Mirror, Mirror: The A-Team and Mister T

There are certain “you had to be there” aspects of any decade, but the ’80s seemed to be particularly rife with them. Today, it’s time for one one the biggest, the meanest, and gold-encrusted such icons of the decade: Mr. T. Originally a bouncer, and then a bodyguard, Mr. T hit the big time after Sylvester Stallone saw him absolutely demolish a man during a series of “toughest bouncer” fights on NBC. The “big time” in this case meant scoring the role of Rocky III‘s main villain, Clubber Lang. Following the success of the movie, Brandon Tartikoff, who was early in his amazingly successful run as the president of NBC’s Entertainment Division, tasked writer-producer Stephen J. Cannell with creating a show that was a combination of The Dirty Dozen, Mission: Impossible, The Magnificent Seven, Mad Max and Hill Street Blues. Also required: “Mr. T driving a car”.

The result was The A-Team, one of the most intentionally ridiculous action-adventure programs of all time. The opening narration summed up the backstory succinctly:

“In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire….the A-Team.”

As promised, Mr. T was indeed driving a car, in this case an iconic black/grey GMC van with red trim, and he was the muscle/mechanic, Sergeant First Class Bosco Albert “B.A.” (Bad Attitude) Baracus, in the series’ titular group of mercenaries, along with George Peppard as master of disguise/team leader Lieutenant Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, Dirk Benedict as conman Lieutenant Templeton Peck (“Face”), and Dwight Schultz as insane pilot Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock. Premiering on January 23rd, 1983 as a movie-length pilot (with Tim Dunigan as Face instead of Benedict), the series was formally launched the following week after Super Bowl XVII, and became a massive hit.

A lot of its success lies in the entertaining and well-defined characters, and in the gleefully cartoonish violence. And, in the context of the Reagan-era ’80s, its strong anti-authoritarian bent played right into the “government is the problem” garbage that people believed (and, in a lot of cases, still believe) in droves. However, The A-Team was far from a perfect show: besides the complaints about the intentionally excessive violence, the show was rigidly “formula”: you could practically set your watch based on the structure of episodes, as certain events (including, but not limited to: B.A. complaining about, and being sedated for, flight, Hannibal declaring “I love it when a plan comes together!”, and the montage where the team jury rigs home-made countermeasures against a stronger enemy force) tended to happen at precise times in every episode. Worse, the show had a rather casual sexism, as after Season 2, there was no regular female cast member, and even then, the cast, with Peppard and Benedict in particular voicing aversion to the idea of a female ally to the all-male A-Team. Behind the scenes, George Peppard and Mr. T mixed liked oil and water, largely because Peppard, an already difficult actor to deal with, became convinced that he was the star, not Mr. T. Things got so bad that Peppard’s friend Robert Vaughn was cast in the final season in an effort to ease tensions.

Ultimately, The A-Team flamed out after five seasons, but not before Mr. T got his own Saturday morning cartoon (which also aired on NBC), Mister T. And if The A-Team was a strange animal, then Mister T was absolutely insane. Designed as even more of a vehicle for Mr. T than The A-TeamMister T stars a fictionalized version of Mr. T as the coach of a traveling gymnastics team that also solves mysteries (indicated quite helpfully by the word “mystery” in most episode titles). If that isn’t cracked enough, Mr. T has a dog with a mohawk (seriously) named Bulldozer, and one of the gymnasts has a brother (played by Ted Field III, who was also playing Bobby on Dungeons & Dragons at the same time) who so blatantly hero worships Mr. T that he wears the exact same outfit, right down to the gold chains and jewelry.

Ignoring the usual network stupidity of the time, the show has a logic that isn’t. Part of this lies with the morals (which, while NBC had minimal desire for them in 1983, Mr. T, who takes his image as a role model very seriously, likely demanded their presence), which are rather ham-fistedly inserted into the stories. Part of this lies with the lack of faith that the show’s creator (Steve Gerber, when he was still alive and his website’s bibliography was still accessible, only admitted to his role on the show because of an upswing in Mr. T’s popularity) and writers (the majority being Gerber’s friends). But a huge part of the problem lies with the studio that made Mister T, Ruby-Spears.

Ruby-Spears Enterprises was formed in 1977 by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, primarily because they felt that Hanna-Barbera (where the two had worked at from 1959 until the early ’70s) needed more competition. Ignoring the continued existence at the time of Filmation and DePatie-Freleng (as well as live-action producers Sid and Marty Krofft, whose studio was at its zenith at the time), the idea had some amount of merit, as the two were veteran writers (their most famous creation being Scooby-Doo), and had spent most of the decade in charge of Saturday morning program development under Fred Silverman and CBS and later ABC. So, they knew the industry, to be certain, and were able to sell shows and assemble a staff. However, there’s one big problem with their studio.

They were the K-Mart Hanna-Barbera.

There’s no denying that H-B declined as a studio quality-wise in the ’70s, and as creators of Scooby-Doo (which was endlessly copied by Hanna-Barbera to decreasing results throughout the ’70s), they had a rather sizable hand in that decline. Moreover, they were not as good at their job as Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, who for all their faults, richly deserved a great deal of the Oscars and Emmys they won over the years. With the exception of Thundarr the Barbarian and the 1988 Superman, most of Ruby-Spears’ output was awful, forgetable, or both. Worst of all, this largely poor output wasted the humongous talents of Jack Kirby, who was hired at the behest of Steve Gerber to help design characters for Thundarr, and stayed with the studio until 1986. But, most damning of all, Ruby-Spears was sold by its original parent company, Filmways, in 1981 as that studio started dumping assets in an (ultimately futile) attempt to stave off its death. The buyer? Taft Broadcasting, the then-parent company of Hanna-Barbera.

Once the two studios became corporate siblings, what little distinction between the two outfits existed began to evaporate. The company’s logo was reformatted in a style similar to Hanna-Barbera’s famous swirling star logo, and all credits started to use H-B formatting and fonts (save for the little box with the main cast’s character models that was one of H-B’s trademarks). It’s so bad that DVDs of Ruby-Spears shows are usually identified as part of the “Hanna-Barbera Collection” and stripped of their Ruby-Spears logo (and even given a H-B logo in some cases). Let me emphasize this one point: the world did not need another Hanna-Barbera in the ’80s.

