And Now for Something Completely the Same

Nah, not really–it’s actually something a bit different: an essay on one of the newest cartoons to hit the streets Cartoon Network.  No, not the awesome Adventure Time With Finn and Jake–the other one.

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been watching Generator Rex, one of Cartoon Networks new offerings.  Created by Man of Action, the consortium of comic book creators who previously created the aggressively unambitious  Ben 10, it is…well, a disappointment.

PREMISE! A science experiment gone horribly wrong (or horribly right–it hasn’t been elaborated upon yet) has coated every organism in the world with nanites.  Every so often (about once a week, conveniently enough) these nanites will mutate one of those organisms into a super-powered EVO (a.k.a. whatever the creators want), which will as often as not cause chaos and destroy America’s property values and morals.  Only one organization has the resources to stop EVO’s: NERV Providence, a paramilitary group of ambiguous jurisdiction under the control of White Knight, the one man in the world who is not infected by nanites, and who has no problem with the concept of “destroy the village to save it”.  Providence’s secret weapon is Rex, an amnesia-laden fifteen-year-old EVO kid with the ability to a) turn parts of his body into machines or weapons of different types and b) restore most EVO’s to normal by rendering the nanites altering their bodies inert.  Other characters include Agent Six, who can best be described as the love child of Batman Beyond‘s Old Man Bruce Wayne and Agent Bishop; Doc Holiday, Official Providence Hot  Scientist; and Bobo Haha, who’s there because focus groups have determined that  snarky talking monkeys are quote-unquote hilarious.  While there’s a fair bit of cliché in the concept, there’s also a whole lot more promise.  A world in which everyone, at any moment can turn into a monster?  That sounds awesome.

One thing to note is the fact that Rex is the first non-Star Wars American action cartoon in Cartoon Network to garner a PG rating, which in theory would allow it a latitude not usually seen in western cartoons when it comes to what it decides to show, and would allow more complex characterization and more realistic depictions of stuff like life, violence, emotion, sexuality, and death. Generator Rex‘s creators obviously enjoy this new-found freedom: their first episode features the Providence Red Shirts attacking a rampaging Evo with guns that actually shoot bullets; kills off those very same Red Shirts a few minutes later; and has Rex dispose of Big Bad Apparent Van Kleiss by vertically (and bloodlessly) slicing him in half with a nanite-created sword, things they could hardly do with their previous work.  For people frustrated at the industry insistence that American action cartoons must be targeted at kids above all else, this shift is a promising development.  While cartoons like Gargoyles, the DCAU, Ninja Turtles, and Avatar: The Last Airbender showed that a lot could be done under the ol’ TV-Y7-FV rating, there are still thresholds that can’t be crossed–the battle in Gargoyles #12, for example, would not have made it to TV, no matter how awesome the show’s S&P representative was.

While Generator Rex attempts to bring some nuance to the usual cartoon fare–ZOUNDS!  The good guys knowingly work for an outfit that is scarcely better than the threat they deign to eliminate!–it is, unfortunately, far too inconsistent to take advantage of these potential plotlines.  One particularly glaring example is Rex’s policy on killing, which goes from a Ninja Turtles-like ” killing is okay when the person is unambiguously evil and/or actively trying to kill you”  stance to “no killing humans ever” (in apparent contrast to Providence, whose policy appears to be, “cure, contain, or kill” with severe emphasis on that last one) to “killing EVO’s is okay even when you can’t confirm their humanity.”   Given that this is the sort of thing that forms a character’s core values, the ambiguity suggest that either a) he has none, which would be an interesting detail if they were at all interested in pursuing it,  b) the writers don’t know what they are, or worse c) they don’t care.

This sort of inconsistency can be seen all over the show’s writing.  Their world is radically different from ours–remember, anything anywhere can turn into a rampaging monster at any time–except when the writers want to make it just like ours, which is most of the time.  White Knight is a ruthless operator who would not hesitate to destroy New York to kill the EVO’s inside and secretly wishes that he were Gendo Ikari…except when he’s incapable of doing anything to curtail his subordinates’ constant and open insubordination.  Agent Six and Doc Holiday are veterans that have been forced to make various compromises in working with Providence, except when the writers try to convince you that they’re really stand-up guys.  Rex acts like the average teenager (or at least Man of Action’s idea of a teenager, which is not at all the same thing) when the only thing he remembers is his five years as Providence’s (who, we’ve established, is not particularly inclined to raise a child in a manner that makes for healthy development) ward.  The writers seem to want both create a world with Neon Genesis Evangelion-style moral complexity, but are unable to reconcile it with their desire to create another Ben 10.

Thing is, that clash doesn’t need to exist.

Gargoyles, Ninja Turtles, Avatar: The Last Airbender.  These three shows managed to create conflicts that were more than just about good and evil, worlds that felt developed and real, and characters who seemed familiar and relatable while embracing the ways that they differ from us avarage mortals.  There are shows where actions had consequences, characters had consistent moral codes (which does not necessarily mean they were good ones) and did not require “oh, he’s just a teenager” as an exuse for their mistakes.  Characters like Karai, Broadway and Zuko had moral crises that children could understand and process, and were still palatable and relatable to older teenagers and adults.  All in all, they, even within the constraints of that pesky ol’ TV-Y7-FV rating, managed to portray life, violence, emotion, sexuality, and death in as mature a manner as they could.  And they were awesome, without spending every waking minute trying to convince us of that fact.

With its premise, production values, and level of support, Generator Rex could do a lot to help skittish TV executives accept the idea that cartoons needn’t be tailored just for kids, and that they can include complex, more “mature” ideas.   All it needs to do is, man up, grit its teeth, and actually decide to implement them.

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