Looking Back: TMNT (2012) Season 1 (Part 1)
4 August 2013 5 Comments
Back when Nick’s take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuted, I chronicled my thoughts in a post called Wherein I judge the first two episodes of Nick’s TMNT. Although I hadn’t been terribly enthusiastic about the series beforehand, I thought the premiere showed a lot of promise, along with a bunch of space for improvement, which I hoped would occur on as the season went on. Now, with the first season all but over, I thought I’d take the time to look back on it and to see what has changed since the show began and how my initial impressions and theories have held up over time.
A lot of comparisons have been made between this latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Teen Titans, and not without reason: TMNT‘s tone and visual style both recall the older show, and I don’t think it’d be farfetched to surmise that showrunner Ciro Nieli—who served as director in episodes like “Terra” in the older show—uses it as one of its north stars (the other North Star being, of course, the Fred Wolf cartoon). And frankly, I have absolutely no problem with that: one of the things I think that show did really well was to balance its humor and character moments with legit action, the way the first TMNT cartoon tried but could very rarely achieve. What’s more, the way Teen Titans commitment mixed utterly off-the-wall episodes like “Employee of the Month” with restrained, emotion-driven fare like “Things Change” was itself very reminiscent of the TMNT’s approach to storytelling, not just in that first cartoon, but in all its incarnations. In the end, it is that variety—what I call the Doctor Who factor, after one of that show’s trademark characteristics—that has allowed the concept to work in all its different takes.
(Yes, there is a point to bringing up Who. Bear with me here.)
It is precisely this element which I feel is missing from Nick’s Turtles, and one of the two major things that prevents me from enjoying it as much as I’d like. Missing from the show is that sense of scope, that sense of “what will they tackle next?” The original comic book wasn’t just a comic book about ninjas: it was a book that held you by the shoulders and told you “abandon all expectations; this is a book about whatever we want it to be, and that can be anything”. It’s why, when the Archie book decided to spend a story arc having the turtles travel South American in a series of stories with a distinctively environmental bent, it still felt like the turtles.
Compare this version’s freshman season with its predecessor’s. By the time “The Search for Splinter” ended, the audience had seen superheroes, fight clubs, living drawings created by Jack Kirby, nanomachines, homeless-people kidnappers, mobsters, monsters, monster hunters, ancient civilizations and yes, mutants and ninjas and brain-like aliens. While a considerable amount of time was spent in New York, the series also went to other dimensions, deep underground, and even Massachusetts, and the result was a world that felt considerably more stimulating than this one.
In contrast, Nick’s TMNT feels no larger than the few city blocks we always see when the turtles head topside. Part of it is clearly due to budget constraints—never has such a good-looking show looked so bound–but a lot of it is also in the execution. In focusing so much of the story on the same two sets of villains—the Foot and the Kraang—and connecting every other threat to them, the series has taken away a lot of the interest away from the world. Why should we care about it, when we know there’s nothing interesting there?
Even the various mutants the series has introduced, ostensibly to add variety to the proceedings, have for the most part a sameness to them, serving mostly as source material for action figures. Characters like Snakeweed, SpiderBytes, Justin, the Cockroach Terminator and the Mutagen Man feel interchangeable, their mutations telling us nothing about either them or the turtles. The most promising of the lot, the wasps in Parasitica and the Rat King, feel lessened by the Kraang connection: the Rat King’s visage suggests mystery and horror, with a touch of the supernatural. Instead we know exactly where he’s from, and the truth is boring—just another would-be world-conqueror with a theme.
As is the fashion with current action cartoons, Nick’s TMNT attempts to weave a tapestry out of the individual episodes, and by some measures, they have succeeded. The show is at its most interesting when it focuses on The Foot, not necessarily because they’re good villains, but because as a group of actual individuals, they’re given a chance to establish solid interpersonal dynamics and to change as the story progresses. There’s still lots of room for improvement—with the exception of Karai, they haven’t exactly proven competent, despite their muscle—but as is, they continue to have the most promise, and it is when the ongoing story focuses on them that it becomes most satisfying. There’s a clear line tying the various goings-on between the Shredder and company together, and there’s a sense that things matter.