However, all things Mr. T saw a surprising resurgence in popularity in the late ’90s thanks to the internet. Mr. T found himself at the center of the internet’s original meme: the “Mr. T vs.” series. Since virtually all of the various sites (and most of the actual “Mr. T vs.” stories) are no longer online, let me summarize the format: Mr. T, always with the A-Team van at his disposal (and occasionally with the aid of a variety of characters from across pop culture), encounters some character or figure from pop culture (often, but not always, some figure from the ’90s that the early internet hated) who antagonizes Mr. T (almost always by terrorizing or insulting children), only to lose in a fashion pretty much in line with modern memes. These stories always included repeated reminders that Mr. T is “helluva tough”, that he cares about children, and his feud with George Peppard. The van is also able to totally ignore the laws of physics, though it’s often trashed in order to give Mr. T that extra bit of motivation to kick some ass. And, of course, there’s the best part: all of these stories were constructed using a primitive version of Photoshop, using a very limited set of images (because image capturing was more difficult than using Photoshop). And they were glorious. But, just like Mr. T’s original fame, you really had to be there.

Next week, we visit another “you had to be there” moment in US television, which was also aired on NBC.

The Great Willow Sexuality Rant

First Disclaimer: I’m not gay, nor a woman. I can pull out the “but I know or have known plenty of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people” card, but that’s frankly a load of bull, and we all know it. The best I can manage is that I hashed out some of these issues while Buffy the Vampire Slayer was still on the air with my very close friend (and quite often more than a friend) at the time, Diana, who’s bi herself. But, even then, I have no real standing to write any of this, but that has never stopped me from shoving my keyboard in my mouth in the past, so why stop now?

Second Disclaimer: I ship Willow/Xander in a pretty big way (it’s my favorite ‘ship in the franchise, and probably in the top five across all of my many fandoms), and so did Diana when I knew her (it’s been about a decade and a half since we’ve had any contact, so absolutely none of this is her fault). So, yes, there’s a bias in play. But, ironically, I ship Willow/Tara, too, because how can any person on Earth not think the world of Tara or her actress, Amber Benson? (Pretty much no one ships Willow/Kennedy, and with good reason.) But still, your mileage may vary greatly as to whether shipping Willow/Xander destroys the credibility of this rant.

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I’m sure this how you think I view Willow and Tara at all times, but really, it’s not. I swear.

Third Disclaimer: No, this is not a part of the Star Trek Debriefed project.

Being a fan with delusions of writing creatively is not easy. There’s always the inkling to pick apart the writing process and the choices a writer makes. And being a fan with delusions of writing creatively while also reviewing cartoons and other TV shows is just plain insanity. The level of fan stupidity this situation inspires is difficult to properly fathom unless you’ve actually lived it (suffice to say, it’s pretty freaking stupid). And, pound for pound, the fandom I’ve lost the most brain cells to the supposition that “they’re doing it wrong” is for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel. (And I watched Heroes to the bitter end of its first run on television.) I had thought I was cured of my affliction, what with Buffy ending, Angel‘s fifth season being on the whole excellent, and my being satisfied with the Buffy and Angel comics (even if certain things like being jobless for close to two years have prevented me from reading anything but synopses of them recently).

But then, after more or less letting my Buffy and Angel DVDs sit on a shelf (and then, after the jobless thing reached its current utterly dire state, in a box in a storage unit along with 95% of my personal property) for years, I stumbled upon reruns of the first couple of seasons on Logo, and was inspired to search for a Buffy-related podcast, settling on Dusted, which has led to me falling down a rabbit hole of writing Buffy fanfiction for the first time in a decade, re-watching Veronica Mars, and even reading Jane Austen (and loving it!). So, yes, I’ve re-engaged with an old favorite in a way that I haven’t in a very long time. And part of this means re-examining Buffy and Angel with a critical eye while still maintaining my status as the fanatically dedicated Willow/Xander ‘shipper on the StoryWonk forums.

With that said, my Buffy origin story is also a bit odd. Unlike Robotech or Doctor Who, where I put off watching the shows for many years because I knew I wouldn’t be able to properly enjoy them when they first came to my attention, I generally dismissed Buffy the Vampire Slayer for most of its run before jumping in for no good reason whatsoever. A big part of this lies with the 1992 movie, or more accurately, its trailer, which was pretty incessantly spammed during whatever it was I was watching back then, and looked unbelievably stupid (which it is, by the way). So, when I first heard about the show, I believe during the controversy over episodes that were postponed after the Columbine massacre, I didn’t lift a finger to watch it. Nor did I when Willow and Tara’s relationship first made waves, or when the series jumped networks to UPN (which I loathed far less at the time than The WB). No, I first started watching Buffy because when the first season DVD set was released, I had just purchased my first DVD player a month prior, so I bought it on a whim, only to enjoy it for its humor and for how unbelievably adorable best friends (and potential love interests) Willow and Xander were.

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I dare you to not consider this to be adorable.

Then, two days after purchasing the DVDs (a Thursday), I got to the season finale, “Prophecy Girl”, and everything changed:

What had seemed incredibly stupid in that decade-old trailer was now something far more powerful. And as a critical viewer, Sarah Michelle Gellar became one of my favorite actresses because she nailed it in that scene, and the rest of the cast did their damnedest to match this performance.

So, I leapt in head first, recording the twice-daily reruns of Buffy on FX (starting with “Killed By Death”, a late second-season episode) while watching both Buffy and Angel on their regular nights (the former started with a rerun of the season premiere, and the latter with “Provider”, the last happy episode of the year before things got amazingly dark). In addition to fansites and fanfic, I also started reading the Spoiler Slayer daily (the site is still up with all of its news archives), and walked into one of the great bits of fan speculation for that season: the Big Scooby Death.

