Friday, June 15, 2012

The Good, The Bad, The Unforgivably Canadian: Notes on Contemporary Cartoons

“You’ll need this!” read the felt pen letters scrawled, next to a thumbprint in what could have been blood, but was more likely marinara sauce, on a manila envelope someone had slipped beneath the door of my secret backyard writing dojo.  I was puzzled for a moment, but when I tore the envelope open, half afraid of what I might find, I saw immediately that there was no cause for fear.  It was a manuscript from my long-lost former colleague, Raskolnikov P. Firefly, last seen fleeing the greater Chicago metropolitan area in the wake of the double scandal wrought by his radical analysis of the sociology of the rich idiots of the North Shore and his dissertation on the fashion sins of academics.

What I needed, apparently, was Rasko’s guide to toddler television.  There’s something to this.  Since the birth of my daughter some three years ago I’ve been immersed in (no, bombarded by) all manner of cartoons, puppet shows, and costumed storytelling on cable, Netflix, Youtube, and other tentacles of the great gelatinous octopus that is the culture industry under American capitalism.  But Minerva’s owl flies at midnight, people — wisdom comes too late!  Rasko’s report, typed out on an Olivetti portable with a missing ‘n’ key, dusted with the ashes of his unfiltered Winstons, would have done me good years ago, when I was first dragged, kicking and spitting, into the world of kindertainment.  It would have saved me countless hours of exposure to saccharine sanctimony and high-minded mind-numbery.  It’s too late for me now, but please, those of you with newborns or with munchkins imminent— heed his words.  Heed his words and save yourselves!

The manuscript, titled “The Morphological and Ideological Dimensions of Contemporary Cartoon Discourse, with an Additional Inquiry Into Live Action Children’s Television: What is Good, What is Evil, and What is Unforgivably Canadian.”  I will omit his methodological introduction, exculpatory preface, and the little sketches (often obscene) he’s doodled in the margins, and offer only the conclusions of his five main chapters.  They follow forthwith.  I have compensated for the missing 'n' key, and added my marginal annotations in brackets.

Chapter One: Concerning Undersea Adventure

The Good: Octonauts

So there’s this octopus bookworm who lives in an octopus shaped undersea ship/base (not unlike that of James Bond’s nemesis Dr. No, though sadly the show lacks any cartoon equivalent of the young Ursula Andress rising like a white-bikined Venus from the sea).  The octopus has a kind of Professor X function as advisor to a group consisting of a polar bear, a penguin, a one-eyed cat, a rabbit, and some kind of anthropomorphized carrots or something.  The polar bear sounds like Matt Berry, which makes up for a lot (such as the fact that the bear is the same size as the penguin).  They travel the seas saving creatures, and the show ends with a “creature report” where we’re told all about the creature in question, which is generally a sea slug or a deep sea tarantula or some other disgusting oddity about which you will be unable to answer your child’s questions without resorting to Wikipedia.  Which means you’ll have to learn something new for a change, you complacent Cheeto eating bastard.  [Rasko has underlined this passage twice, adding “THIS MEANS YOU ARCHAMBEAU” in what I hope is red ink.  Next to this note is, the first of his obscene doodles, an inexplicable vulgarity indicating advanced male fertility].

The Evil: Bubble Guppies

The premise here is that these little mermaid-mermen kids float around having adventures or something undersea.  But it’s not undersea.  Or rather, it is undersea, in that their teacher at school is a fish and they meet whales and whatnot, but EVERYTHING LOOKS JUST LIKE IT WOULD IF IT WERE ON LAND.  That is: even though they float like they’re under water, there is both land and sea, and there are cars and ships and airplanes, and when they play basketball the laws of physics that obtain above water are in effect.  WHY DID THEY PUT THIS UNDERWATER?  WHY DID THEY FEEL THE NEED TO MAKE THESE KIDS INTO MERKIDS AND HAVE THEM FLOAT AND HAVE TAILS?  WHY DID NO ONE STOP THE PRODUCERS FROM PRODUCING THIS ABOMINATION WITH ITS DEFIANCE OF THE LAWS OF GOD AND MAN?  WHAT CAN BE DONE NOW? AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE WHAT FOREGIVENESS? [These last lines have been typed with such fury that one can feel the indent of the letters on the page.  And one must ask: is that a tear stain in the margin?]

