Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I Was A Teenage Nerd: High Adventure That's Beyond Compare

It is an incontrovertible scientific fact that the greatest era of weekday afternoon television is the fall of 1987 through the spring of 1992. I can prove this on an Etch-A-Sketch. If you need a reason why my generation doesn’t like to go outside, look no further. Outside? Cartoons are on! I don’t know how the other timeslots handled it, but starting at 3 PM Central, every red-blooded American latchkey kid, myself included, had an appointment with Michael Eisner. An eviler corporate scumfuck there has never been, but dammit, he filled up my afternoons.

The Golden Age began, as many things do, with a duck. Specifically, Scrooge McDuck, the miserly uncle to Donald, whose adventures as chronicled by Carl Barks in the Dell/Gold Key comics of the 1950s served as the basis for DuckTales, the first component of the Greatest Syndicated Programming Block Ever, the Disney Afternoon.* Ducktales is, quite simply, one of the best cartoons ever produced in America. Capturing the wry, sometimes absurdist humor of Barks’s stories, and melding it with entry-level drama and adventure, produced a bonafide hit. Many episodes are, of course, taken almost word-for-word from Barks canon, with the only alteration being the stand-in of ace crash-pilot Launchpad McQuack (or, in later seasons, accountant/superhero Fenton Crackshell, aka Gizmoduck), the alteration of the Terrible Beagle Boys from indistinguished ciphers to more animated personalities, and a few new characters (most prominent being Webby, a girl companion to the three nephews with some unspecified connection to Scrooge’s maid, Mrs. Beasley).

The secret of the series’ success, and that of those that followed, was in the “anything-can-happen” pulp feel of the stories. As the theme song went, the heroes “might solve a mystery or rewrite history;” you literally didn’t know what would happen next. This was especially true of the multi-parters, which could (and often did) span from the nooks and crannies of Duckburg to the bottom of the ocean to an ancient ruin in the heart of the Amazon jungle. For a kid’s imagination, this was the mother lode, a world where adventure and exotica lay around every corner, where anyone might stumble upon a lost civilization, an alien invasion, or a magical artifact in the course of their ordinary day. It was like taking a map and scribbling “Here There Be Dragons” over every square inch. Race cars, lasers, aeorplanes? Just the tip of the iceberg. Heck, one episode even brought in Mickey Mouse’s old Gottfredsonian nemesis, the Phantom Blot.

Now, I’m not looking at this through rose-colored glasses; even back then, I knew the stories were simplistic, formulaic, and overly moralistic. I just didn’t care. There were talking ducks outrunning dinosaurs in a jet-prop plane on my TV. I needed nothing more. And even today, the episodes hold up as stellar kidvid, packed with character, plot, action, and humor, that neither talks down to nor shoots above its audience.

DuckTales was just the beginning, though, the first installment of an eventual tetrad of shows that, when they ran back-to-back in the fall-spring 1991-92 season, represented the pinnacle of kidvid programming. Following the model that had given them such success with DuckTales, Disney brought back two old standbys, Chip and Dale, in Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers, an action/detective series that was equal parts Dashiell Hammet and Chuck Jones. Joined by Mousy inventor Gadget, brawny cheese-addict Monterey Jack, and the peppy fly Zipper, the roguish rodents investigated unusual crimes that fell off the radar of the human authorities, like the disappearance of a neighborhood’s stray cats, or the sudden inability of birds to navigate their annual migrations. These often led to encounters either with animal-level organized crime or some of the most bizarre mad science I’ve ever seen. (Power a death ray with static electricity? Sure, why not?) The show succeeded by playing up the personalities and interactions in the group, and by knowing just when to get silly (anytime Dale was on screen). Again, it was simple stuff, but so well-executed that you couldn’t help but love it. The theme song goes down in history as one of the most ‘80s things ever.

The third show, Tale Spin, was a creative anomaly: the “Jungle Book” characters Baloo, Shere Khan, and Louie the Ape were taken out of their usual milieu and transplanted into a 30s-era pulp world that seemed to be an amalgamation of every fantasized story element that ever hit the pages of Analog or Argosy. Here was a tropical shipping center, Cape Suzette, where the entire economy revolved in some way around air travel or transport; which was continually menaced by a band of sky pirates flying single-engine prop-fighters out of an airship that made the SHIELD Helicarrier look like a Ford Model T in comparison; where there lived a little girl who put a colander on her head and pretended to be radio heroine Danger Woman, and a teenaged boy who sky-surfed off from the back of a twin-prop seaplane on a collapsible metal crescent he carried beneath his shirt; where giant squids prowled the skyscrapers in search of mint chocolate chip ice cream. The world was as carefully built as anything Barks ever did, with Baloo and his cohorts (and fire-breathing boss, Sally Struthers in the only role where she’s ever been bearable) at Higher for Higher often caught up in corporate warfare, international espionage, invasion attempts, or just another one of Baloo’s hair-brained schemes (although these ranged across the board, and could take the story to places as varied as a Soviet prison camp or a Doyle-ian lost world, filled with the requisite dinosaurs).