Now, characters dying on Buffy and Angel wasn’t new, but this rumor took on a life of its own because a lot of people astutely pegged Willow’s girlfriend, the kind and shy witch Tara, as the character most likely to be killed near the end of the season. Willow and Tara, being the first open, regularly appearing lesbian couple on US TV, had attracted a devoted and quite frankly fanatical fanbase (even more so than the ‘shipper fanbase for Xena and Gabrielle on Xena: Warrior Princess, which remained strictly subtextual for the run of that show), largely centered on a message board known as the Kitten Board (which I was shocked to find still exists). These fans seemed, from my perspective, to be focused less on the show as a whole than on the one element that, while pretty awesome in its own right, was mostly relegated to the “B” plots of episodes. This was brewing about as I was furiously catching up on the show, and while some other controversial content (namely, the Buffy/Spike relationship, which became distressingly dark after a scene where Spike tried to rape Buffy) was airing.

With the 19th episode of the season, Tara was killed in the last scene (the episode title, “Seeing Red”, even refers to how Tara sees her own blood splattering on Willow’s white shirt before collapsing to the ground, dead).

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It was, in true Joss Whedon fashion, spectacularly powerful and cruel (the most brutal blow being that Amber Benson, normally a recurring player credited as a Guest Star at the start of her episodes, was promoted to the opening credits for this episode,

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It was even more messed up knowing that Tara was going to die, and that this was going to be in the episode.

something Whedon had wanted to do for years with a departing character), and also massively foreshadowed, dating back to at least the third season.

The members of the Kitten Board, however, took the news very poorly as it was first spoiled (and their board was a fairly reliable source of information, if myopically focused on Willow and Tara). To be brutally honest, they went absolutely nuts. And with Willow turning to the Dark Side in murderous fashion, there were two perceived stereotypes in play: the Dead Lesbian and the Evil Lesbian. And then after news hit (and relatively early, too, since the climactic scene of the season was shot on location) that Xander was the person to talk Willow down, it was claimed that Joss (who was present at the aforementioned location shoot, a known sign of a scene’s importance) was going to make Tara an “experiment” and pair her off with Xander.

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Never mind that the scene was about the sort of unconditional love that only Xander, Willow’s oldest and best friend, could provide.

The thing is, to the long-term viewer (or intensely crazy first-time viewers binging on the show as fast as possible in the days before Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu), the events of Season 6 were pretty much inevitable. Willow took up magic towards the end of Season 2 in part to help restore Angel’s soul, and from that point on, her powers grow at an alarmingly fast rate. Worse still, Willow had a growing tendency to use (or try to use) her magic to weasel out of difficult personal situations.

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Like a secret affair with Xander, for instance.

This grows to the point where Willow uses magic to partially wipe Tara’s memories in response to Tara’s concerns about Willow’s abuse of her powers. (And that’s not even where Willow bottoms out.) When Tara is killed, Willow has been trying hard to break her dependence on magic cold turkey to enough success that Tara has reconciled with her after a separation of at least 5 months. With Willow’s two previous outbursts in the face of extreme grief (a “Thy Will Be Done” spell in Season 4 that causes enough chaos to get her recruited to become a Vengeance Demon and an angry attack on the Hell God Glory in Season 5 that actually managed to hurt her before fizzling out) taken into account, Willow’s actions were completely expected.

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This was always going to happen.

And as for Tara’s death, the series had previously killed off Jenny Calendar and Buffy’s mother Joyce and sent Angel to Hell at points of great happiness for them and the characters closest to them (and the audience). And with her reconciliation with Willow, Tara became the fourth such character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to suffer such a gut-wrenching fate in the service of the series’ greater plot. In fact, Joss has stated multiple times that the death of Jenny Calendar in Season 2 was a notice to everyone that, yes, anyone on the show could die (though Whedon has also repeatedly declared he would never kill off Willow, no doubt because she, especially as performed by the great Alyson Hannigan, is an inherently likable and sympathetic character).

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If there’s a list of things guaranteed to evoke an emotional response, the sight of Alyson Hannigan as Willow crying her eyes out has to be near the top.

In fact, excluding the 12 episode first season, each of the seasons to that point had hinged on the death of a supporting character: Jenny in Season 2, the Mayor’s Deputy, Allan Finch, in Season 3, Maggie Walsh of the Initiative in Season 4, and Joyce Summers in Season 5.

During the summer hiatus, the staff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and especially Joss Whedon) received the very angry feedback, and by August of 2002, Whedon told The Advocate, “We do that now, and we will be burned alive. And possibly justifiably. We can’t have Willow say, ‘Oh, cured now, I can go back to cock!’ Willow is not going to be straddling that particular fence. She will just be gay.” (Somewhat ironically in the context of this website, the interview was conducted by Andy Mangels, a key figure in the Filmation library being released on DVD in a time-compressed state.) Furthermore, a new character was conceived to be Willow’s new girlfriend while Whedon openly toyed with the idea of resurrecting Tara (at the time, only series leads Buffy and Angel had come back from death). That character, named Kennedy (seemingly after the ’90s MTV VJ and current libertarian whackjob), turned out to not only be the anti-Tara in terms of demeanor, but one of the most unpopular characters ever conceived for the show.

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It doesn’t hurt that her first line is a snarky bit of business directed at Buffy.

The Kitten Board was not placated in any way, and to this day still ignores every part of Buffy beginning with Tara getting shot.

Declaring that Willow would no longer “straddle the fence” was, however, not just an overreaction, but a reductive and, in a current context, where bisexuality is no longer as marginalized as it was in 2002 (at the time, bisexuals were considered to be “sluts” or delusional about their gay/straight orientation, if they were even acknowledged at all), horribly outmoded. It also severely limits Willow’s character growth, as discussions of her sexual identity had never quite moved past the binary: in “Triangle”, which centered on Xander’s love for girlfriend Anya and best friend Willow (and the fact that both women distrust each other greatly because each thinks the other will hurt Xander), Willow deflects Anya’s claims that she will “steal” Xander from her by replying famously, “Hello, gay now!” Later, in “Tough Love”, Willow and Tara have their first fight (ostensibly over Willow’s magic abuse), and the subject of Willow’s sexuality is broached, specifically in regards to whether or not Tara represents a “phase” for Willow. It’s the sort of horrible thing that happens when couples fight, but this falls right into the trap of bi erasure. Granted, this is in the context of an emotionally charged fight and we can forgive Tara for going there, but we never get another honest exploration of Willow’s clearly fluid sexual identity. There is a lot of room for Willow to be identified as bisexual, especially since Willow and Oz’s final parting never once makes their final breakup an issue of Willow’s sexuality. And with Willow’s dream in “Restless” being focused on her amazing personal growth over the course of the series (and her fears that she may be hiding her true self for fear of ridicule), this is an extremely fair avenue to pursue.

