Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone! From four leaf clovers to corned beef, or beer, it’s a big deal in Buffalo, NY at least. As a quick aside, who else liked the Kids Choice Awards rigging it for SpongeBob yet again last weekend? 14 wins in 15 years…something’s rotten and it’s not just the fish or the network…it’s the show. Nobody beyond the age of 12 conceivably believes these judgements are reached fair and impartially; take one look through the list of “winners” and there’s a common thread that Viacom properties almost unanimously sweep the awards where they are nominated…and considering the mediocre at best quality of many of these productions, including the aforementioned sponge, it’s not that hard to figure out. It also indicates to this writer at least that Nickelodeon’s not quite ready to “give up the ghost,” so to speak, on their longest running property. Oh well…I think today’s subject ties into this issue quite nicely!
Whether or not you’ve been reading this blog regularly, I thought the holiday would provide a nice case to talk about the luckiest of shows- the ones that have become mainstays of culture due to their longevity and perceived quality. You know them- SpongeBob Squarepants, The Simpsons, South Park, even something like The Fairly Odd Parents– which have been around for well over a decade and in many cases, are headed for 20 years of new episodes if they haven’t already reached it. So that begs the question- they must still be doing something right? Well yes…and no. On one level, the entire reasons these shows still run is that they’ve become the impermeable faces of their respective networks, and from a merchandising/franchising standpoint, this trait is invaluable. They’ve become “trusted brands” of sorts, a rarefied air for an animated show to reach considering the average life span probably clocks in around a year to two. The other reason is that hand-in- hand with the first reason, they make gobs of money for their network still- but is there a point of diminishing returns? That’s what we’re going to take a look at today.
While these shows have been highly successful endeavors on many levels, longevity can eventually breed laziness, the quality of the production can slip, and to borrow a fitting term, the shows can “lose the plot” of what they originally meant to do. The Fairly Odd Parents is a pretty good example of this phenomenon. Originally part of Nickelodeon’s late 90’s incubator program Oh Yeah! cartoons, the original few seasons were fairly fresh and original, did parody really quite well and had a couple for-TV movies that were entertaining (Abra-Catastrophe!, the first one ever for the series still holds up quite nicely.) However, by 2008 the show had hit a decade since its pilot and 7 years had passed since it had become a formal series, and so to freshen things up, Poof, the fairy baby of Cosmo and Wanda, was added to the cast in another TV movie. While this change indicated a strong inclination to “mix things up a bit,” the truth was that the show had also just started a 6th season and really would have been better off wrapping up what had been a really solid production in the early-mid 2000’s. Unfortunately, the show has continued to be dragged out by Nickelodeon along with its other anchor- SpongeBob, and now in a 10th season nearly 20 years since its first short, its age is quite obvious; it hasn’t been innovative or relevant for a long time as a show; new characters have continued to be injected to try and add new depth to a universe that was tapped out a long time ago (see Chloe- the literally Mary Sue character), and it’s even sunk to making pop culture references that are dated even by the time the episode airs. It’s a sad mess…and the textbook definition of a “zombie show.” (For the record, this isn’t an indictment of Butch Hartman, but rather that his first show has been driven into the ground because apparently there’s still profit to be made.)
Unfortunately, Nickelodeon is my guinea pig for the topic at hand, and so inevitably the discussion turns to SpongeBob. Global icon, marketing machine and cash cow all rolled into one, the sponge clearly has been a boon to the network…but in doing so, caused an over-reliance on that one franchise. Nick missed the boat on making Avatar into a bigger franchise-twice, despite critical acclaim, and this was in the midst of steadily deterorating quality from SpongeBob itself. The show has been around long enough to have distinct “eras”; the classic SpongeBob that is still referenced and memed pretty regularly is pre-2004, when the first theatrical movie of the franchise was supposed to end it. Of course, Nick wanted to have their cake and eat it too, and so the show continued on, losing its original creative director, Derek Drymon in the process. After a decade in which the show improved precious little aside from a significant upgrade in animation quality consummate with a triple A show’s budget, creator Stephen Hillenburg returned to try and drag the show out of the hole it dug itself into. Mind you, SpongeBob is still long past the point of being relevant, regardless of what the rigged KCA’s would have you believe, or the profits Nick rakes in (because it’s also the most-aired show on the network.). And SpongeBob is emblematic of Nickelodeon’s problems in moving on and establishing more new shows to take its place, as I talked about in my network decision-making piece for it. To that end I ask the following question: Is it really worth the potential millions being lost to new, exciting, vibrant shows (which are chiefly being pushed by their competitors ) to keep the sponge and Timmy Turner on life support? I don’t think so. The Loud House appears to be a great step in the right direction, but like a rejected lover, a network at some point has got to let go of the past and move on.
Finally, what about a show like South Park? Does it fall in this “zombie show” category? Yes and no. On one hand, because it’s a production designed to be a satirical commentary on issues of a given time and place, it keeps it relevant. Conversely, when you’ve been around since 1997, some episodes might come off as dated, but its format is a great strength that I’m unsure can be replicated. And what of The Simpsons, the only show still airing from the 1980’s (not counting sports productions)? Definitely a “zombie show,” but considering its cultural icon status and its first 10 years which are widely lauded…it buys you a lot of time and fame, and even a movie. The point ultimately is that these lucky shows hit the jackpot, made it big and have stuck around despite the shortcomings and sorts of flaws that comes with sustained commercial success and network hegemony. On one hand, it’s still a remarkable achievement, but on the other, a show left out too long starts to smell. And for everyone’s sake, it’s best that networks eventually wean off of them; besides, reruns exist for a reason, syndication is still quite profitable yet despite the rise of the Internet, and innovative creativity must be allowed to flourish in order for animation to find its fullest potential. Much of the time, less is more.
Like what you see? Know any other “zombie shows?” Leave a comment!