November 11, 2003

The decline of a cartoon

Bear with me -- a lengthy post signifying little is to follow.

One of the advantages of spending a few days under the weather is that I get to think about things I otherwise don't think about at all. And one of the things I was thinking about was a cartoon I enjoyed when I was a kid, and that, through the miracles of DVDs and the Cartoon Network, my son has been able to enjoy: Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?

Let me here note that I'm well aware of all the flaws of the show. It premiered in 1969, at a time when the expense of producing quality animation was prohibitive (I'm not sure, but I seem to recall that at that point, outsourcing it to a lower wage country wasn't an option -- at least, one can assume that if one reads the credits of those early Scooby-Doo cartoons). Hanna Barbera produced the show, and the team was responsible for a great number of shlocky cartoons that blighted the Saturday mornings of any number of children, myself included. They certainly played a role in the odd phenomenon of dumbing down characters -- every cartoon had to have an idiot in it, or two or three. But I digress...

As a kid (a five year old kid -- the same age my son is now -- when the show premiered), several things impressed me about Scooby-Doo. First, the smartest one in the gang was Velma, a gasp...a girl. Remember, this first aired in 1969, and the intellectual of the group was female. I found it odd that Fred was the leader, but it was soon apparent why -- he was the one who could persuade anyone -- even the recalcitrant Shaggy and Scooby -- to go into the scary house, and later, to try to catch the "ghosts". (Plus he drove the van.) He was intelligent, certainly, but not nearly as smart as Velma -- clearly, leadership involved something else, something that couldn't be reduced to SAT scores or IQ points (this is a useful lesson for intellectuals everywhere -- intelligence, in and of itself, does not necessarily make one a leader). Daphne, whom the group occasionally teased for being "Danger Prone Daphne," was nevertheless brave. She was more intuitive than the rest, but at the end -- when the gang had foiled the crooks and offered the explanation to the police -- she always showed that she had gotten it too. As for Shaggy, he's the loyal opposition, the one who questions the wisdom of going into the haunted house. Yes, he's cowardly at times, but he and Scooby draw most of the fire from the ghosts while Velma, Freddy and Daphne go about the hard work of solving the mystery. Scooby was the comic relief (along with Shaggy), but something more as well. The late Don Messick, the original voice of Scooby Doo, put it this way:

I've loved Scooby from the inception, and so has everyone else. I think it's because he embraces a lot of human foibles. He's not the perfect dog. In fact you might say he's a coward. Yet with everything he does, he seems to land on his four feet. He comes out of every situation unscathed. I think the audience - kids and more mature people as well - can identify with Scooby's character and a lot of his imperfections.

I should add that when the chips are down, when things are most dangerous, a Scooby snack is all it takes (well, or two or three) to get him to put life, limb, and tail on the line.

Add to that the various villains -- ghosts of pirates, zombies, witches, headless men, spectral knight and phantoms -- and you have, for kids at least, a winning show. But by 1972, Hanna-Barbera began tinkering with the format -- they added first Scooby-Dum, a cousin of Scooby's who was incredibly stupid, then the insufferable Scrappy Doo, presumably for comic relief (wasn't that the original Scooby's role?).

Of late, there have been two new Scooby series; I see them occasionally with the five year old, whose taste in cartoons is even more discriminating than his old man's. One, A Pup Named Scooby Doo, has dispensed with adding stupid sidekicks for comic relief. Instead, Fred is the idiot (there are breaks in the action in which the announcer tells the audience, "Freddy had a good idea," to draw attention to the incompatibility of Fred and intelligence). The other, which I think is called the New Adventures of Scooby Doo, is slightly better, but only slightly -- Fred is still the idiot, but he's also the leader (in A Pup Named Scooby Doo, Velma is clearly the leader of the group). My son finds both series subpar; he hasn't told me why, but I can't help but note that the same kid who can watch the same episode of the original series 53 times can't get through a single episode of either of the new series. I suspect this has something to do with the idiot factor -- I don't think kids get much out of watching people who are far stupider than they are, and also lack much in the way of other redeeming qualities. There are other Scooby products in which the Fred character is downplayed -- Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island comes to mind -- but nevertheless retains something of his appeal. He might not be the leader, he might not be as smart as Velma, but nevertheless he's a credible character, and shows some flashes of the old Fred (particularly when he reunites the old gang). My son enjoyed that cartoon, but somehow loses interest when one of the members of the gang is reduced to the level of the butt of jokes. I think there's a lesson in that for the makers of Saturday morning (or now 24-hour-a-day) programming: kids tend to respond more to characters they find likeable, and idiots held up as such are rarely likeable.

Posted by Ideofact at November 11, 2003 11:37 PM

the insufferable Scrappy Doo

I've never met anyone who liked Scrappy Doo. Ever. I bet you could even form an I Hate Scrappy Club in Bhutan or Vanuatu and you'd be instantly overwhelmed by membership applications.

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller at November 12, 2003 09:04 AM

Hi, There was one more thing that sets Scooby-Do apart from other cartoons: at the end of every mystery the supernatural turned out to be imposters. I think this is an important lesson for children so that they learn to think critically and not embrace superstitions just because they are unexplained.

Posted by: Mahsheed at November 13, 2003 06:49 PM

It's true, no one likes Scrappy. He is so stale.


Posted by: Troy at March 4, 2004 01:43 AM