The core of the problem here (I write roughly 2,400 words into this blog post) is that Willow’s sexuality was never effectively planned out. In the early days of the series, Whedon began mooting the possibility that either Willow or Xander was gay. And based on the evidence through the second season, it was looking as if Xander was going to be that character. In “Halloween”, Willow’s eventual boyfriend, Oz (played by Seth Green), first appears, and first takes notice of Willow. However, the episode also marks the first appearance of Larry, a fairly stock bullying jock character, who harasses Xander through much of the episode. Later on that season, in “Phases” (which marks the formal start of the Willow/Oz relationship and of Oz being a werewolf), Larry comes out as gay to Xander, and ends up believing that Xander is also gay. This, in addition to Xander’s frequent lapses into gay panic (which were at least partially understandable for a teenage boy to have in the ’90s), provided some serious hints that Xander might be gay. However, all of this hard work would be thrown out in the closing days of the third season.

Allow me to digress a bit: Season 3 was a major period of transition for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel was openly in development, and would cost the parent show not only the title character, but perpetually blunt cheerleader (and occasional comedy mule) Cordelia Chase. Losing the series’ male romantic lead was bad enough, but for a show that thrives on snarky dialogue to lose its sharpest tongue was a big loss. However, when “The Wish”, an episode spent mostly in an alternate reality where Buffy never came to Sunnydale and Willow and Xander were turned into vampires became incredibly popular with fans (and with Joss Whedon, who had not been particularly involved with the production of the episode), the seeds for Cordelia’s replacement in the cast were sewn. The breakout character of the episode was Vampire Willow, who was sadistic, creepy as hell, and sexually bent. So, even though she dies in the episode (all of the show’s regular characters except for Oz and Giles die), Vampire Willow was brought back in “Dopplegangland”, where she proceeds to tear up the Sunnydale we’re familiar with, as well as hit on both Xander and Willow over the course of the episode. However, in order to do this, the demon responsible for the twisted alternate Sunnydale, Anyanka, returned. At the end of “The Wish”, Anyanka is left as the human girl Anya, who is ultimately even blunter in tone and demeanor than Cordelia ever was. And she, too, was popular, so Anya returned for two more episodes, this time finding herself interested in Xander (she even ends up as Xander’s date to the Senior Prom), and plans were made to have the character return on a recurring basis in Season 4, pretty much ending the idea of Buffy having a gay friend.

That is, until Seth Green left the series rather abruptly.

When he joined the series in the second season, Green had just scored his breakout performance as Scott Evil in the first Austin Powers movie. Oz became a big favorite with viewers and the writing staff, and was upgraded to regular status. But honestly, Oz was better served in a recurring role, and that was also how Green, who was now as well known as Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan following the massive success of the second Austin Powers movie, felt. The problem is, Oz was actually going to have a season-long character arc where he was tempted by singer (and fellow werewolf) Veruca, before ultimately choosing Willow (with the ultimate plan being that Oz would die in the fifth season, sparking the Dark Willow arc we ultimately saw in Season 6). As a result, the Veruca arc was hastily concluded, and after a few episodes of Willow being hopelessly distraught over Oz’s departure from Sunnydale, Tara was introduced, and their relationship hatched after Amber Benson’s second appearance (and hinted at with a steadily increasing lack of subtlety until Oz’s return in “New Moon Rising”, which officially began Willow and Tara’s relationship).

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Amber Benson was instantly awesome as Tara. Seriously.

And, the digression has now ended. The issue as to whether or not Joss Whedon should have stuck firmly to his plan is the ultimate Catch-22. J. Michael Straczynski rigidly followed his blueprint for Babylon 5 (and even went to far as to structure things such that characters could be replaced if actors left the series, which ended up happening), and that show is a classic. But Joss Whedon’s method for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel also paid off multiple times: besides the ground-breaking romance between Willow and Tara, the characters of Harmony, Amy, Spike, Faith, and Wesley were all greatly expanded from their original conception (in fact, all save Spike and Faith were intended to be one-shot characters) but retained due to their popularity with fans and the writing staff. (Wesley’s expanded role turned out to be particularly impactful, as Alexis Denisof and Alyson Hannigan ended up married with children after meeting while filming Buffy.) So, really, there is no right answer, as both approaches have resulted in some great television. However….

There’s also something to be said about making a change to your creative plans in response to viewer feedback. And both of my above examples, Babylon 5 and Buffy, were early pioneers in creators interacting with fans online. But in case of the outrage over Tara’s murder on Buffy, the complaints and the response have aged badly, bordering on being biphobic. Other than Terry Moore’s classic indie comic Strangers in Paradise and John Constantine, the lead character of DC’s Vertigo-imprinted comic Hellblazer, there were no bisexual characters in mainstream mass media (and an indie comic-even if it was critically lauded-and a comic published as part of a mature-audiences imprint stretch the definition of “mainstream”). And the number of out bisexuals in film, TV, politics, and the like was fairly small. A great deal of the issue was that gay and straight people alike denied the very existence of bisexuality, and when they did, being bi meant you were derided as being a nymphomaniac or unable to make up your mind. Declaring all of the pre-existing messy character development thrown Willow’s way to be null and void played right into these stereotypes, and the conception of Kennedy (whose actress, Iyari Limón, has rather ironically come out as bisexual in the years since Buffy ended) was sloppy and rushed.