Chapter Two: Representing Cultural Diversity

The Good: Dora the Explorer

So you want your daughter to grow up as a fully actualized human being, rather than one of those self-objectifying hootchie princess types, batting her eyes and waiting for some guy to whisk her away to an expensive piece of real estate somewhere?  [Do not judge Rasko for his bitterness: not until you’ve met his first two ex-wives.]  What’s not to love about Dora?  She’s independent, caring, capable, analytic, she’s good at Spanish and orienteering, she’s got a pet monkey, and she can dance.  You wanted something else in a role model?

The Evil: Little Bill

Fuck Bill Cosby.  I mean, he was great.  He was funny (like, back in the seventies).  He invented the show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, from which I, in my childhood, learned that you could hang out in a dump, make saxophones out of old vacuum cleaners, and play a game called buk-buk where the heft of the big man counted as an insurmountable advantage.  But now he’s produced this sanctimonious pile of authoritarian moralizing goo.  And even though it depicts a flourishing middle class African-American family, with a jazz aficionado father and a kindly matriarch, there’s a strange way in which it does a disservice to its audience.  Whereas Dora the Explorer is an independent operator, empowering herself through her ability to break tasks down into parts (those maps always have three challenges that she needs to memorize and solve: “troll bridge… forest… yellow mountain!” etc.), Little Bill is never encouraged to act on his own.  He waits for Wisdom to be Dispensed from Above.  Grandma knows best (and her Attila-like power is right there in her name “Alice the Great”).  This is no way to show kids how to operate.  This is a way to produce servile milquetoasts.  I condemn Cosby for betraying the glory of his early career.  There’s a special vestibule in hell for people like that, and it has a television that only shows Little Bill.

Chapter Three: Canadian Anthropomorphizing Animal Shows

The Evil: Franklin

This is a show about a sniveling wretch of a turtle, and it is at least as stifling of autonomy as is Little Bill.  Here’s the format: Franklin does something.  But it was bad and wrong to do something.  So he apologizes to his parents, gets a lecture, and is reduced to conformity.  The National Film Board of Canada considers this demeaned and dependent state a thing to celebrate.  For this they will join Bill Cosby in hell.

Also Evil: The Berenstain Bears

The art is so ugly I can’t make myself watch it.  Another Canadian letdown!  Get it together up there, people — make me proud to be from Winnipeg!

Chapter Four: Live Action Shows

The Good: Yo Gabba Gabba

This is the best thing on television, and I mean television overall, not just kid’s television.  You’ve got a DJ in an orange jumpsuit and a psychedelic fake-fur version of the hats worn by the guards at Buckingham palace.  And he carries around a magic boom box in which he keeps the de-animated bodies of four mutants and a robot, who come alive in their own private universe.  While teaching valuable lessons such as “don’t bite your friends” they meet guests like Questlove, Jack Black, Andy Samberg, Rachel Dratsch, and (I repeat because I cannot emphasize this enough) Questlove.  When Timothy Leary instructed us to “tune in, turn on, drop out” I’m pretty sure this is what he wanted us to turn on.  [The video clip at the top of this post comes from Yo Gabba Gabba.]

The Evil: The Fresh Beat Band

Okay, first of all, I object to the fact that everybody is reasonable and cool except the white male, who is an impractical doofus.  I know we white guys are the dominant group and everything, and that that’s not right, but can we lay off kicking the whole demographic around at the outset of one’s television viewing life?  Also, the show, which purports to be about music, serves up a steaming soup bowl of suck chowder, musically speaking.  It’s the worst sort of sub-bubblegum pop, and could lead your child to commit such future atrocities as downloading Katy Perry songs.  It’s a huge underestimation of the musical sophistication of the under-four set.  I mean, Yo Gabba Gabba has had The Roots on, and the equally splendid puppet show Jack’s Big Music Show (omitted from the present study due to lack of research funds) has had whistling freak-folker Andrew Bird, Afropop genius Angélique Kidjo, and Chicago Blues immortal Buddy Guy.  In a just world, the producers of The Fresh Beat Band would be forced to wander from city to city clad in burlap sacks and covered in birdshit, whacking themselves on the head with boards as a sign of penance for what they’ve done to the musical taste of America’s once-proud future.  [Rasko’s marginal sketch here, depicts the members of the Fresh Beat Band with their musical instruments being put to the most unsavory and unmentionable purposes.  Sometimes I worry about a guy who could even dream this stuff up.]

I’d love to summarize Rasko’s scene-by-scene statistical analysis of the various shows, but he’s scribbled angry obscenities over most of the charts, and it’s almost time for Dora,  so — vamanos!