This piece is the second in a mini-series about networks’ decisions about animation in the 2010’s so far. In part 1 (https://anibproductions.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/on-animation-channels-and-decision-making-pt-1-cartoon-network/), Cartoon Network was up to bat; while the decade has represented a sort of bounce-back and evolution for the network, it wasn’t 100% perfect…but what actually is? Today, I’ll be taking a look at one of its arch-competitors who has seen better days:
Once upon a time, Nickelodeon was undoubtedly the cutting-edge of innovation in TV animation when it came to the West. In the 90’s, the network breathlessly pumped out hits, from Ren and Stimpy to The Wild Thornberrys and Rugrats, and it continued that run of success into the early 2000’s with a nascent star show that had emerged: SpongeBob SquarePants. I’ve been convinced for a while now that Nick on the whole became drunk with its success, and since around 2005 (the Avatar shows non-withstanding) there’s been a rather steep deterioration in the quality and types of animation on the network, which brings us to present day at the time of this writing- early 2017, where the studio that made “sliming” kids cool actually came up with their first legitimate hit in a while, The Loud House. While there’s a great deal to discuss about Nickelodeon in general, there’s going to be a strong effort to keep this analysis just to 2010 and beyond, though external factors might be needed for further context.
At the turn of the decade, every animation outfit was still recovering from the 2008 recession, and an end of the period that had very few bright spots. Avatar: The Last Airbender had ended back in 2008, and Nickelodeon, unlike its brethren at Cartoon Network and the House of Mouse, decided to continue doubling down on old franchises that had served it very well. While this meant The Fairly Odd Parents and longtime animator Butch Hartman on one hand, it really meant the network’s own Mickey Mouse franchise- of course meaning SpongeBob. The show about an anthropomorphic sponge and his pals living in the fictional town of Bikini Bottom had grown from a mega-hit show, to a movie, and after the network decided it couldn’t live with it ending, into a massively bankable franchise with merchandise, advertising and the whole nine yards. Nickelodeon had become synonymous with the sponge, and while it had raked in massive profits, the show itself was starting to age quite badly as the 2010’s got underway. The original quality of writing and humor the show adhered to under its “classic” seasons with Derek Drymon at the helm had given way to a show that had cheapened its characters, wrote wholly contrived and repeating plots; and while the animation had improved dramatically as a result of getting a budget consummate with a triple-A show, underneath the shiny exterior lay the core product rotting even as money rolled in. This has become a recurrent theme for the network in recent years- shiny exterior, bad internals.
While SpongeBob continued to serve as both the network’s main driver and spokesperson, the quality of newer shows coming on air was by and large forgettable. While I’m planning to review these “dime a dozen” Nicktoons, I already did showcase one- the highly forgettable Fanboy and Chum Chum, and while that show technically got its start in 2009, the majority of its run was in this era, so it counts as an example. It wasn’t the only show that showed the newer group of executives at the studio had lost touch with what had made the network great (and how to spot good animation in general); there was everything from Planet Sheen, a ghastly spin-off of the moderately successful Jimmy Neutron series from the early 2000’s; Sanjay and Craig, which was styled to look like Bob’s Burgers without any of the charm and a lot of toilet humor, and T.U.F.F. Puppy, which while not nearly as bad as some of the other entries here, failed to capture the following of Butch Hartman’s previous shows- the aforementioned Fairly Odd Parents, or his magnum opus– Danny Phantom.
So what was the good news in the maelstrom of awfulness I portrayed? The Legend of Korra. Appearing in 2012 as a compelling re-entry into the Avatar universe, it was initially meant to be a one-shot show (which I cover in my review for TLOK.) Without repeating said review verbatim here, the way Nickelodeon treated the show during its run was utterly baffling. While a variety of other shows (from the brief list above) got a ton of leeway, Korra had very bad treatment for a top-rated, best performing, critical success type of show. In an era where Nick had become irrelevant mostly for viewers looking for innovation, Korra got people through the doors; its storytelling, while not perfect, was still leagues ahead of the juvenile plots other Nicktoon featured, and the animation was top notch. So what did Nick do? Took it off the air in season 2 for online viewing only, and cut its budget. Ultimately Korra wound up having success despite self-created obstacles from the network; I’d advise reading the review for more on the show proper.
Fast forward to now, and The Loud House has been a shot in the arm to a network that was largely anemic and uninteresting in the year following Korra’s conclusion. The TMNT show the network has had is the only other show really worth mentioning as “good” through the period; while I can’t lay claim to having really watched it yet, reports are that it’s rather faithful to the franchise and the best iteration of the turtles in a while (and I’d hope so, considering the awful cash-grab movies of recent years.). It’s been my opinion for a while that Nick needs to part ways with its two oldest franchises- FOP and SpongeBob– and set them out to pasture so a new way forward can continue to be forged. Their rivals a long time ago made the move to develop entirely new generations of shows; these two are relics of about 3 generations of animation ago at least and stopped being truly relevant or innovative for quite a while. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating a long-running show, but when they’re the type that are essentially repeating plots at this point and adding extraneous characters with no actual value, it’s time to finally end the charade. I’ll end by saying that I definitely want the network to succeed, but in order to do so, it’ll have to continue rediscovering its roots as an innovator and realize quality will win the day in a increasingly competitive marketplace; one where online threats have emerged in addition to long time competitors on the airwaves.
Like what you see? Have a favorite Nicktoon from over the years? Chime in on the comments!