Worse yet is the aforementioned issue of Willow’s character growth being limited. Before Tara gets shot, Willow is incredibly binary in her world view. She cuts off a great deal of her relationship with Xander in Season 3 after “Lovers Walk” because reconciling with Oz is “right” (never minding still extant feelings for Xander that don’t entirely fade until she learns he’s had sex with Faith), she flips pretty strongly against Faith once she learns that Xander had sex with her (following a chilling scene where Faith nearly rapes Xander), and there are also the incidents in “Triangle” and “Tough Love” mentioned previously. After Tara’s murder, Willow’s binary view of the world shatters: she has to reconcile her “Dark” period at the end of Season 6 with her “Light” periods in the other seasons (a process not fully realized until the Season 9 comics). Faith similarly is no longer someone to be purely hated, because Willow herself has killed and done some pretty vile things. But the binary periods of her romantic life (Xander and Oz on the one side, Tara and later Kennedy and Aluwyn on the other) are not fully reconciled, even though Oz appears during a substantial portion of the Season 8 comics (in addition to it being Xander, Willow’s first love, who stops her from destroying the world, as well as her implied attraction to Dracula in Season 5 and having to be reminded that she is gay in “Him” when pining over a magic-infused boy at Sunnydale High). Instead, Willow is thrust into a relationship with Kennedy (eventually cheating on her and then dumping her during the Season 8 comics), and then pursues a potentially self-destructive dalliance with female snake-demon Aluwyn (which ultimately plays out over a decade of continuity). Unless Joss is playing a sneaky-ass long game, this arc towards balance in Willow’s character evolution seems to be absent in one very defining area.

I must note, though, that as a fan, I had expected anything but a relationship for Willow in Season 7, or at least not until the last couple of episodes of the season, and in the most tentative of ways. To see an “anti-Tara” like Kennedy enter a full-fledged relationship with Willow in less than half the episodes it took for her to get with either Oz or Tara was and is extremely jarring. To have this all play out while striking an intense (and to my eternal regret, now lapsed) friendship and relationship with a mostly closeted bisexual woman who was a fan of the show (and a fellow Willow/Xander shipper) was downright maddening. Worse, Kennedy was the de facto face of the Potential Slayers that invaded the series en masse in its final year, meaning that an already difficult character represented two things that disrupted the dynamic between the show’s Core Five characters (Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, and Dawn).

The pigeonholing of Willow’s sexuality was compounded, however, when Joss Whedon revived Buffy and Angel in comics. Fairly early in Season 8, one of the newly activated Slayers, Satsu, falls in love with Buffy, and they ultimately spend the night together twice. The storyline made headlines in the comics world (and even Sarah Michelle Gellar herself reacted positively at the development), but the emphasis on why Buffy ultimately rejected Satsu was placed almost entirely on the notion that Buffy was absolutely straight, as opposed to the very good reasons she would have (namely, that Satsu was Buffy’s subordinate at the time, and the actually stated point that Buffy’s romances always end badly for the other person). Even more worrying was that Willow and Kennedy were just as enthusiastic in declaring Buffy straight without even the slightest consideration that she might be bi. Now, granted, as I currently write this, Satsu is finally slated to return (nearly a decade in continuity after we last saw her reacting poorly to Buffy and Angel doing it like bunnies during Twilight), but I for one hold no illusions that Buffy is going to dump Spike for Satsu.

This is ultimately my problem with limiting Willow’s sexuality to a binary state: it mutes the truly inspiring and wonderful message of Willow and Tara’s relationship, that love is about the person, and not their gender. Furthermore, it seems rather backwards in an era where the concept of fluidity of sexual and gender identities are being understood and encouraged, particularly in popular culture. Torchwood, which owes a lot to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, really excelled on this point, presenting a full spectrum of sexual orientations (most notably with Jack, who identifies as an “omnisexual” in-series), and now its parent show, Doctor Who, has rather explicitly revealed departing companion Clara Oswald (and author Jane Austen) to be bi. Even The Legend of Korra, in astounding even myself by becoming the first American cartoon series with a same-sex relationship, has seen the show’s creators state in no uncertain terms that Korra and Asami are both bi, which addresses fairly and honestly their previous relationships with Mako in a fictional context.

While it’s not shocking to see newer works surpass their inspirations, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an ongoing concern, and quite frankly, I expect better of it. I want to see the comic tackle bisexuality, and I also think that there are some potentially great and challenging ways to tackle transgender issues in the face of “Chosen”, and more importantly, I think that Joss and the other Buffy writers past and present can write such stories that are even better than my half-formed ideas. (They do get paid to write, after all, while I don’t.) I do hope, however, that one of my favorite TV shows (and comic books) gives me something to sing about once more.

BWX

Namely, by admitting once and for all that Buffy/Willow/Xander is the series’ one true relationship.
And yes, I’m actually fairly serious about this.

Mirror, Mirror: The Cosby Show

I’ve written about I Spy and Fat Albert, but now it’s time to complete the trifecta of Bill Cosby-related posts with the biggest hit of the lot: The Cosby Show. It was the most successful sitcom of the ’80s, and one of the great pillars of the genre (along with I Love LucyAll in the FamilySeinfeld, and both the American and British versions of The Office). It was one of the most positive examples of African Americans on TV in the face of a new, even nastier strain of racism that has been growing in this country since Ronald Reagan was elected President. The cast was incredibly talented, and there were tons of superb guest actors and celebrities throughout the entire run. However, there are also some serious story and behind-the-scenes issues with the series. (And that’s before the issue of Bill Cosby’s multiple alleged sexual assaults come into play.)

The sexual assaults are a primary issue for The Cosby Show because unlike I Spy and Fat Albert, some of the accusations have involved women who appeared on the show, and a number of the accusers say Cosby assaulted them on the set of the show. Other than the Playboy Mansion, no other location is as tied to Cosby’s horrendous legacy. It also means that either Cosby hid it from the other people involved with his show, or they turned their back to it. The entire situation is vile, pure and simple, and it taints The Cosby Show.

Of course, it’s easy to say that this is the only real issue with the series, besides the usual issues of continuity (oldest daughter Sondra simply did not exist in the pilot, and the dialogue to that effect was never revised, for instance) and bad episodes (a reality for all TV shows). The entire Huxtable family is based on Bill Cosby, his wife, and their five children, and the entire sexual assault scandal has exposed the idea of Bill Cosby’s family being suitable for such a model as a total sham. Also difficult is the issues Cosby had with Lisa Bonet, who played the second-oldest Huxtable child, Denise. In 1987, Bonet got married to Lenny Kravitz, appeared in the movie Angel Heart, and appeared in a topless photo shoot for Interview magazine. The marriage was the only thing that didn’t create controversy (though rumors persist that Cosby wasn’t thrilled about that development, either).

