Our Old TV: “Hey Rocky, watch me pull a serialized narrative out of my hat!”: Kids’ animation and serialized storytelling

Bullwinkle pulls Rocky out of his hat

By Noel Kirkpatrick

Welcome back to Our Old TV, a recurring feature where members of the TWTV team explore the television programs and events that were foundational to their viewer experience.

One of the reasons for American TV’s renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s was the sudden burst of deeply serialized programs like The Sopranos, 24, and (of course) Lost. You couldn’t not miss an episode lest you were left scratching your head next week, or, Milton Berle forbid, shunned at the watercooler the next day.

It’s a more complicated issue than that, of course (and more complicated than I lay out here). Television has, since its inception, had elements of deep serialization, drawing from from the radio programming — which had no shortage of serialized series — for some of its initial content. Daytime soap operas, those much maligned endangered species of the American television landscape, are the prime examples of this, and in turn helped influence the development of primetime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty in the 1970s to The Vampire Diaries and Revenge today.

But I’m not here to reclaim TV’s serialized heritage away from the most recent and beloved series. Instead, as is the custom with Our Old TV column, I want to talk about how I first came to understand serialized television programming, and it was almost entirely through children-targeted animation.

This may seem an odd thing, and I don’t mean to suggest that the series below are the only ones that exposed kids (and young teens) to understanding serialized storytelling. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Children’s programming is sometimes more ambitious than its critics give it credit for, and the show below reflect this. They also reflect changes in the television landscape when it comes to serialized storytelling across the decades.

The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show (1959-1964)
Owing the most to radio of any series on this list, The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show finished its impressive 163-episode run  20 years before I was born. Like many my age, I saw the series through syndication as it aired on both Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. My memory is hazy on which I first saw it on, and it’s entirely likely I ended up watching it on both. What matters, however, is that the series introduced me to serialized storytelling.

If you’re not familiar with the series, each episode was broken into segments. The primary draw were, of course, the adventures of Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose. Interspersed between their on-going stories were self-contained segments like Dudley Doo-Right stopping Snidley Whiplash, Mister Peabody and his boy Sherman visiting the past in the WABAC Machine, humorous takes on fairy tales and Aesop’s fables. The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show was, in that sense, a serialized series with a variety show structured around it.

And I tuned in every morning, afternoon, or evening (whenever it aired). Each episode would have two or three short segments devoted to the big arc that Rocky and Bullwinkle found themselves tackling. These stories spanned multiple episodes, ended with cliffhangers, and had recurring characters, including the bumbling Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale who are thinly veiled Soviet agents and Captain Peter “Wrongway” Peachfuzz.

These on-going stories, whether it be Bullwinkle inheriting a mountain filled with the gravity-defying Upsidaisium to the moon mice that were destroying all of America’s TV antennas, aren’t complicated. They don’t need you to have watched every episode to keep up with the plot, and you can certainly get by without it. But I think it’s important that this series instilled that serialized impulse in me. It trained me to watched each day because of its use of on-going stories and cliffhanger endings, and it likely helped prepare me for more complicated fare later on.

Robotech (1985) & Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (1995-1996 (Japan), 2000 (USA))
Pointing to anime is kind of like cheating when we’re discussing serialized television. Many of the most popular animes are heavily serialized due to their origins as manga, and since the manga is structured in a way to people keep buying the new magazine issue, it make sense to carry over that cliffhanger approach for their television adaptations.

But the two anime series that I watched when I was younger weren’t derived from manga. Robotech, in fact, is cobbled together by a number of different series by an American licenser and was then sold into weekday syndication. Gundam Wing was the latest installment in the massive Gundam franchise (it has alternate timelines and everything!), but a pivotal one for American audiences and a huge get at the time for Cartoon Network’s Toonami programming block.

Rick and Lisa in Robotech

Both series center around the use of giant robots to wage wars, both in space and on Earth, with Robotech dealing with the giant Zentradi aliens and Gundam Wing dealing with the conflict between Earth and oppressed outer space colonies. Both series are essentially space operas, with an emphasis on the opera. Despite massive space battles between mechas, on-going relationships between the characters propel the narrative forward. Does Rick Hunter in Robotech stay with Minmay, or will he realize he loves career-minded Lisa Hayes? What is going on with Lady Une, and when will Heero admit that he’s only trying to kill Relena because he’s in love with her (or as close as an brainwashed assassin is capable of) in Gundam Wing?

 Interestingly, Gundam Wing falls into the pitfalls of serialized storytelling. It suffers from aimlessness and often things just happening for the sake of happening. There was no plan, as is so often expected in serialized storytelling these days. And unlike, say, Vampire Diaries where sudden plot twists feel shocking or game-changing, people switch sides (if the sides ever make sense) for no discernible reason. While it highlights the benefits of exciting, on-going storytelling, it also highlights the problems if not well-executed.

