THIS HAPPENED! IS A NEW WEEKLY COLUMN WHEREIN WE SHED LIGHT ON FORGOTTEN MOMENTS IN POP CULTURE. BECAUSE IF WE FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY, WE ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT.
Children are unavoidably, prototypically naive. In a nearly perfect loop of consumerism, their innocence makes them a perfect mark for marketers. But that’s okay, since being sold out is what makes their lives wondrous. One can imagine a dark, smoke-filled boardroom where cigar-chomping fat cats shake their heads, saying for the millionth time, “If only kids had their own money!” Because then, the cycle would be complete. They don’t know any better, so children can bask in the serendipity that their favourite action figures also happen to appear on their favourite television show, and vice versa.
It’s possible that that synergistic cynicism was never more pronounced than in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when basically every Saturday Morning Cartoon, all the ones that Gen-Xers look back on with fondness, and which are now being made into their own shared cinematic universe (by some very legit creatives, mind you), were essentially half-hour toy commercials, interrupted only by actual toy commercials. I know merchandizing still exists — I’ve seen those Adventure Time backpacks — but, at least now the licensed detritus comes after a show is successful. The detritus alone doesn’t justify the existence of the show.
That particular marketing strategy was straightforward, and frankly forgivable. Because who didn’t like Transformers? Less clear is how a show like ProStars ever existed. Remember ProStars? Probably not, since it only lasted about six months. Yet, it has stuck with me.
ProStars followed the crime-fighting adventures of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Bo Jackson. This, of course, doesn’t make any narrative sense. When would they have the time? Their respective seasons alone would create a logistical nightmare. Yet, someone conceived, pitched, sold, then created this half-hour show, confident that kids would go nuts for a cartoon, named after a cereal, that starred barely-recognizable animated avatars of three of the most famous (and famously sanitized) athletes, travelling the world in order to save kids with sports-appropriate gadgets.
One of the lessons parents realize early is how horrible some children’s programming is (we’re looking at you, Caillou). Just lazy and uninspired. That can be frustrating to parents, who are used to simple things like coherence, recognizable characters, and some shred of broad appeal in their entertainment. From a parental perspective, I imagine that ProStars wasn’t grating just because it was nonsensical — many fine cartoons delight both parents and kids by relishing in zaniness — but because it was somehow condescending in it’s lack of raison d’être.
But maybe that’s using the present to judge the past. It seems silly and insulting to throw real-life sports stars into an unreal world of action and adventure because our relationship with athletes is different now. A show like ProStars wasn’t just meant to capitalize on its subject’s popularity, but also bolster it, especially among kids, who maybe only vaguely understood real sports. And it wasn’t alone in that. Around the same time, there was a glut of Saturday Morning cartoons based on pop culture figures. The New Kids on the Block had one. MC Hammer fought bad guys with the help of talking dancing shoes (as one does). And Kid n’ Play, everyone’s second-favourite, non-threatening hip hop act (after DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, of course, who instead of getting animated starred in a sitcom that ran for six seasons on NBC), and stars of the House Party movies had one, too. Given Play’s high-top fade, being animated was probably a no-brainer.
Imagine today’s equivalent and be filled with gratitude that, as parents, you don’t have to sit through a OneDirection cartoon, or one that follows Drake’s romantic highs and lows. And, well, Kanye is already kind of a cartoon anyway.
But, the thing is, none of these cartoons would work anymore because no one needs them. Sports stars don’t need that kind of exposure. When you could only see your favourite athletes if they happened to play for, or against, your local team, on a specific night, on one of the dozen or so channels you got, it made sense to keep the flame of fandom alive by any means necessary. But now, if a kid wants to watch Steph Curry or LeBron James, he or she can. Plus, as Nicholas Hune-Brown wrote in our last issue, thanks to social media, athletes control their own messaging. They are heroes in their own adventures on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. When they talk, it’s their own voice coming out, not some actor’s (who, let’s be honest, weren’t exactly trying to nail their impressions).
What’s sadder, and which taints ProStars retroactively, is that we now know that athletes aren’t always heroes. Not even the ProStars. Michael Jordan gambled (like everyone else in the NBA at the time), Wayne Gretzky was a bit of a jerk (like everyone else at the pinnacle of their game) and Bo Jackson…truthfully, I don’t know anything about Bo Jackson, other than that he “knows” things. But, generally speaking, football isn’t terribly kid-friendly.
Mostly though, we don’t need these shows because there is no longer such a distinction between what kids and adults want in their entertainment. Everything is already aimed at kids, or might as well be. We don’t need cartoons that take pop culture figures and make them into superheroes, because every second movie is superhero flick. And, frankly, most of them (with the sad exception of anything that Zack Snyder touches) are pretty damn fun.
Luckily, they move a lot of merch, too.
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