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"SpongeBob" Season 5, Vol. 2: You Can't Jump the Shark When You Live Under the Sea

If you’ve listened to what a lot of other websites have said about this set of SpongeBob SquarePants episodes, you will have heard a chorus describing a show in gradual decline. The standard line is that, while SpongeBob is still good, it’s not what it once was; the magic has gone. Some of the more critical voices might even suggest that, after a movie and unexpected mainstream success, Bikini Bottom’s favourite blue-eyed resident has jumped the shark. Posters here at Tone Zone have blamed the posited drop off on the departure of executive producer Steven Hillenburg: Mickialla’s gloomy statement that “the new SpongeBob contributes to the downfall of animation on TV” represents a majority view. Even Toon Zone’s Maxie Zeus argues that the show has become one-dimensional in its characterization.

I dissent. On the evidence of Season 5, Volume 2, I would say that the show is still as good as it ever was and arguably looks better than it ever has.

I do have some reservations about this release. As a DVD set this is nothing special. It contains twenty-one episodes on two discs, and that’s about it—and these include the feature-length episode Atlantic Squarepants, which has already received its own DVD-release. It’s always slightly irritating to own the same thing twice in different places. So fans who went out and bought the Atlantis Squarepants set might feel a little short changed. There are no extras apart from a number of karaoke videos featuring songs from Atlantis Squarepants and “Pest of the West”. I can’t help but feel that fans might expect more.

That said, the ten episodes that follow Atlantis Squarepants on Disc 1 are on the whole pretty strong. I tend to like episodes that centre on the Krusty Krab, because a lot of the humour comes from the conflict between the characters who work there, and especially from the contrast between SpongeBob’s eternally wide-eyed and naïve optimist and Squidward’s tired cynic. And I think the concept of a guy who just loves his low-level job at the local burger joint remains fresh and intrinsically funny. Also, basically every time I see a Krabby Patty, I want one.

So, true to form, the strongest episodes here, “Mermaidman vs. SpongeBob” and “Le Big Switch”, are all about the Krabby Patties. There are some great “single theme” shorter episodes here too: Sandy brings home a truly horrific flea infestation in “A Flea in Her Dome”; “The Donut of Shame” finds Patrick guiltily agonizing over a donut he stole from SpongeBob; in “Blackjack” SpongeBob is terrified by the return of a childhood bully; and the jobsworth SpongeBob goes totally OTT over cleaning a dirty plate in “The Krusty Plate”. These are all pretty entertaining. The show is less successful when it tries longer narratives: “The Pest from the West” promises to be a great Western-themed, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza but, ironically, it is Disc 1′s damp squib.

Disc 2 isn’t quite as strong because several episodes in a row (“The Inmates of Summer”, “To Save a Squirrel”, “20,000 Patties Under the Sea”, “The Battle of Bikini Bottom”) focus on SpongeBob and Patrick’s Dumb and Dumber routine. I don’t tend to like SpongeBob and Patrick adventure episodes. There are still funny moments in these episodes but a lot hinges on the incredible stupidity of both characters. “The Battle of Bikini Bottom” is probably the pick, featuring as it does some risqué humor and a good old-fashioned cartoon battle between the squeaky-clean SpongeBob and the filthy, mud-wallowing Patrick. “Whatever Happened to SpongeBob?” bucks the trend with a SpongeBob solo advenure and, remarkably, boasts a guest appearance by Ray Liotta. It is one of the longer, narrative episodes, which—in my opinion—have never been the show’s forte. The highlight of Disc 2 is probably “The Two Faces of Squidward”, which casts Squidward in an unfamiliar leading role after he’s become the most handsome … erm, squid … in Bikini Bottom. “Banned in Bikini Bottom” is also a great Krusty Krab-centric pattitastic episode.

One of the outstanding things in this season is some of the extreme “gross-out” close-ups we’re treated to, a la Ren & Stimpy. The horribly detailed snapshot of Mermaidman and Barnacle Boy’s grizzled, gnarled, and decrepit bodies is particularly gruesome. “The Battle of Bikini Bottom” also has a few especially disgusting ones. I’d also praise the dialogue, which, for a show that is nominally aimed at younger kids, is often exceptional. Consider this exchange between Plankton and some of his potential customers in “20,000 Patties Under the Sea”:

Plankton: Hello little boy, would you like a Chum burger?
Boy: Ummm, does it come in raspberry?
Plankton: Er, no.
Boy: Does it come in blueberry?
Plankton: No.
Boy: Ummmmmmmm, raspberry?
Plankton: Oh come on kid, you asked me that already! Now quit wasting my time!
Boy’s mother: Hey, you can’t talk to my son that way! Who do you think you are?
Plankton: I’m Plankton, you old hag, and your son smells like boogers!
Boy’s father: Hey, you can’t talk to my wife that way! What do you think this is?
Plankton: I think it’s time for you to lose some weight, fatty, that’s what I think it is!
Old woman: Hey, you can’t talk to my grandson that way! Someone should put you in a mental hospital.
Plankton: Someone should put you in a box floating down the river, Grandma!
Old woman: (looking sad) You’re probably right.

That scene just comes out of nowhere, and this sort of thing is the norm rather than the exception.

If you’re a fan of this show of old, then do not listen to those people you might tell you that it is starting to level out. The good stuff still outweighs the bad, and out of the twenty-one episodes on this set I’d say more than two thirds are above average. Yes, the writers may take some short cuts with the characters—they are all more “one note” than they used to be. But this does not harm the show in any major way in my opinion. I would compare it to something like Season 9 of Seinfeld (which was after Larry David left). George Constanza became angrier, Jerry became shallower, Kramer became zanier, Elaine became more selfish—all of them were less three dimensional. But despite that, Season 9 had lots of great episodes and it was consistently funny.

SpongeBob‘s trajectory is quite similar: it may not be quite the same show as it was, but that does not necessarily mean it is any worse, simply that it has changed. No signs of jumping the shark just yet.

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