Lots of anime fans cite a “difference” that they perceive between Japanese animation and animation from the U.S. Certainly the animation is different, but I think the big difference is anime’s general embrace of character-focused, serialized storytelling. It stands in stark contrast to the generally humor- and adventure-centric series that have self-contained episodes each day (or week). Anime provided a reason to keep coming back, and like the dedicated viewers we associated with today’s serialized dramas, they wanted immersion in those worlds and those characters. Sound like anything you know?

Gargoyles (1994-1997)
Disney’s Gargoyles aired as part of the company’s Disney Afternoon syndication package that included the likes of Goof TroopBonkersand Darkwing Duck. The series was darker than its counterparts, more serious, and balanced serialized and episodic storytelling in equal measure, complete with on-going character arcs. The other series in the package were humor and action driven, and apart from the occasional two-parter, completely self-contained. It’s telling that Gargoyles begins with a five part long series of episodes that establishes the universe. That was the series’s entire premiere week.

In the series, a clan of gargoyles from a Scottish castle in 994 are placed under a spell that seals them in stone until the castle rises about the clouds. David Xanatos (think a rich, casually evil version of Tony Stark) pays to have the castle rebuilt atop his giant Manhattan skyscraper, the gargoyles wake up in (futuristic-y) 1994 and adventures begin.

Broadway from Gargoyles

The series is dense as any primetime serialized program. With characters’ histories stretching back a millennium, there’s plenty of narrative mythology to mine (the series use of Shakespearean plays and global folklore add to this), and the second season especially exploits this aspect of the show. But like like other serialized narrative, it’s Gargoyles‘s on-going character arcs that ultimately made it special. There’s a consistency about the series that you don’t expect from this sort of animated programming (I mean, it regularly used “Previously On…” montages!).

An example: Broadway, the fun- and f0od-loving gargoyle accidentally shoots the human ally of the clan, Detective Elisa Maza, with her service weapon. Not only does Elisa spend a few episodes(!) on crutches as a result, but Hudson becomes vehemently anti-gun, going into rages whenever he sees them as a result of his mistake. It becomes a character trait for him, and many of these character get such refinements of characters on top of their base personalities.

The series isn’t overtly plot-serialized. Its second season is something of a world tour, with previous plots coming back for an episode or two, but the emphasis is largely on its episodic plots influence and change the characters, providing an uncommon amount of growth for an American animated program, especially one that aired in the afternoons.

I don’t mean to suggest that this was a huge trend within in kids’ animated programming when I was growing up. If anything, these series were outliers compared the more self-contained and episodic fare that was aimed at children, and that I regularly watched. What I do mean to suggest is that these series in particular helped to prepare me to watching primetime dramas when I became old enough to do so. So whether it was the personal stories in The West Wing or the intricate casework of The Wire, these animated programs helped me to understand the flows of serialized storytelling on television.

I would also suggest that, while outliers, these series point to the television’s long use of serialized programming, and that it was not (and is not) the sole province of primetime dramas. Even today, animated programming excels at serialized storytelling, whether it is Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the Avatar franchise, or the DC Nation block of programming of Young Justice and Green Lantern. (Anime, of course, continues to be heavily serialized.) These series may lack the nuance or complexity of those primetime programs, and may be dismissed as a result, but for me they’re as valuable a TV experience as any.

What about you? Are there any kids’ programming, animated or not, that you feel primed you for serialized dramas?

Previously on Our Old TVLes Chappell on Mystery Science Theater 3000

8 Responses to “Our Old TV: “Hey Rocky, watch me pull a serialized narrative out of my hat!”: Kids’ animation and serialized storytelling”

      • Noel Kirkpatrick

        It’s very very good. I wish Disney would release the second half of season 2 for purchase, but it’s unlikely to ever happen due to poor sales of season 1 and the first half of season 2.

        Reply
    • Noel Kirkpatrick

      I actually never watched Pokemon on a regular basis. I’ve seen episodes, and saw episodes when the property was HUGE, but I never found it be very compelling. Was the on-going storyline very heavy? Everything seemed rather self-contained, beyond some multi-part stories and Team Rocket’s on-going quest to get Pikachu.

      Reply
      • Rob

        Pokemon would have occasional plot-advancing episodes — Ash would get new Pokemon and lose old ones, and make progress on his quest to conquer whatever league he was currently in. Looking back, it was less plot advancement and more shuffling characters and locations in and out of the status quo, mainly to work in the new Pokemerchandaise. But as a kid, seeing a show where the status quo could change at all was a bit of a shock.

        Now Digimon — that was what taught me to watch every week for the latest plot twist. It would probably stand up to any of the shows cited above for ongoing narratives and character development.

        Reply
        • Noel Kirkpatrick

          Rob,

          Thanks for dropping in!

          That was my perception of Pokemon, but I wasn’t sure how accurate it was.

          Digimon is, like Pokemon, outside my experience. I never watched it, and never had any interest in it. I think it was a similar issue that I experienced with Pokemon: I didn’t engage in any of the transmedia stuff (video games, card games, etc) so I didn’t feel compelled to watch the TV series.

          Reply

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