Why Don't You Like This? Part 1 - Clone High

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In my last article, I made a cheap dig at cult classic (and all-around cheesy B-movie awesomefest) Buckaroo Banzai, and I didn’t feel entirely good about it. After all, for every commercial success story like Star Wars, Back to the Future, or James Bond, there are a dozen Buckaroo Banzais, who flop commercially and never survive past their first outing. Does that make them bad movies? No, not by a long shot. The term is “cult classic”, meaning that by and large, these films are loved only by a select few. The list is massive – The Big Lebowski, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and ol’ Buckaroo are only the tip of the iceberg.

But what determines something with cult appeal from the rest of the crap that flops throughout the year? Is it all luck? Or is there some deeper reason for these glorious failures? It’s a question I’ll be looking into in my new column, where I seek to answer the simple question…

Why don’t you like this?

Okay, so, how to start this first episode? How about with one of my favorite cult television series?

Way, way back in the 1980s, secret government employees dug up famous guys and ladies and made amusing genetic copies…

Time was, MTV actually made intelligent and witty cartoons to appeal to its audience, instead of airing schlock that makes the term “lowest common denominator” sound charitable. Daria was of course the flagship of this empire, and when it went off the air, MTV went looking for something to replace it. The answer seemed to come in the form of a trio of producers, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who would later go on to make the underrated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and Bill Lawrence of Scrubs fame, who brainstormed a riff on the standard Degrassi-style teen drama starring clones of famous historical figures.

Clone High had an impressive amount of talent backing it (with most of the cast of Scrubs making an appearance at one point or another, in addition to the indispensable Will Forte as our dogged nice guy hero, Abe Lincoln’s Clone), featured intelligent writing, an excellent soundtrack – including a set of original songs that all rocked – an unforgettable cast of characters, featured guest appearances from such lofty celebrities as Marilyn Manson, Jack Black, and Mandy Moore, and a unique visual style that relied more on cubism than any other animated show I’ve ever seen. So…

Why didn’t you like it?

When it comes to the death of Clone High, a lot of people cite the controversial character of Gandhi’s Clone, who stirred up quite a fuss among the people of India for being a non-stop party animal. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that this controversy accounts for the show’s lack of popularity here in the U.S, although I have no doubt that it contributed to the show’s early death.

It can be easy when defending a cult classic to say things like “It was ahead of its time” or “It was too smart for the audience” – and it’s doubly easy to apply those to Clone High, given the fact that it aired on MTV around the time the dumb ages were starting. However, the show’s fundamental lack of appeal goes far deeper than that (and it pains me to use the words “lack of appeal” – but ultimately that’s what this article is about)

The first thing to look at is the flawed heart of the show. It was conceived as a sort of response to teen dramas, satirizing the clichés of a very tired and clichéd genre. But here’s the issue with that: by 2002, the teen drama had all but fallen out of fashion. Dawson’s Creek was in its last undignified death throes by the time Clone High even came on the air, and other targets like Degrassi, My So-Called Life, and Freaks and Geeks had either faded out of public consciousness or had carved out their own little niche market far from the mainstream.

Satires can work, but only when they’re making fun of really big things in pop culture – Airplane! worked because disaster movies were still in the public consciousness, Austin Powers worked because James Bond was in its late ‘90s renaissance, and so on. Clone High was poking fun at what had always really been a niche genre, and long after said niche genre had perished in the public eye.

We could also get into the fact that Clone High made fun of all of these conventions (tired “Will They or Won’t They” plots, pointless weekly drama, the soundtracks, heavy-handed anti-drug episodes) without actually defying them. Daria, at its best, did just as much to combat the mid ‘90s teen drama sweep, and it did it by subverting or deconstructing many of those tropes, instead of just hanging a lampshade on them and calling it a day.

Daria also wasn’t as bizarrely cruel to its characters as Clone High. That’s the other troubling thing about the show, and it hardly seems bad today in our era of Venture Bros., Metalocalypse, and China, IL – but for its time, Clone High was mercilessly mean to almost all of its characters. Take, for example, Snowflake Day – arguably the weakest episode of the series – which features our hero Abe creating an ill-conceived Knife/Fork combination that regularly (and gruesomely, even for a cartoon) mangles his face into a bloody pulp. Over the course of the episode, this happens multiple times, and every time it’s played for laughs, but look – Abe’s our protagonist. We’re supposed to be rooting for him, not laughing at his pain. An earlier episode does a much better job with this kind of physical humor with the fairly unsympathetic Principal Scudworth, but even then it veers uncomfortably into Itchy and Scratchy territory by the end.

I mean, do they need to be that nasty to their own characters? And it’s hardly an isolated incident, either. Everyone in our main cast (excepting Cleopatra) is regularly hurt in weirdly brutal ways, or utterly humiliated. Heck, the second to last episode seems exclusively devoted to humiliating the already Woobie-like Joan of Arc with a series of increasingly misguided Makeovers – one of which involves a metal plate being grafted to her face with a blow torch!

And it’s that word, Woobie, that reveals the real problem with all of this. At the end of the day, despite all their efforts, we do sympathize with the clone teens of Clone High. The Teen Drama works for a reason, and it’s because those old tropes do a really good job of making us care about our characters. No one is unsympathetic enough to warrant the kind of abuse they suffer, and it makes the whole affair seem sort of sadistic and mean-spirited.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still one of the funniest and smartest shows on television, but it can get hard to watch a series where the writers show such bald-faced contempt for the characters they’re writing for.

So, at the end of the day, do I get why you don’t like this?

Yes. The sheer brutality of the slapstick, especially by the end of the series, is more than enough to turn a lot of people off. Even the stuff I find hilarious (like JFK’s clone spouting lines like “Nothing bad ever happens to the Kennedys!” or “I’m a Kennedy! I’m not accustomed to tragedy!”) might seem in poor taste to most.

Still, I’m a fan – warts and all – and if you’ve the stomach for it, I highly recommend you give it a try. Who knows? Maybe you will like it.

-The Effin Bear

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