And with her slated to star in the spin-off series A Different World, Bonet’s popularity with Bill Cosby plummeted, and then completely cratered when she got pregnant, which forced the series (which was already undergoing major revisions after the first season) to drop Denise since the character was a “good girl”, and therefore unlikely to get pregnant out of wedlock. Ultimately, Bonet returned to The Cosby Show, but ended up getting fired during the penultimate season over a “creative dispute”.

Then there’s Theo, who was based off Cosby’s only son, Ennis. The first episode is rather infamous for the scene wherein Cliff tears into his son after he brings home a bad report card, and it sets up a running plot with Cliff and Theo butting heads, usually over school. The problem is, Cosby’s son Ennis was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia, which was dutifully incorporated into Theo’s character. That episode is quite frankly a revelation for Theo, and represents a complete sea change for the character. But many of the previous episodes are instantly rendered to be cruel, and the lip service to this in the episode where Theo’s dyslexia is revealed is just not enough, particularly since the brutal and horrific murder of Ennis Cosby in the years since The Cosby Show left the air.

Lastly, there’s a big problem with The Cosby Show projecting a much more idyllic world for the Huxtables than is plausible. Part of this is because of all the celebrities that went out of their way to appear on the show (one of the best examples being an appearance by Stevie Wonder as himself). But a huge amount of this is because of Cosby’s objection to, as stated by Eddie Murphy in his stand-up film Raw, “filth flarn filth”. While he does have an argument, The Cosby Show is often a bit Pollyannaish at times, especially when compared to A Different World, which tackled serious issues head on with refreshing regularity (and was the first non-news program on US television to address HIV and AIDS). And with Cosby’s blatantly hypocritical moralizing (which ultimately led to the Hannibal Buress rant that turned public opinion against him), it’s pretty much impossible to defend him or the show on this count.

But with all of these many concerns, The Cosby Show is still a very, very funny show, and its production values are pretty excellent. And again, in America of the Reagan era, seeing a minority family on television functioning normally was a big deal (and speaking as someone from a white bread state like Vermont, I cannot emphasize how influential The Cosby Show and A Different World were to my perception of race growing up). But, damn, is it hard to go back to The Cosby Show now with everything we know now.

Next week, we’re going to step back in time a bit and visit a couple of 1983 shows featuring a certain helluva tough actor.

Mirror, Mirror: Muppet Babies

This is one of those inevitable posts here on Star Trek Debriefed.

There are certain things that define the ’80s: Star Wars, Michael Jackson (and specifically Thriller), Ronald Reagan, synthesizers, breakdancing, video games, VCRs, cable television, MTV, The Smurfs, and Muppet Babies. While I’m not covering everything I just listed (I’m pretty ill-equipped to write anything about growing up with the music of the ’80s because I missed a lot of it on account of my parents being seriously lame in their musical tastes), I pretty much have to touch upon Muppet Babies. In many ways, it was the Fat Albert of the ’80s: the immensely popular cartoon that also managed to win over critics and parents’ groups. (Muppet Babies even managed to win multiple Emmys, a feat that Fat Albert never managed.) However, while Fat Albert was the primary thing Bill Cosby did on the national stage in the ’70s, Muppet Babies was just one cog of Jim Henson’s then-omnipresent Muppet franchise.

Jim Henson was one of the great success stories of television, and one of the great “American Dream” stories, as well. From humble local TV roots, Henson built one of the most successful independent film and TV studios in the world. By 1984, Jim Henson and the Muppets were internationally known and beloved, with Sesame StreetThe Muppet Show (which, while having ended in 1981, was widely syndicated through the entire decade), Fraggle Rock, a number of TV specials and movies (including The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, for which Henson provided heavy assistance in the production) to their credit. Henson Associates managed to pull off a rare feat with their work: family entertainment that had plenty of substance for adults (including a sly streak of adult humor that persists to this day).

So, when The Muppets Take Manhattan featured a fantasy sequence with the familiar Muppet characters as infants, it came as no surprise when an entire TV series sprang forth from the concept. What was surprising was that the show was animated. Part of this was certainly related to the Saturday morning time slot: Jim Henson was an unrepentant perfectionist, and that would have been completely impossible to achieve with the labor-intensive and technically challenging art of puppeteering at the budget CBS was willing to set. While George Lucas (with whom Henson was closely associated during the ’80s) had chosen the Canadian animation studio Nelvana to handle Star Wars-related animation work, Henson chose to work with Marvel Productions (who, in their previous form as DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, had assisted with the animation of the lightsabers in Star Wars), who was at the time closely affiliated with iconic Japanese animation studio Toei. Writing for the first couple of seasons was handled by extremely prolific animation writer Jeffrey Scott, and most of the songs were written by Alan O’Day and Janis Liebhart, with the theme song being written by Hank Saroyan (who did just about everything except animate the show at various points) and Rob Walsh (who also composed the background music), with the conceit behind the series being the power of imagination. Inventively, the show augmented the robust fantasy sequences with stock footage, much of it from old public domain libraries, but occasionally from big-budget blockbusters, including Star Wars (with the sounds effects from those clips finding their way in Marvel cartoons for the rest of the studio’s life) and the first two Indiana Jones movies. In true Muppet fashion, the Muppet Babies regularly interacted with the stock footage via chroma-keyed animation.

However, the show’s most famous humor came in the form of running gags. Piggy’s (largely unrequited) love for Kermit, Gonzo’s (completely unrequited) love for Piggy, Fozzie’s bad jokes (and the mountains of tomatoes thrown at him in response), Gonzo’s status as a Weirdo, the horn noise made whenever Gonzo’s nose was crushed, and more were hammered mercilessly and successfully. The most famous joke, however, was in the end-of-episode stingers, which featured Animal announcing, “Go bye bye!”

The end result was that Muppet Babies won Emmys for Outstanding Animated Program for its first four seasons and another two for Outstanding Film Sound Editing, and one for Outstanding Film Sound Mixing, as well as the Humanitas Award following the first season. But all was not perfect with the series. The second season, expanded to a full hour and re-titled Muppets, Babies & Monsters, landed with a resounding thud when the animated segments for the partly live-action Little Muppet Monsters half of the program were not delivered on time after the third episode.

Jim Henson himself made the decision to axe the second half hour, and from there on out, Muppet Babies ran two episodes (one new, and the other a rerun from previous seasons) until the series ended (with the exception of one season where the show was expanded to 90 minutes after Garbage Pail Kids was cancelled days before its series premiere).

