Thursday, February 11, 2010

Culture Shock 02.11.10: Aqua Net fog can't hide awful '80s cartoons

So many fools. So much pity.
When it comes to nostalgia, I consider myself a child of the 1970s, but the '80s are finally making a play for my affections.

So, I was initially excited to learn Warner Bros. is producing a two-DVD set of "classic" '80s cartoons.

The studio will release "Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1980s Vol. 1" on May 1, and while Warner Bros. hasn't announced the set's contents, the package art holds a few clues — which is why my excitement quickly turned into disappointment.

Apart from "Thundarr the Barbarian," which holds up surprisingly well, the DVDs will include "Monchichis," "The Flintstone Kids," "Dragon's Lair" and "Mr. T."

Ah, yes. Despite the Aqua Net haze of time, I remember it clearly: Saturday-morning cartoons during the '80s were, for the most part, awful. How did I forget?

The soft-focus lens of nostalgia obscures many of blemishes. By any reasonable standard, the cartoons I love from the '70s weren't particularly good, either. Still, they had something that most of the subsequent decade's Saturday-morning programs lacked. But whether that something was creativity or kitsch is probably a matter of taste.

Many of the most fondly remembered cartoons of the '80s — "Transformers," "Robotech," "Thundercats," "She-Ra," etc. — aired in weekday syndication. Saturday mornings, burdened by more stringent broadcast standards, were tame and lame in comparison.

There were three main types of Saturday-morning cartoons during the decade: cartoons based on real people or live-action TV characters, cartoons based on video games, and cartoons based on tiny, mythological creatures created by Belgians.

The A-Team's Mr. T., for example, told youngsters to stay in school and off drugs. Gary Coleman of "Diff'rent Strokes" fame lent his voice to a guardian angel who helped children in trouble. And Punky Brewster (aka Soleil Moon Frye) did pretty much the same stuff she did on her nighttime sitcom.

Nowadays, video games are incredibly sophisticated and inspire Hollywood movies. Back then, they were incredibly simple and inspired cartoons with plots that had nothing to do with the games because the games didn't have plots. Pac-Man, Q*bert, Frogger, Donkey Kong and Pitfall all inspired Saturday-morning adaptations, each more suspect than the last.

And then there were the Smurfs. Dreamed up by Belgian cartoonist Peyo, the Smurfs were a race of small blue men, each three apples tall. And by men, I mean they were all males, at least until Smurfette showed up, which begs lots of questions about Smurf procreation.

NBC had so much success with "The Smurfs" that it commissioned "The Snorks," created by yet another Belgian cartoonist. The Snorks were just like the Smurfs except they lived underwater and were less communist.

In retrospect, that's a pretty bleak television landscape, and one that never recovered, as the best cartoons moved to cable TV and Saturday mornings became, due in part to the Children's Television Act of 1990, a dumping ground for soulless "educational and informational" programming.

I might pick up "Saturday Morning Cartoons: The 1980s Vol. 1" just for "Thundarr," but if Warner Bros. releases a Vol. 2, I hate to think what it will contain. Saturday mornings only go downhill from here.

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