Wednesday, December 19, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (12/19/2012): Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Kaijudo, Dan Vs., Tron: Uprising and Motorcity

'Aw, are you feeling oogie?'
And then Elise tore off her clothes and reenacted Sandra Bernhard's crazy monologue from The King of Comedy.
Every Wednesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired. There will be no new column next week due to Christmas. Instead, five previous reviews of the best non-Adult Swim cable cartoon episodes I saw between May and December 2012 will be reposted on December 26.

Back in September, I caught most of the series premiere of Nickelodeon's CG-animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This reboot of the '80s indie comic-turned-cartoon is noteworthy for bringing back to the franchise '80s and '90s TMNT voice actor Rob Paulsen, who, when TMNT exploded as a merchandising phenomenon, was four years away from getting the chance to work with better and funnier animated material as the voices of Yakko, Pinky and Dr. Scratchansniff on Animaniacs (but on this new TMNT, Paulsen voices Donatello instead of his old role of Raphael). I might have liked this TMNT reboot if I were 12, but because I'm not 12, eh, it's not so appealing to me. The only other TMNT episode I've caught is "It Came from the Depths," the latest installment.

'My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts.'
(Photo source: TMNTPedia)
Sure, the animation is much more fluid during this CG version and the theme song is 2000s-style lite-rap instead of very '80s lite-rock (little-known fact: the '80s theme, which the new theme lifts its chorus from, was co-written by a then-unknown, pre-Dharma & Greg/Two and a Half Men Chuck Lorre), but otherwise, the Ninja Turtles aren't much different from the Ninja Turtles I first saw (and tolerated) as a kid. They still fight like Japanese swordsmen and talk like white dudes. They're still obsessed with pizza, a joke that wasn't funny in 1988 and still isn't funny in 2012.

However, there's one genuinely funny gag during "It Came from the Depths," and it has nothing to do with the episode's boring plot, which reintroduces mutant alligator Leatherhead, a Killer Croc-ish character from the old show. Ninja Turtles leader Leonardo (Jason Biggs) is a fan of Space Heroes, a popular sci-fi cartoon that's a mash-up of Filmation's barely animated version of Star Trek from the '70s--a show I first caught on Nickelodeon!--and Hanna-Barbera's Sealab 2020. The cel-animated clip of Space Heroes is a great animation industry in-joke from episode director Juan Meza-Leon about how stiff and crappy the animation looked on the Trek cartoon. The Space Heroes clip even resembles an actual episode of the Trek cartoon, "More Tribbles, More Troubles" (but here, the Tribbles make honking noises instead of purring sounds and are called "Trumpets"). They even nailed the Trek cartoon's strange, Ingmar Bergman-esque two-shots of Kirk and Spock! That was one of Filmation's famously lazy-ass ways of restricting the animation to just mouth and eyebrow movements.

How can you tell the captain on Space Heroes is lying? His lips barely move.
(Photo source: TMNTPedia)
Aside from that terrific little spoof of the Trek cartoon, Nick's TMNT isn't a show I'll be revisiting. The controversy surrounding Biggs' involvement in the show is more interesting than the show itself. The American Pie star has an off-color and not-exactly-Nick-audience-friendly Twitter account where he tweets racist jokes about Indian American spelling bee contestants and raunchy ones about Ann Romney and Paul Ryan's wife (what else would you expect from a guy who became famous for sticking his dick in a pie?). During the week of the Republican National Convention, Fox News anchor and pepper spray expert Megyn Kelly reacted to Biggs' tweets about the Romney and Ryan wives by yelling, "Off with his head!" Nick ended up apologizing for Biggs' RNC tweets and "our mistake to link from our Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles twitter feed to Jason's personal twitter account" and yadda yadda. So Nick apologizes when the GOP whines about Biggs' anti-Republican jokes, but the channel's silent about the racist jokes he cracked a couple of months before about Indian kids? Ninja please.


As someone who got involved in writing a few pieces of Asian American fiction (one published, the others either unpublished, unfinished or read by barely anybody) to help take away the power of the Jason Biggses of the world, I think it's kind of sad that the only current action show with an Asian American lead as the main hero is a kids' cartoon where he's voiced by Scott Wolf and the heroes cheesily shout aloud reverbed I-have-the-power incantations like "Tatsurion the Unchained!" and "Scaradorable of Gloom Hollow!," a kids' show-ism that usually makes me fumble for my remote. I initially didn't think I'd be able to withstand the TV-Y7-rated Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters, but in spite of its kids' show-isms and occasionally clunky dialogue, the Hasbro Studios cartoon has grown on me. The fact that it's rather nicely animated by the Korean studio MOI instead of poorly animated like the '80s versions of G.I. Joe and Transformers sort of helps, along with little touches like the attention to Ray's biracial background, the lead duo's names of Bob and Ray (c'mon, man, that's gotta be a shout-out to Chris Elliott's dad and his late comedy partner!) and Bob's words to Ray when he wishes him luck in part 2 of "The Rising," the first-season finale.