However, despite this stumbling block, Muppet Babies was ultimately an unparalleled success. Which was ripped off repeatedly, to little positive effect. DiC revived Archie in animation with The New Archies, which saw the cast of the comics reduced to junior high-schoolers. And Hanna-Barbera, who never could resist ripping off a good idea and making it worse (even their own), created The Flintstones KidsYo Yogi!Tom & Jerry Kids, and A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. With the exception of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (which, besides being a loving send-up of the original series, was and still remains in continuity for the Scooby-Doo franchise), those shows were all (if you’ll pardon my French) FUCKING TERRIBLE. The late ’90s saw a rebirth of this idea, but thankfully, that’s well beyond the purview of Star Trek Debriefed. Much as was the case with Lost In Space and other Irwin Allen shows in relation to Star Trek, a unique and interesting approach to television eventually became a bit of a joke thanks to pale imitations. However, none of Muppet Babies‘ imitators (with the one exception) lasted, and the series itself has long been one of the most requested DVD releases (though, like with the star-studded later seasons of The Muppet Show, royalties and rights are believed to be an issue).

Next week, we’re staying in 1984, and our third and final visit with the work of Bill Cosby.

Mirror, Mirror: The Transformers

In the ’80s, children in America fell in love with giant robots for the first time. Sure, Gigantor, one of the first Japanese cartoons imported to America in the ’60s, was about a giant robot, and the Godzilla movies and the various Ultraman TV shows had giant robots in them, as well, but these guys never captured the public imagination like the robots in VoltronRobotech, and most importantly, The Transformers.

Like so many cartoons of the ’80s, The Transformers was based on a toyline, and as the name suggests, the gimmick of the toys is that they transform, usually from cars and planes and other vehicles into giant robots. However, the Transformer toys have a more complicated history than that. Toymaker Hasbro, partly in response to Tonka licensing a Japanese toyline named Machine Robo to be marketed in the US as GoBots, licensed transforming toys from Japanese toy company Takara, from the Diaclone and Micro Change toylines. (Additional toys were licensed from Takatoku Toys, ToyCo, and ToyBox.) Despite being wildly incompatible in terms of scale, the toys were well-constructed, and with a few notable examples, had human proportions in their robot modes. The gimmick was enough to make the toys a success, but Hasbro didn’t stay pat.

As with G.I. Joe, Hasbro skirted network rules by propping up a terribly-written Transformers comic book (seriously-Transformers comic books make the G.I. Joe ones look almost good) with an animated TV ad, which was incorporated into the inevitable toy commercials and primed the pump for the cartoon. That cartoon was an instant success, despite an insanely short production schedule that resulted in an astonishing number of animation errors and re-takes (the fourth regular episode of the series, “Fire in the Sky”, was delayed until December from an intended October airing because literally half the episode needed to be re-shot) and an extremely limited cast (there were far more of the heroic Autobots than evil Decepticons, resulting in tons of generic place-filler characters to even the odds).

The main reason for this is that The Transformers‘ cast (both the characters and the actors themselves) was nothing short of superb. Of particular note were lead hero Optimus Prime, lead villain Megatron, treacherous second-in-command Starscream, super-sized space ship Skyfire, and the original three special teams: the Dinobots, the Insecticons, and the Constructicons. While it’s essentially a guarantee that the main hero and villain will receive a particular focus on shows like this, the writers of The Transformers almost reveled in not only having the two characters face off, but in making it personal. Prime in particular became a father figure to a lot of kids, in no small part because the Autobots introduced in the second season were a bit more childish than the more mature, jaded characters introduced in the other seasons. Starscream, besides codifying a popular trope in television (link not provided on account of me not being evil), was one of the more prominent examples of, “Hey! It’s….” since Chris Latta’s performance as Starscream was largely the same as his performance as Cobra Commander on G.I. Joe (minus the occasional hissing). Skyfire, while a personal favorite character, is more remembered due to the legal issues surrounding his use. The toy, named Jetfire, was one of the ones licensed from Takatoku Toys, which was acquired by Bandai, making a Japanese release impossible. However, the Jetfire toy was, in Japan, a recreation of the VF-1S Super Valkyrie from iconic Japanese cartoon The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, and pioneering American dubbing studio Harmony Gold held the international license to the series, and was in the process of localizing it as part of Robotech. So, the character was renamed and redesigned, and writers were ultimately discouraged from using the character.

As for the special teams, the Dinobots, besides having a fruitful career as comedy mules, were robot dinosaurs, which is as awesome as it sounds. The Insecticons were robot bugs, and it was established from the start that they could create a horde of clones (which invited kids to ask for multiples of the three toys). However awesome these groups sound, the Constructicons, besides transforming from green and purple construction vehicles into robots, were able to merge into a much bigger robot, Devastator. While this was, to an extent, the main conceit behind Voltron (the five lions did not transform into robots in addition to combining to form the title character), it was explosively popular in The Transformers, and soon the toyline and series was filled with these gestalts….but none were quite as impressive as Devastator.

However, nothing lasts forever, and The Transformers saw a nastier fall than most. Hasbro, seeing the huge successes of The Transformers and G.I. Joe (and hoping to make one out of their My Little Pony toys for girls), started commissioning Marvel and Sunbow to make movies based on their properties. G.I. Joe: The Movie was planned to be released first, but production issues (namely, the issues surrounding Serpentor’s origin) pushed it to the third release slot. This meant that Transformers: The Movie was released first and, taking inspiration from G.I. Joe: The Movie‘s plot (which was planned to feature the death of lead character Duke as a major plot point), pretty much the entire first season cast was killed off in the first half hour. Not shockingly, children were traumatized (as the audience for The Transformers was younger than G.I. Joe’s), especially since one of the dead was Optimus Prime himself. At the end of the film, the only confirmed first-season Autobots were Bumblebee, Cliffjumper, Jazz, and the Dinobots…..which immediately backfired on Sunbow. Jazz, a popular and regularly appearing character, was essentially retired when his voice actor, Scatman Crothers, was forced into retirement as production of the second season wrapped up when his lung cancer (which he had been hiding) spread to his esophagus. He died in November of 1986. Cliffjumper’s voice actor, Casey Kasem, walked out on the series over a character he considered to be offensive, and he took his friend (and Scooby-Doo co-star) Don Messick with him. And for reasons unknown, most of the second season cast was sidelined, which meant that the cast was almost entirely new, and with the failure of the movie, most kids were out of the loop on all but Prime’s death and Megatron’s reformation into the batshit insane Galvatron. A hastily-produced two-part episode, “The Return of Optimus Prime”, sought to rectify the most notorious character death, but the damage was done, and only three more episodes were produced (and these episodes were extremely poorly distributed and rarely seen until the revival of the show’s popularity in the late ’90s).

