First off, CISPA, passed by Congress last Friday, is headed to the floor of the Senate. If you haven’t already, get in contact with your senators and send them this message:
Now back to business.
I’ve been meaning to take a crack at this issue for a while. In fact, I’ve even tried a few times to actually write a post on it- I just couldn’t quite find the words to illustrate the problem succinctly.
Then, earlier today, I came across this image [click to open up larger in a new window]:
Having just finished an episode of The Big Bang Theory is as good a time as any to write this post, which elaborates on an article I found on Macleans.ca titled “How obnoxious is too obnoxious for a TV character?” In it TV writer Jaime Weinman primarily writes about TBBT and its most popular character, Sheldon Cooper.
Weinman points out that the 12th episode of this season, “The Egg Salad Equivalency,” was actually the highest rated in the show’s history, an astonishing fact when you realize that a large chunk of it features Sheldon being extremely [albeit unknowingly] sexist and racist. I’ve embedded the primary scene in question below:
It’s pretty awful, but the fact of the matter is that Sheldon Cooper is far from being the only popular sitcom character you would actually hate to be around in real life. Two years before TBBT even aired the US version of The Office was around, and the original British version came out four years before that. Michael Scott was a huge draw for people who tuned in weekly to see how a particular Scranton paper company was doing [as well as being solely responsible for repopularizing the phrase “that’s what she said”], but was also one of the most blindly insensitive people on the planet.
Very old television spoilers ahead.
Steve Carrell’s departure at the end of Season 7 meant that someone else had to be the new boss, and in spite of my suggesting that Matthew Perry would fit the bill that role was given to Ed Helms’ Andy Bernard. While his character managed to be a fairly likeable manager earlier on, the current [9th] season has had him transform into what is essentially a terrible human being.
He’s this close to being a moustache-twirling symbol of outright villainy.
He leaves the office to sail a boat out to some island, comes back expecting everyone to have covered for his month-long absence, and then, upon having his girlfriend [understandably] break up with him for another coworker proceeds to make both their lives a living hell. Crazy-talented webcomic artist Anthony Clark tweeted it best when he said:
I hope the next episode of The Office starts w/someone reading a newspaper that says "Andy Died." Then he's never mentioned again
And speaking of Ed Helms, take as another example his companion in the Hangover films, Alan Garner. Essentially just Zack Galifianakis playing the role he always plays [see: Due Date, Dinner For Schmucks, etc.], he is, as we’ve been talking about, a person who is so obnoxious that you wonder how they continue to be alive; there are times when you want to reach through the screen and slap them in the face.
Most TV shows [that’s the end of the movie portion of this post for now] have them, too. Adventure Time has the Ice King, Community has Pierce Hawthorne, Modern Family has Manny Delgado [which you might debate, but I stand by this], and 30 Rock had the one-two punch of Tracy Jordan and Jenna Mulroney. Not only are the prevalent in television, but they also manage to become a huge draw for viewers.
Weinman ends his article by stating that “the show knows Sheldon is a jerk, but it doesn’t seem to know just how big a jerk he is.” I think it’s a fair assessment to say that all of the shows I’ve mentioned are aware that they’ve added obnoxious jerks to their casts, but the exact purpose for this is lost on someone who only had four hours of sleep last night. Sure, they can act as semi-antagonistic friends for our hero, usually the straight man, but eventually as the audience we’re forced to ask ourselves how people can bear having them around.
You could even justify it as being some sort of catharsis, rooted in schadenfreude, for whenever these character get their comeuppance, but it never happens. Sheldon will continue to be unaware of how his actions affect others, Pierce will continue to be extremely racist but get away with it due to his age, and we will continue watching them, amused, annoyed, or somewhere in between.
And now back to the subject of the night: Is there artistic merit in Adventure Time?
EVAN: Whoa. You’re gonna shameless-plug your friend and then let me discuss the topic? Say something about it, haha.
GORDON: Is there artistic merit in beloved Cartoon Network show Adventure Time? Well, let’s break down what we mean by “artistic merit.” Evan?
EVAN: Is it worthy or deserving of being called art? Alternatively, does the show have the admirable qualities or attribute that art has? I guess a question to answer your question is: What is art?
GORDON: Well, let’s not try defining “art”. We’ve been trying to do that ever since we first started scratching pictures of fat ponies onto cave walls, and I doubt we’re gonna solve it in the next half hour or so. Let’s instead focus on the “merit”- what is it that makes ANY show good?
EVAN: Here’s a factor that relates directly to Adventure Time: Accessibility. How accessible does a show have to be to be good? Does it have to be accessible to be good?
GORDON: Are we talking about mass appeal here?
EVAN: Eh, sure, why not.
GORDON: Well, we gotta address that then. I mean, Twilight and the work of Michael Bay are popular, but they aren’t good. At the same time, you can’t just have a show that only you find funny, and then still call it good, right?
EVAN: You’re right. So is there a magic number of people we have to reach when it comes to a show being good? I shudder to remember Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and how much our one friend used to love it.
GORDON: What’s worse is that my dad is into that show for some unfathomable reason. But the point is, a good thing ought to be popular to some degree, but popularity can’t be the sole element.
