Welcome to the first installment of “Living Pictures on the Small Screen,” a weekly column dedicated to animated programming on television. Cultural commentary inevitably comes with bias, and I wanted to create this column in appreciation of the people and shows that helped me overcome my own bias regarding animation. Like most kids in my socioeconomic sphere, I grew up watching cartoons. Some of them were legitimately good (Batman: The Animated Series and Rocko’s Modern Life) and some of them were simply there when I turned the TV on after school (Inspector Gadget and Cow and Chicken). Once I started taking film and television more seriously as an adult, it was hard not to associate animation with childhood. It was even harder to appreciate animated films and series–which I had to view from a distance, since I wasn’t witnessing real people on the screen–alongside things such as French cinema or prestige cable dramas. But works like Cowboy Bebop and Spirited Away broke some embarrassing barriers at the same time that nerd culture appeared to be carving a huge place for itself in the public consciousness and gaining acceptance. Now, I’ll happily go to bat for a section of film and television that I’ve grown to love, since there’s nothing in the back of my mind telling me a Dardenne film is inherently better than a Miyazaki one or that Samurai Jack doesn’t warrant as much thoughtful discussion as Mad Men.
I wouldn’t be doing this column if I didn’t think other people could relate to my experience or that there aren’t people out there who have an unmitigated love for animation. This column will cover animated television series only, since my interest as a critic has to do with tracing something across weeks and years. In addition to weekly highlights (the best episode(s) of that week, Wednesday through Tuesday) and a ranking of everything I’ve seen that week, you can expect to read some more general thoughts about animation and animated stories on television in general. What do they do differently than live action shows? How do artists evoke certain qualities, like theme and mood? What makes great voice acting? What are the limits of animated series, if any? These are things I tend to think about when I should be doing actual work, so I’ll take advantage of having a forum in which I can write about them in the future. And I hope that many of you find something here that makes you think, whatever that thought may be.
Highlight of the Week
Star Wars Rebels, Season 1: Episode 1 – “Spark of Rebellion”
Written by Simon Kinberg
Directed by Steward Lee & Steven G. Lee
Airs Monday nights at 9 on Disney XD
Following in the footsteps of the excellent Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels picks up after the collapse of the Republic and dispersal/extermination of the Jedi. Four shorts were released prior to this premiere (I recommend “The Machine in the Ghost,” which is the most entertaining of the four, if you get the chance), but “Spark of Rebellion” serves as the real introduction for the series. Future episodes will be half as long, but it was the correct move to deviate from the norm with this first one.
What impresses me most about “Spark of Rebellion” is how it doesn’t try too hard to service fans of the Star Wars universe. Disney has had a history with its Marvel animated series in piling things on too heavily so that characters and stories aren’t handled in ways that create that “wow” effect that should occur when major events unfold. Star Wars Rebels is immediately comfortable in its own skin, not worried about devoting time to this cast of unfamiliar characters. There are nods here and there, and yes, there’s some awesome lightsaber action towards the end of the hour, but everything in “Spark of Rebellion” is working to establish a world set in a mythology that fans will know extremely well. The fact that it makes that world feel fresh is its most valuable quality.
The crew that we’ll be following gets plenty to do, but it’s really just Ezra and Kanan who get to shine with shades of personality and a pedigree of heroism to live up to. Zeb is especially one-note as the Tough Brute, but I can excuse some lack of character work in a series premiere that will surely be followed by episodes designed to flesh-out this cast.
In all honesty, this might be the best series premiere of the fall so far. There isn’t a whole lot of competition for that title, but this could have easily been an hour of phoned-in writing banking on the franchise title. Instead, Star Wars Rebels gets off to a legitimately intriguing start, earning its place among previous animated adaptations of Star Wars that have, in many ways, outclassed the most recent films.
Also of Note
The Legend of Korra, Season 4: Episode 1 – “After All These Years”
Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Colin Heck
Airs Fridays on Nickelodeon’s website
I’ll be reviewing The Legend of Korra on a weekly basis (you can read the first review by clicking here), so I’ll mostly be using this space to talk about aspects not mentioned in the review or Korra on a more general level. This episode, of course, must be noted as the final season premiere of one of television’s very best series of the past decade. But the reason it’s not highlighted is because it necessarily focuses on exposition and has to follow some of the series’ most exciting episodes towards the end of the third season.
However, that doesn’t mean this is a letdown. There are a couple great visual touches here, including the sight gag of Kai sliding horizontally off-camera once Bolin and Opal start arguing. The most impressive bits of Studio Mir’s contributions, though, have to be in the martial arts choreography. The artwork during Kuvira’s take-down of the bandits is spectacular as she moves at superhuman speeds.
This week’s episode is titled “Korra Alone,” which sets expectations incredibly high. “Zuko Alone” is, without a doubt, one of the ten best episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Expect to see an episode mostly focused on Korra figuring out who she wants to be for the rest of the season.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Season 3: Episode 1 – “Within the Woods”
Written by Brandon Auman
Directed by Sebastian Montes
Airs Friday nights at 8 on Nickelodeon
A small shout-out goes to another Nickelodeon show, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Animation fans are probably already aware that this is a series that’s often worth watching, but for those unfamiliar, check this one out. Following a pretty dour conclusion to season two, the season three premiere mostly serves to force Leonardo’s recuperation through some wacky conflict away from the comfort of the sewers. It’s a solid showcase for the bonds between these characters (especially between Raphael and Leonardo), but the action is also entertaining in its own right.
Rankings: 01-07 October 2014
1. Star Wars Rebels, Season 1, Episode 1, “Spark of Rebellion,” aired 3 October 2014 on Disney XD
2. The Legend of Korra, Season 4, Episode 1, “After All These Years,” aired 3 October 2014 on Nickelodeon’s website
3. Gravity Falls, Season 2, Episode 6, “Little Gift Shop of Horrors,” aired 6 October 2014 on Disney XD
4. Bob’s Burgers, Season 5, Episode 1, “Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl,” aired 5 October 2014 on Fox
5. The Amazing World of Gumball, Season 3, Episode 19, “The Procrastinators,” aired 2 October 2014 on Cartoon Network
6. Teen Titans Go!, Season 2, Episode 15, “Friendship,” aired 2 October 2014 on Cartoon Network
7. South Park, Season 18, Episode 2, “Gluten Free Ebola,” aired 1 October 2014 on Comedy Central
8. Phineas and Ferb, Season 4, Episodes 30-31, “Night of the Living Pharmacists,” aired 4 October on Disney Channel
9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Season 3, Episode 1, “Within the Woods,” aired 3 October 2014 on Nickelodeon
10. Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, Season 2, Episode 2, “Thanos Rising,” aired 5 October 2014 on Disney XD
Shows also considered: Brickleberry, Family Guy, Mr. Pickles, The Simpsons, Squidbillies, Steven Universe, Ultimate Spider-Man and Uncle Grandpa.
(Note: these rankings will feature a maximum of ten series per week if there are more than ten airing. Also, if you are watching an animated series that is currently airing and does not appear on this list, please let me know either by leaving a comment or sending me a tweet.)