However, despite the cancellation of the series and the downturn of popularity of the toys, Transformers never really disappeared. A weak sequel effort (which utilized a re-edited version of the original cartoon) called Transformers: Generation 2 floundered about for a couple of year before Beast Wars revived interest in the brand. And while Beast Wars saw the beginning of Hasbro (and their various media partners) engaging the internet fanbase with half-baked continuity nods to the original cartoon (or, more frequently, the poorly written comics that online fans preferred for reasons that escape logical explanation), love of the original series and the transforming gimmick (which is still insanely awesome, after all) has remained constant (as seen by the constant flow of toy reissues and new toys designed to better mimic the original cartoon).

Next week (and maybe on Thursday this time), it’s time to discuss another animated trend-starter…..whose trend had results as awful as the show was good.

Mirror, Mirror: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

(One of these videos is not like the other because of the current sorry state of the Filmation library.)

One of the bitter ironies of having cartoons limited to Saturday and Sunday mornings and for a two-to-three hour period on weekdays across three channels was that a greater percentage of the cartoons were reruns of older shows in that environment than under today’s 500 channel world of cable (or, in my case, satellite) television. It’s practically impossible to watch an ’80s or even ’90s show on TV these days, and forget about older shows. But in the ’80s, older cartoon shows were everywhere. And while I covered a lot of this ground when discussing The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, this point needs to be re-emphasized, as does another detail: the networks hated Filmation with a blinding passion by the time I turned 5 (which is when I start remembering watching cartoons).

But here we are, discussing two of Filmation’s finest cartoons of the 1970s: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. The former, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs series of books, was a significant series for Filmation, and for TV animation. While the animated Star Trek marked a return to action-adventure for Filmation (a genre that the studio was literally built on in the ’60s, with Journey to the Center of the Earth in particular being a fond favorite of mine), Tarzan was the flagship action series for the studio, anchoring a number of programs with the notoriously mis-titled Super 7 until the early ’80s. Additionally, Tarzan was the show where Filmation began using rotoscoping to increase the level of realism in their shows.

These technical and behind-the-scenes details obscure Tarzan‘s reason for greatness: it was, hands down, the best adaptation of the books ever produced. Granted, the Tarzan books aren’t exactly great literature (and are very much products of their time), but they are exciting adventures with a well-crafted world and an excellent hero. Unlike most of the prior adaptations, the Mangani ape language is faithfully used, and Nkima, not Cheeta, is Tarzan’s monkey companion throughout the series. Beyond this, there was plenty for Filmation to work with, and the studio did not disappoint. The art, inspired by the work of legendary artist Burne Hogarth (while still very much in the Filmation style), features some of the strongest background paintings of any Filmation series. And Ray Ellis’ score, typically a high point in Filmation cartoons, reached new levels with Tarzan. Alternately exotic and sweltering, the score is unlike anything else, and is bolstered by some great early synthesizer work. At present, it is one of the most demanded releases from Warner Archive (Warner holds distribution rights to this and a number of other Tarzan adaptations), and I’m inclined to agree: it’s a beautiful, enthralling program with a superb cast (it’s one of the precious few Filmation productions that the great Ted Cassidy worked on, it addition to Filmation regulars Robert Ridgely, Jane Webb, and Alan Oppenheimer).

On the other side of the spectrum, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was based on the stand-up comedy of Bill Cosby (specifically, the stories of his childhood in North Philadelphia), which had first been adapted into a rarely-seen special, Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert, animated by Ken Mundie with music by Herbie Hancock. The special was far from a smashing success, and worse, it had cost $400,000 (just shy of $2.6 million today), which was also supposed to cover a second special, which Filmation ended up producing (the equally rarely-seen Weird Harold Special, which has never seen a home video release, nor was it ever shown a second time). Lou Scheimer had been eager to produce Fat Albert as early as 1969 (he had been in talks with Cosby before the comedian had went with Mundie), and the hard work paid off: not only was Fat Albert Filmation’s most successful cartoon (it aired on CBS from 1972-1984, an eternity for Saturday mornings), it was the studio’s most acclaimed production, as the educational bent made it a critical darling while the music and fun resonated with kids.

While I Spy losing exposure in the wake of Bill Cosby’s rape scandal is harsh, Fat Albert losing exposure represents a huge loss, not only because of its continued popularity, but because it is still the gold standard of educational cartoons 40+ years later. Most of the shows that carry the “E/I” designation are quite frankly boring as Hell, and pretty much none of them tackle the serious subjects that Fat Albert did regularly. Besides the landmark episode “Busted” from the syndicated run (which replicated the now-debunked Scared Straight!, including the profanity), episodes tackled drugs, gang violence, STDs, racism, and other similar fare at a time when cartoons were at their blandest and most inoffensive. Even now, there is still a lot of value in the series, dated as it may seem.

Both of these shows aired on CBS during the 1983-84 season, which is the first year of Saturday morning cartoons I can recall with any sort of memory. Tarzan aired right after Dungeons & Dragons for most of the season, sandwiched between Saturday Supercade and The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, while Fat Albert aired in an early afternoon time slot, which while successful in the ’70s, was a death slot in the ’80s (and would be taken over by college football after NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma broke up the NCAA’s tight control on how many games were aired each week). As little as I remember that run (and the syndicated series was one of many to never come to Vermont), I distinctly recall the 1989 run on NBC (mentioned in the Dungeons & Dragons post), and it was an old favorite to my 10 year-old self. But most importantly, these were the two shows that formally began my admiration for the work of Filmation.

Next week, it’s time for more ’80s TV, but this time from 1984.