Saturday, 14 May 2016

You Meddling Kids!

In the classic 1997 The Simpsons episode, "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show," the maligned character of Poochie is added to The Itchy & Scratchy Show by the network to boost ratings. At the same time, a red ballcapped/sunglasses "cool" character, Roy, was quietly added to the Simpsons family.

Both characters only lasted the one episode but they were a riff on similar tropes of adding a prototypical 90s teenager to a show with the rationale that it will boost ratings from kids. This largely happened in prime time sitcoms but also bled into Saturday morning cartoons as well.

The annoying creature sidekick (Orko, Snarf) or child practically begging to be murdered (Scott Tracker) character archetypes were old hat by the time the 90s rolled around but adding new characters mid-series in a vain effort to attract younger audiences really started to flourish at this time.

Arguably the most infamous and generally hated was Scrappy-Doo. The nephew of Scooby-Doo, Scrappy-Doo debuted in 1979 with such catch-phrases as "Lemme at 'em!" and "Puppy Power!"

Clearly an addition to appease ABC (also known as Always Be Cancellin'), Scrappy-Doo was that hyperactive kid character who was meant to up the cute factor ante and save the beloved show from the very thing that lead to its success: fun mysteries as seen through the eyes of meddling, stoner teenagers.

He has since become an integral part of the franchise but, like Ewoks, is generally regarded as a egregious mistake and even went on to become the (spoilers) antagonist of the first live-action movie.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a reboot cheat. See, after the first two seasons of The Transformers, the 1986 The Transformers Movie came along, pushed the timeline up to the futuristic 2005 (?!), and gleefully killed the original lineup of characters to be replaced by a new cast.

Since this was the future, not totally horrible teenager Spike Witwicky grew up and had a son named Daniel. Spike, facing a nonstop barrage of potential death for years alongside the Autobots, had no mixed feelings about sending his young son to tag along with these building-sized killbots. And the tradition lived on!

Being a child surrounded by robots who had no fleshy organs to be smashed to a pulp, Daniel himself must have felt invincible as he launched himself into danger as though he had a death wish. To make matters worse, another Autobot, Wheelie, was introduced to be a child-like Transformer who spoke in a high pitched voice and rhymed all of his dialogue while shooting an energy slingshot. Combined, they proved to be among the most annoying and befuddling additions to a cast we already had difficulty accepting after old favourites were so callously dispatched before our eyes.

The Care Bears were no strangers to adding characters throughout its impressive cartoon run. The Care Bear Cousins, for example, scrapped the bear theme and just threw in any animal that was deemed cute and could have a heart tattooed to its stomach.

Early on, however, two cubs were added to the show: Hugs and Tugs.

Side note: don't ask me which one is which. I don't know and don't even care. What I do care about is how their names sound like an amazing furry bar or gay bathhouse!

These motherless abominations seemingly came out of thin air and boasted an impressive vocabulary for two bears that regularly shit and piss themselves in a society where no one even needs to wear pants. True to form, they became an integral part of the episodes going forward. By that I mean they were there to be absolute idiots, get in danger and/or captured, and inevitably in need of rescuing. Usually they'd learn a valuable lesson about caring or some garbage but they were mostly present for exposition or plot advancement, something even we as children saw right through.

Although The Flintstones were a product of the 1960s, they nevertheless felt the need to be relevant and hip and cool and pop and fresh.

The A Flintstone Family Christmas television special aired in 1993 and followed a loose continuity where Pebbles and Bam-Bam had grown up and got married, leaving the show without a child character aside from their own annoying babies. With all these adults talking and being adult-y, how were we supposed to identify with the show?!

The special's producers, in perpetual need of getting Middle America off their tractors and in front of television boxes, naturally knew what to do. After getting into more hilarious hijinx, Fred and Barney get thrown in the slammer where they meet Stoney, a totally street-wise orphan type with an anti-establishment backward red ballcap and no-nonsense attitude, dude.

The intention was obviously an appeal to kids who could identify with a character that someone, somewhere thought was relevant and cool. Being not as stupid as producers had hoped and assumed, we did not. Stoney was never seen again, hopefully overdosing on marijuana in a gutter where he belonged.

The Real Ghostbusters is seen by fans as having two distinct eras. The first syndicated run being amazing and then everything after that once studio executives hired a bullshit consulting firm to "fix" what wasn't even broken.

Amidst the vast, sweeping, and mind-bogglingly strange changes to the show, a cast of kids, calling themselves the Junior Ghostbusters, were added in the 1987 episode "The Bogeyman Is Back." Although children regularly appeared in the series, they were generally intrinsic to the plot and only stuck around the one time. The Junior Ghostbusters (Donald, Catherine, and Jason), however, were peppered here and there and, once again, were there to remind us dumb kids that we too can make a difference and help out too!

Only they were so goddamn annoying, cutesy, and transparent cash grabs that we hated them. Thankfully, they only lasted a few episodes but the show's death knell had been rung.

A similar character was also introduced in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles named Zack, the "Fifth Ninja Turtle."

Zack (such a 90s name) was a white, blond, 14-year-old kid who was totally the Turtles' biggest fan! At the very least, he was sort of wide-eyed and naive instead of trying to one-up the Turtles with terrible surfer lingo.

Nevertheless, he was a desperate appeasement to viewers to say "Look, LOOK, he's just like youuuuu!" that came across a little strong, y'know? Swipe left on this turd.

He was later followed up by Carter who was more racially diverse, a little older, and had a greater purpose to the plot. Coming to New York to train under Master Splinter, Carter was accidentally exposed to mutagen that made him sometimes a mutant and sometimes a human and it was very much a Jekyll/Hyde thing going on for him.

That said, he appeared in the later seasons of the original cartoon run so nobody ever saw it or even talks about it.

All in all, these characters were transparent marketing ploys. And even in the days before the cynicism-mongering internet, we knew the score. Children were (and especially now are not) as dumb as adults think and the addition of these trite, tacked-on farces of actual kids were forced and, worse, painful to watch.

The very things executives wanted to lure us in to their shows, were the very things that led us elsewhere.

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