overthinking the idiot box

April 4th, 2005

Animation on television, child-safe and otherwise.

Saturday Morning: Past and Present

by Adam Lipkin

Like almost every child of the '70s and early '80s, I grew up with Saturday morning cartoons. Every Saturday, I'd get up by 7:30 or so, eat some god-awful cereal, and sit myself down for at least three straight hours of TV (more, if my mom was really sleeping in), violating every rule I had about limiting my TV time. I had my favorites -- Superfriends, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends and the ubiquitous Smurfs -- but I'd watch anything, up to and including Rubik the Amazing Cube (featuring a theme song by Menudo!). And like every other kid of that era, I loved those Saturday morning vegetation periods.

But there seems to be a recent wave of nostalgia for that period that takes things a little too far. In the wake of Timothy and Kevin Burke's wonderful book Saturday Morning Fever, there are hundreds of websites and message boards devoted to extolling the virtues of the "good old days," while also complaining that the current cable setup -- with multiple 24/7 cartoon channels ? has taken away the mystique and the charm of Saturday morning.

As is so often the case, the nostalgia here is misplaced.

At 32, I still watch cartoons. I watch them both to entertain myself, and because I have a ten-year-old daughter who, if given her druthers, would watch Cartoon Network and Toon Disney all day long*. I won't pretend to have seen every episode of every 'toon since the '70s (even before Cartoon Network, there were limits to what one brain could absorb), but I've seen more than I care to remember. And I wouldn't go back to the '70s for any amount of money.

It's the worst cartoons that really show the difference. There are cartoons now that make me cringe when my daughter watches them -- third-rate crap like Teamo Supremo or Totally Spies, with old jokes, mediocre animation, and cliched characters. Then I flip to Boomerang and see the stuff I dealt with as a kid.

The best of them -- even my sainted Superfriends -- don't even hold a candle to today's mediocre toons. And as for the bad ones -- in our nostalgia, we tend to forget just how bad they could be. Remember the horrible Fantastic Four cartoon that replaced the Human Torch (because, you know, stupid kids might try to set themselves on fire) with a robot named Herbie? How about third-rate Scooby Doo rip-offs like Jabberjaw and Speed Buggy? And the less said about Scooby's later shows with Scrappy (and the subsequent "Pup Named Scooby Doo"), the better.

It's not that there weren't works of genius before the modern age (ushered in primarily by Animaniacs/Tiny Toon Adventures and Batman: The Animated Series).

But we didn't watch them. Rocky and Bullwinkle was all but off the air during those days, with shorts occasionally airing on some weekend afternoons. Likewise, the classic Merry Melodies ?toons were packaged every once in a while into a Saturday morning clipshow, but the networks always seemed to use this as filler, focusing instead on such winners as Q*Bert and the unbelievably awful Mr. T. A few quality shows did make it on the air -- notably J. Michael Straczynski's The Real Ghostbusters -- but such shows were the exception (and The Real Ghostbusters, after its initial season, moved away from Saturday mornings and became a weekday afternoon show).

Now, we're inundated with quality cartoons. The reason a show like Totally Spies looks so bad is that you can't avoid comparing it to Kim Possible, a much more sophisticated and witty take on the high school spy genre. Kim Possible may appear, at first, to be another silly spy show -- an animated heir to Get Smart -- but it soon becomes clear that, if anything, it's more influenced by shows like Freakazoid, with over-the-top villains (who make plans to do things like cover Wisconsin in molten cheese, or run an underground pit-fighting competition with robots). But unlike other shows that deal with high-schoolers (including Totally Spies or Atomic Betty), Kim Possible manages to take a surprisingly compelling look at high-school life, with the standard plotlines (Kim's attempt to balance her life as a spy and her social life, etc) getting as much airtime as the spy stories, without ever detracting from either one.

There simply weren't shows this balanced when we were kids.

And as for super-heroes, the '70s have nothing on today. Justice League Unlimited, the heir to Batman: The Animated Series and Superman, takes the animated DC Universe to new heights, introducing hundreds of characters, throwing in complex plot twists, and using a-list writers like Warren Ellis.

Teen Titans, at the other extreme, takes another traditional DC team and puts an anime spin on it, re-inventing a classic team in a surprisingly fun way. And Static Shock (which bests even Kim Possible's look at high school life) and the late Batman Beyond both offer great looks at the life of a teenage hero just feeling his way around his powers. Even Marvel, whose '90s run of cartoons was both uninspired and unlamented, has recently offered us the nifty X-Men:Evolution and a Brian Bendis-produced Spider-Man (on MTV). Every one of these shows blows the lame super-hero shows of the '70s and '80s out of the water, no matter how much nostalgia we feel for them.

Are there still cartoons that just plain suck? Of course there are. And yeah, I wish that my daughter would never waste another moment with Yu-Gi-Oh, a show that combines the shameless toy-promotion of He-Man with the quality writing of The Snorks. Baby Looney Tunes is as insulting and unoriginal as the title implies. And I'm still stunned that crap like Winx Club even makes it on the air at all. But a few bad cartoons don't spoil the bunch, just as the existence of half-assed sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond and King of Queens doesn't make Arrested Development or Scrubs any less brilliant.

We've got a 24/7 schedule right now that offers, at almost any time of the day**, a show like the sci-fi parody Megas XLR, the sweet but funny Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, the sitcomesque The Proud Family, or any of the shows I mentioned above. And if that means that Saturday morning loses its mystique, so be it; for the kids today, it means they can sneak in quality cartoon time whenever their parents are asleep, not just once a week.

*For those wondering, no, she is not given her druthers.

**Especially if you have TiVo

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