, Amethyst, the roguish member of the group that has a “devil may care” attitude and also moonlights as an underground wrestler, and Pearl, the member that is all policy and procedure. She wants Steven to succeed but is very concerned about his safety, almost to a smothering degree. Steven Universe is reminiscent of the Powerpuff Girls in its delivery, yet fresh in how it drops nuggets of the past events, in addition to dealing with emotions that characters are experiencing. It makes them so much more endearing. I gush about this show.

Lastly, a special that aired last week Monday night called The PowerpuffGirls: Dance Pantsed. Personally I felt like CN dropped the ball on this special because they had an opportunity to air this on the 15th anniversary of the PPGs. (I mean, this show was announced in January of 2013) Also this was the first episode of the Powerpuff Girls that was made without any input from show creator Craig McCracken. It seems wrong that he wasn't a part of this show. That being said, it did feel like an episode of the PPGs thanks in part to long time Powerpuff director Dave Smith. The story was fun and it was a nice throwback to days gone bye.

All in all, as time goes on, all things grow old and eventually must change. For good or for bad, Cartoon Network has changed and continues to do so. Although it currently is not focused on action cartoons, we at least have Toonami back (thanks Williams Street and Adult Swim). The current crop of shows, that are still Cartoon Cartoons as far as I'm concerned, continues to revolutionize American animation and produce new creators and no matter what, that is a good thing; but you don't have to take my word for it.

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