The same can’t be said of the Kraang, who never seemed suited for the role of main villains, being individually interchangeable and therefore incapable of character development. Their shtick, as amusing as I found it at first, has worn thin, and they have little else going for them—something the writers seem to agree with, if their use of mutants as third act complications is any indication. What’s more, the various beats in their overarching story often feel arbitrary, its progression feeling disconnected from the actual events of each episode. While their primary goal of terraforming Earth to prepare it for conquest has the advantage of being broad enough to accommodate many sorts of plots under its umbrella, this has also imbued individual episodes with a touch of pointlessness: every victory by the turtles feels empty, as we’re not told how each element fits into the larger plan or how they’ve hindered the aliens’ primary campaign. Making things worse is the fact that the turtles’ own primary Kraang-related goal—to rescue Kirby O’Neil—is more often than not left by the wayside, to the point where it seems that the turtles can’t be bothered to care unless a lead happens to fall on their laps; as “T.C.R.I.” shows, it took months before they even decided to ponder why the Kraang had kidnapped Kirby.
All this would still be fine, if the villains were at least used to say something about the turtles or acted in ways that affected them. Unfortunately, the series seems reluctant to develop the characters in any truly substantial way, apparently preferring to leave them in a state of arrested development. Nowhere is the sense of stasis more prevalent than in the show’s treatment of Don’s crush on April, which has been stuck in the same “Don exhibits creepy behavior towards April; April pretends not to notice” stage for more than twenty episodes. Clearly somebody in the show’s staff finds the adventures of Nice Guy (TM) Donnie fascinating, or lacks faith that the audience will get behind an actual story; in the end, it does a disservice to both the characters and the fans of that pairing.
But it’s not only him. The turtles as a whole appear to not have matured one iota since their lives took a turn after the pilot. Despite the responsibility suddenly thrust upon them, the turtles don’t appear to have grown in order to meet them, with Donatello doing shit like going on a solo mission to impress April, or Michelangelo pressing every button that suits his fancy despite the fact that he should have learned better from the time it led to the failure of their attempt to rescue Kirby in “The Gauntlet”. Instead of growing into the world’s most fearsome fighting team, they continue to rely on luck in a way that’s rather unsatisfying. Even when they fail, those failures don’t seem to stick—two episodes since “The Pulverizer Returns”, and it might as well not have happened, for all of the effect its events had on Don. While there have been a handful of character development episodes, they tend to either deal with a crisis of the week (“Cockroach Terminator” and Raph’s fear of roaches) or have the development be forgotten by the next episode.
And while this stagnation is to some degree perfectly understandable—protagonists in open-ended stories tend to be more static than less prominent characters, since there is often a status quo to maintain—the show’s incredibly narrow focus on the turtles makes it so that they’re not getting developed nothing is. If things don’t change the turtles, don’t change Manhattan, and don’t change the villains (or if it does, we don’t see the changes) why bother? And while that effervescence worked with Teen Titans, it did so because the show made it clear that their world was not our own, and things like Robin being Robin all the time and four teenagers living inside a T-shaped building felt normal. The same can’t be said for this show, where it’s clear things are meant to be normal except where they aren’t. For a show that at times seems to be too unserious and quirky for its own good, it is often not quirky enough.
(Gosh, I’d kill for someone like the Mad Mod in this show.)
So, given all this, I sometimes wonder: just why is the series so popular? Why has it struck a chord? While I’m sometimes tempted to lay responsibility for that entirely at Nickelodeon’s gobs and gobs of cash, which allowed them to promote it in a way the 4Kids show wasn’t, it’d be irresponsible not to mention that there are several things the series does very well. The voice acting is top-notch, the animation is probably the best in TMNT cartoon history, and the attention to detail on the the various little things, like April’s telephone background is fantastic.
And the series can be funny. While a lot of the humor has the effect of painting the characters in an unflattering light when taken collectively, as individual moments, it can be wonderful. This TMNT is in a way the perfect Tumblr show, best enjoyed as a series of individual, unconnected scenes.
Still, the show could do better. Nickelodeon has the muscle to make this show not just fun, but superlative, if they wanted to, and I don’t think they do. All two often, he show feels like the product of someone who knows what their target audience of twelve-year-old boys wants and isn’t willing to challenge them, which is why, in the end, I feel that this is one of those series where the fandom is better than the actual show.
There’s still one episode left, and while I don’t for a minute think that it will change my mind about the other twenty-four, I do hope the promises of BIG! THINGS! HAPPENING! do bring about some measure of change for the better. It doesn’t have to be huge; it just has to be enough for me to view season 2 as a fresh start. Here’s hoping.
Post-script: If it seems like I’ve forgotten someone, it’s because the show often forgets her too. Part 2: April O’Neil and the show’s treatment of women.