"Don't forget: bob and weave," says Bob, a.k.a. Tatsurion, to Ray in a rousing callback to the battle instruction from Ray that was misunderstood so badly by Tatsurion in the series premiere that it wound up becoming his nickname.

Ray doesn't kill his cruel nemesis the Choten like I wanted him to, but with the help of the other Duel Masters, their kaiju sidekicks, a resurrected Sasha (Kari Wahlgren) and even his newly-outed-as-a-Duelist mom, Ray's able to foil the Choten's season-long plan to open the Veil that the Order of the Duel Masters keeps sealed in order to protect Earth from the creature realm. Alakshmi (Grey DeLisle), the Shane Vendrell of Kaijudo, continues to get screwed over, even after finally wising up about her evil boss and deciding to help Gabe thwart him. She's rewarded for her moment of clarity by winding up a prisoner in the Fire Civilization, where the Fire God excites a coliseum full of bloodthirsty Fire Civilization creatures by declaring war on Earth.

'Stop looking like an overdressed pimp or I won't put down this sword!'
In another set-up for season 2, the Choten, now trapped in the creature realm with his henchmen and his new ally Nigel Brightmore, hatches another plan: to conquer the realm from the other side of the Veil. Meanwhile, the Order chooses the no-longer-inept Gabe as the new Light Civilization Master to replace the traitorous Nigel, and Ray must deal with losing his dad Ken again, but he's unaware that Ken is alive and was rescued by Water Civilization creatures. Also, Masters Chavez (Freddy Rodriguez) and Nadia (also DeLisle) stop playing timid and finally express their feelings for each other (as do Ray and Allie, but less overtly) to cap off a season-long romantic subplot that consisted of nothing but very minimal dialogue and strange electricity between Chavez and Nadia whenever the Choten's attacks forced them to be huddled together in tight corners.

Of course, nobody watches Kaijudo to see these humans make out. We tune in mainly to see kaiju wreak havoc on each other, and "The Rising, Part 2" delivers plenty of kaiju rampaging on each other (and emerging from the opened Veil to attack Earth during some of my favorite epic shots of the series), although Guillermo del Toro's robots-vs.-kaiju epic Pacific Rim, which hasn't been released yet but has just dropped an amazing-looking trailer, is already making Kaijudo look like a bunch of rough notebook doodles.


And now we know that Dan doesn't prefer thongs. I always thought the reason why he's so angry all the time is because he's wearing a thong.
I hated high school so much that I always omit the high school I attended from my bios on social networks, and I'll never even bother to drop a shout-out to that school if I'm asked about those years in any future interviews where I have to plug something I wrote or produced. I like to think of those four years as a gig on a lame teen soap that continues to haunt my acting résumé. I attended one high school reunion several years ago, but by the end of that boring and mostly awkward reunion, I said to myself, "Eh, reunions aren't my kind of thing. I don't like looking back at the past. I won't be back for the next one."

Dan Vs.' high school reunion episode doesn't quite nail the boring part of high school reunions, but it gets plenty right about the awkwardness of them and the amnesia that befalls the attendees. Dan's best friend Chris, who likes to go on and on about his popularity in high school and his propensity for snagging awards and ribbons for academic and athletic achievements, can barely get anyone at his reunion to remember him.

Meanwhile, Dan, who wasn't invited to the reunion, tries to crash the party (while Elise uses her espionage skills--and wedgie skills--to attempt to prevent Dan from ruining her husband's big night). But Dan's vengeful schemes to sabotage the reunion with scorpion infestations and old volcano science project lava end up entertaining his classmates instead of upsetting them. It turns out that Dan was the class prankster, and his brand of mischief was more popular and beloved on campus than Chris' half-Max Fischer/half-Tracy Flick thing. Oh yeah, and Dan actually was invited to the reunion, but the invitation got lost in the mail--haven't his classmates heard of Evite?--because Dan's had to change addresses so much (landlords keep evicting him because he's such an uncooperative tenant).

'So I guess this means I don't get a kiss from any of you fine-ass ladies like Tobey Maguire did in Spider-Man?'
The appearance in the writing credits of the name of Melody Fox, who wrote last season's highlight "Dan vs. Gigundo-Mart," was a sign that "Dan vs. the High School Reunion" was going to be as entertaining as Dan's pranks, and it's filled with great lines like Dan's snarky reaction to the wack dancing in the gym where the reunion is held ("I have better moves than that when I'm tasered"). Perhaps an even bigger surprise than the role reversal of Dan the angry loner basking in all the cheers he receives for his BMOC days and Chris the relaxed and happily married suburbanite regressing to the angry loner he used to be is The Hub's decision to broadcast an episode about an attack inside a school (although it's a comedic one where harmless lava is the weapon) the day after the Sandy Hook massacre.