And then there was Darkwing Duck. A spinoff of DuckTales (Launchpad was DW’s sidekick), a lampoon of superheroes but also a semi-serious attempt at them, it was almost too many things to work. But work it did, largely due to the voice work of Jim Cummings, who, after years of supporting and ensemble roles in show after show, finally got a lead role to play with. Cummings is perhaps one of the three best voice actors of his generation (or rather, of mine, the group of kids watching cartoons from roughly 1984-1994, for whom the DA was less a programming block and more a sacrament), Cummings let loose with the egotistical, sardonic Darkwing, performing pratfalls, one-liners, and the ubiquitous “I am the terror that flaps in the night” catchphrase with hilarious aplomb. Darkwing was, in retrospect, a perfect fit for the DA, a ready-made action-adventure genre that allowed the writers a whole host of tropes and plots to play with. The other series had flirted with special superhero episodes, but never had the opportunity to delve extendedly into secret identities, or rogues’ galleries, or the necessity of rip-proof capes in the modern crimefighter’s wardrobe. As a budding superhero nerd, I fell in love with the series almost instantly, and I credit it with creating and sustaining my sense of wonder and goofy awe at the concept, the awareness and acceptance of how silly the spandex crowd is, and the ultimate decision not to care.

The year after these four shows ran back-to-back, I was beside myself with anticipation. What would come next? As it turned out, the answer was “the inevitable decline of the concept.” Fall 1992’s entry, Goof Troop, was, while not an abomination, a definite abandonment of the paradigm that had been so successful before. Perhaps the well had run dry, but still… Well, no use second guessing decade-old decisions. What we’re sure of are the results: GT was a pedestrian sitcom in animated form, unremarkable in pretty much every aspect. I remember sitting through the pilot, wondering when they were going to find a treasure map or something, and realizing about halfway through the final act that they weren’t. It was utterly ordinary, the worst possible sin in kidvid. The Golden Age was over.

What followed was a string of mostly unremarkable** failures: Bonkers, a rehashing of the Roger Rabbit concept without the mix of animation and live-action that made the original work in the first place; Timon and Pumbaa, a Lion King tie-in show that dropped the episode-length format in favor of excruciatingly bad shorts; Marsupilami, which I must have just blocked out; and others. At the same time, my interests and schedule shifted, and I left the world of regular kidvid behind.

But, you may be saying, what’s the point of this trip down memory lane? Why is it important beyond nostalgia value. Well, for me at least, the classic DA block was my introduction to serial storytelling. I didn’t yet know terms like “series bible” or “model sheet” or “genre,” but I could outline them in my precocious-elementary-school vocabulary by using these shows as an example. As the episodes repeated, I learned to do more than receive whatever the TV bestowed upon me, to think about what I was seeing. I took my first look under the surface of story, trying to puzzle out the process by peeking through the seams in the final product. (I also learned about mixed metaphors.) I got my first glimpses into the use of character, irony, setting, and theme to enhance a story, make it something worth telling. And I had the first inclination of the step towards writing as a career, the intuition that the germination point of every story is a moment inside someone’s head that goes, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…”

For a generation of kids, those shows were the apotheosis of entertainment. They were that for me, too, but they were also inspiration, the first signpost towards a path in life, the beginning of the beginning. And, as I dutifully sat down each and every afternoon to catch the latest episode, I took yet another step towards irrevocable nerddom.

*It should be noted that, the previous year, Disney had syndicated solo the proto-DA series Gummi Bears, whose theme-song promise of “high adventure that’s beyond compare” became the Afternoon’s watchword. However, it was not until the addition of DuckTales that Disney had both a genuine programming block and a bonafide hit, so I begin my chronicle there.

**There were two superlative additions that somehow slipped through, both from 1994: Gargoyles, a series so great it deserves its own entry (and will get one, eventually), and Aladdin, an appropriately mythic extension of the film that worked largely on the same world-creation principles as Tale Spin, building the milieu into a mythological hodgepodge to rival anything as yet developed by Wizards of the Coast. The entire film cast put in appearances, except for Dan “Homer Simpson” Castellaneta’s more than admirable substitution for Robin Williams in the role of the Genie.

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