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"Whatever Happened to SpongeBob?": Good Question!

I’ve been a fan of SpongeBob SquarePants for a long time, and consider it one of the best cartoons of the past ten years. But I also have to confess that the cheerful sponge and I parted company some time ago. I’m not sure I can peg the exact moment I stopped paying close attention to the hit series. I think it occurred sometime around the special episode “Dunces and Dragons,” though I also remember feeling doubts about where things were headed while watching “SpongeBob B.C.” I really couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me about those specials—they didn’t seem appreciably less ingenious than some of the more mediocre regular shorts—but there was definitely something off-putting about them, and not long afterward I stopped seeking out new episodes. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve watched the show, and I don’t think I’ve seen any of the last forty or so.

“Whatever Happened to SpongeBob?”, the latest special, is thus the most recent SpongeBob I’ve seen. I wish I could say different, but it does not make me wish I’d kept in closer contact with the show.

For an extended episode, it has a surprisingly thin conceit: On a very bad day, the title character manages to piss off all of his friends and neighbors, and in despair runs away from Bikini Bottom. A fall off a cliff leaves him with amnesia, and he drifts into a big city, where he is shunned and persecuted for his love of bubble-blowing. I don’t think I’m risking any spoilers in revealing that his memory and normality (such as it is) are restored by the end.

There’s not a lot to the special to keep you occupied. One thing happens and then another thing happens, and none of it is especially funny or surprising or executed with any extraordinary finesse. Most of the physical gags seem more like ideas for gags, and though the animators carry them off competently they don’t feel especially inspired. SpongeBob has never really dabbled in surrealism or absurdity, but it never shied away from being pleasantly goofy; alas, then, that “Whatever Happened to SpongeBob?” doesn’t even really manage to go that far either. The whole thing comes off like a high-concept pitch—“What if SpongeBob got amnesia?“—whose plotting was then sketched in simply as a series of incidents. There’s a strong feeling of “following the path of least resistance,” when one would prefer that the episode improve on the arthritic “amnesia” idea.

“Whatever Happened to SpongeBob?” is being released on the DVD WhoBob WhatPants the day after it premieres on Nickelodeon, and a better answer to the episode’s title question is to be found there, in the five bonus episodes it offers. “Goo Goo Gas” has Plankton turning Mr. Krabs (and a lot of other people) into babies; “The Two Faces of Squidward” has SpongeBob’s neighbor getting (and then regretting) a fabulously handsome face; “SpongeHenge” has SpongeBob fighting off jellyfish who are attracted to the musical tones made by the wind whistling through his pores; “Banned in Bikini Bottom” is a censorship satire about what happens when Krusty Burgers are outlawed; and “Stanley S. SquarePants” brings SpongeBob’s cousin to town. These are all dispiriting shorts, especially to someone like me, who once praised the show for its “uncanny brilliance”.

That’s because the best SpongeBob stories don’t start with a situation: they start with the characters and then let those characters develop a situation. Usually, the show’s trademark nuttiness follows simply because SpongeBob and Patrick and Squidward and the others follow their bad instincts into some horrible (but hilarious) predicaments. Think of “Hooky,” where nothing more sinister than a desire to play on some attractive but dangerous fishing hooks leads to mortifying embarrassment and worse. This kind of thing resonates with us, the viewers, because we all of us have some bad instincts and remember getting into trouble because of them. But all of the shorts on this disc start with a “nutty situation,” and after that there’s nothing for the characters to do but amplify their stereotypes and characteristic clichés. This is how cartoon characters get even thinner: The Simpsons (to cite another example of the same process) long ago ceased to be about a blue-collar family whose hyped-up character traits led them into trouble and became a series about wacky things dropping onto a ceaselessly wacky family.

There is nothing irrevocably broken about SpongeBob SquarePants, nothing that couldn’t be fixed if the makers stopped thinking in terms of plot (“What crazy thing can we do to the characters this week?”) and returned to thinking in terms of the characters (“What will SpongeBob choose to do this week, and what will he do after that decision causes bad things to happen?”). This is why the best cartoon characters can last decades, long after they stop appearing in anything. Bugs Bunny, for instance, is easily separable from his particular shorts because his character transcends the plots of “Rabbit Fire” or “Long-Haired Hare” or “Bully for Bugs.” SpongeBob is similarly transcendent, but that’s because he was granted a long run of great cartoons; if he had started with this present batch, I’m not sure he would have achieved any more of a “break out” than any of his contemporaries.

I doubt there’s much pressure upon the makers to change their ways, though. SpongeBob now has his audience, and its key demographic is not going anywhere any time soon. But it’s a disappointment to watch as the show becomes something it once wasn’t: Just another kid-pandering attention-waster.

“Whatever Happened to SpongeBob?” premieres on Nickelodeon on Monday, October 13.

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