It's funny to see a kids' network be gutsier than either Syfy, which yanked a Haven episode about school violence (while Showtime proceeded with its massacre-related Homeland season finale but added a disclaimer to reassure viewers who are still upset about the Newtown tragedy), or Fox, which yanked American Dad's new Christmas episode because it didn't want to be labeled insensitive for airing a story of a demon who punishes naughty kids so soon after Newtown. Only a moron would associate a magic-wielding demon with Newtown. What's next? ABC Family pulls Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory because kids get punished in that story too? Do viewers need to be condescended to like this? Hey, non-premium channels, a lot of us are able to distinguish between fiction and reality, alright?


During "The Stranger," a psychedelic-looking, 2001: A Space Odyssey stargate sequence-referencing installment of Tron: Uprising, the series answers the questions "What's the deal with this Cyrus cat who helped Tron escape from Dyson?" and "What is this past mistake of Tron's that Able keeps hassling Tron about?" It turns out that this past mistake is Cyrus (Aaron Paul, sounding not at all like Jesse Pinkman), the original Renegade and Tron's first protégé, until he went mad and was exiled to the caverns beneath the Outlands, where he remained a dirty little secret that Tron kept from Beck before his re-emergence in "The Stranger."

While handling an errand for Able, Beck gets lost in the Outlands and is abducted by Cyrus, whose appearance in "The Stranger" shoots down my theory that Beck is a repurposed Cyrus. The stranger can walk on walls--the first of several great surreal touches in this trippy episode--and is rocking facial markings that resemble a Mike Tyson-style (or if you're extremely nerdy, Romulan miner-style) facial tattoo. He pretends to be benevolent and tries to persuade Beck to join him in "freeing every living program" in The Grid.

'Where are you, bitch?'
But when Beck catches on to Cyrus' Ra's Al Ghul-style plot to detonate an EMP to wipe out The Grid, Cyrus imprisons Beck, forces him to participate in triggering the bomb he constructed and intones that "you and I are more alike than you know," which implies that Beck is a clone of Cyrus but is devoid of evil behavior (the fact that their names are a reference to the Cyrus-Beck line clipping algorithm had been a huge tipoff about Beck's lineage). Luckily, unlike too many action cartoons, Tron: Uprising refuses to over-explain things (the show's gradual approach to world-building is something creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz brought over from their work on Lost and Once Upon a Time), and attempting to figure out the mysterious backstories of Tron, Beck and now Cyrus is among the most enjoyable aspects of watching Tron: Uprising. "The Stranger" clears up a couple of theories I had about Beck's origin, while leaving unresolved another theory of mine: Tron and Able must have created Beck to replace Cyrus as the Renegade and gave him the identity of a garage mechanic program who works for Able. In other words, Beck is what the late Robin Harris used to refer to as a "test-tube baby."


It's a robot's idea of a four-drink minimum.
(Photo source: People of MotorCity)
"The Robo-Roundup," the latest clever Motorcity episode, implies that in the future, robots will usurp dogs and cats as the world's favorite pets. We've never seen dogs and cats run around either Motorcity or affluent Detroit Deluxe--not even Claire, the type of well-off chick who'd have a chihuahua by her side, has been seen with a rat dog--so I'm assuming dogs and cats have become extinct like in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. It's no surprise that almost everyone in the future that the show depicts has fallen head over heels for non-Kanebot robots: they're more intelligent and empathetic than dogs and cats. The Burners' squeaky, non-verbal robot assistant Roth, whom series creator Chris Prynoski named after legendary car customizer Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, understands his creator Dutch's commands better than a canine would, and he's able to cheer up Julie when she's down and comfort Jacob during his night terrors, something a cat would never be capable of doing.

But there are still people who don't view robots as intelligent beings worthy of respect and were never affected by Star Trek: The Next Generation's famous "Measure of a Man" episode. One of those lone holdouts is Texas, the only Burner who thinks of Roth as nothing more than a bucket of bolts that can sometimes double as furniture (like with Julie, Texas can't even get Roth's name right and amusingly keeps calling him "Ralf"). So when Texas loses a wager he made about his outcome at the end of one of the Mama's Boy gang's "Robo Rodeo Roundups" at their arena, he doesn't take the other Burners' feelings about Roth into consideration and carelessly hands over their robot buddy to the Mama's Boys to pay off his debt, which breaks the other Burners' hearts and causes them to launch a rescue mission to retrieve Roth.

'Henry Cho, eat your heart out. There's a new Asian sheriff in town, and his name is Texas.'
(Photo source: Heading Back to Bass...)
You can tell Motorcity has lots of Asian Americans on its staff (speaking of which, "The Robo-Roundup" was directed by veteran Titmouse animator Juno Lee, one of several staffers who cameoed as a group of Asian gamers during a Megas XLR arcade scene) because they've given Texas, who's Asian American, a gambling problem. That's something lots of us Asian Americans are familiar with (by the way, gambling's not my thing, but I've known a few relatives who are into it). Motorcity is that rare show that understands Asian Americans better than most, so of course, it's a show that's not long for this world.

Where's Goat?
A cameo-filled scene from Megas XLR

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