EVAN: Okay, so how about execution? How well the show pulls off whatever it’s supposed to be doing. Adventure Time is a show about a boy and his magical dog that is also his brother adventuring in a colourful post-apocalyptic fantasy world, but it works. They pull it off. I personally think this has a little something to do with its easy-to-digest ten minute segments.
GORDON: And there’s really no way of arguing with that- the story-telling is spot-on, but there’s gotta be more than that. The same can be said (and this is gonna give Evan an aneurysm), to some degree, of the copy-paste work of Seth McFarlane.
GORDON: What I’m saying is that McFarlane’s shows are both popular and (for what they are) well-executed, and yet we can both agree that his shows aren’t really “good,” at least, not anymore than a bag of chips is “good” food.
Therefore, there’s got to be another element at play, right?
EVAN: Ugh. I can’t even look at the chat window I’m so offended you would say something like that. I wish he would be “well-executed.” Share your other element if you must.
GORDON: Uniqueness. The show has to be unique. It’s not enough to go through the motions (as McFarlane’s shows do), you have to actually be able to make your show something that can’t be seen anywhere else.
EVAN: Something to make your stuff stand out of the crowd, okay, that’s fair. So I guess we can see how Adventure Time stands up to the criteria we’ve come up with.
Accessible? Eh, I’d say so, for its demographic and older.
Popular? Yeah, again for who I’ve stated.
You want to let these nice people know if it’s unique?
GORDON: Soooo Unique. If you can find anything remotely similar to it made in the past decade, I will slap Evan on the ears and vote for taxing the homeless.
EVAN: I mean, like I said: Boy. Magical Dog. Colourful fantasy world that is also post-apocalyptic.
EVAN: What more could you want?
GORDON: Vampire rocker girls?
EVAN: I would not mind.
GORDON: Oh wait, we’ve got that too.
You want D&D references spliced in with Science Fiction and elements of Gothic Horror?
EVAN: I think we could go for some.
GORDON: WELL WE’VE GOT IT!
EVAN: I think it’s clear that we think Adventure Time is a good show, but one thing that’s been painfully clear with this entry of E> is how much trouble it’s been doing this. Might I suggest a little something?
GORDON: Go for it.
EVAN: Let’s just choose our own topics for a little while, just to really get back into the swing of things. Keep things casual, going back and forth, avoid the heavy questions. And then we can ease our way back into all this.
GORDON: I am inclined to agree with you on this one.
EVAN: Yeah? Awesome. Anything in particular you wanted to casually discourse about next time?
GORDON: Well, I don’t think my suggestion about the Disney takeover of the Star Wars franchise was all that bad, even if Adventure Time did win by a landslide…
EVAN: I kinda wanted to talk about Deadliest Warrior.
GORDON: That would be likewise awesome. Let’s do that.
EVAN: Yes. Awesome. I’m going to post this because we are men true to our word and we promise an E> every Wednesday. We shall discuss Deadliest Warrior in a week. Or this weekend, maybe, just to get ahead. I mean, whatever.
GORDON: Good night, everyone.
EVAN: Yep, sorry this wasn’t as awesome or decent as usual. But we will be back! With a vengeance. And remember:
There’s a stark difference between what’s on children’s programming now and what there was when I was younger. I’m not here to critique the quality of the shows, because stuff like The Regular Show and The Amazing World of Gumball are really good; I’m here to comment on the content.
Cartoons used to be about kids. At the youngest end of the scale you had Rugrats, which was literally about babies. Moving up you went through Hey Arnold!, The Weekenders, all the way up to the aptly named 6teen. These were kids who went to school, who had sleepovers, who hung out with their friends. They were relatable.
The following is the opening theme from The Weekenders [1999-2004]:
This is the opening theme from Sidekick [2010-present]:
Both of these shows are, at their core, about the same thing. The difference is the gimmick present in the latter. Sidekick is about kids, sure, but it’s about kids who are training at the Academy for Aspiring Sidekicks. To contrast, The Weekenders is about kids who enjoy hanging out with each other on weekends.
That’s not to say genre-mixing in kids’ shows hasn’t been around for ages, and that I don’t enjoy them. Programs about kids who are also spies have been around since Kim Possible and Totally Spies. One of my all-time favourite shows, Fillmore!, is a shameless parody of hard-boiled police dramas, with its characters often acting more like tiny adults than children.
The fact is, I miss shows without gimmicks. When all you have to deal with is a football-headed kid and his pals, that forces you as a writer to be creative, to make the ordinary extraordinary but still relatable. Stuff can get weird, like the barbarically tribal kindergarteners in Recess, but for the most part you’re sticking to real life stuff. Honestly, being a kid is a bizarre enough experience as it is.
I love Adventure Time and its protagonist, Finn the Human. He’s a fourteen-year-old kid, and his escapades are all kinds of awesome. The thing is, I’m never going to be best friends/brothers with a magical talking dog, or date a girl who is literally on fire. I get escapism, I know why it’s important, but I also can’t feel the same way about Adventure Time as I do The Weekenders. I could have been Tino or Carver, but there’s no way I can ever be Finn.