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"To SpongeBob or Not to SpongeBob": Angst Under the Sea

Another day, another SpongeBob SquarePants DVD to review. By this point, I can almost use an algorithm to churn out a notice.

1. The show, in its early days, was the most brilliant cartoon on television.
2. At some point, a lot of the magic leaked out, and the new DVD collects some of these later, inferior ‘toons.
3. It’s very hard to put one’s finger on what is missing, because it is almost impossible to figure out what, exactly, the first few seasons did so well.
4. Cue the talkback, where some posters agree with me, and others accuse me and the naysayers of being misled by nostalgia.

Do I have to say more? Oh, very well.

The recent SpongeBob collections, by coincidence or not, seem to betray the producers’ own worries about what is going on with the cheerful yellow sponge. The title episode of Whatever Happened to SpongeBob asked, well, “Whatever happened to SpongeBob?” The title episode of To SquarePants or Not to SquarePants seems similarly anxious about the main character. However you parse them, those titles suggest qualms about the character’s very identity.

Well, maybe one shouldn’t read too much into these titles. But they give over-analytic types like me pause.

While watching this latest collection, it occurred to me that the show’s underlying story structure is one thing that has recently changed for the worse. In its early seasons, the stories, such as they were, would worry obsessively at some small point, generating laughs at the baroque lengths SpongeBob or his friends would go to as they acted out their dreams or nightmares. It’s not every cartoon show that could get eleven minutes out of a character blowing bubbles, or turning an empty cardboard box into an elaborate fantasy machine, or playing around on dangerous fish hooks. The more recent episodes, though, tend to have B- or even C-stories attached to them. “To SquarePants or Not to SquarePants,” for instance, opens with an elaborate backstory that takes SpongeBob out of his signature wardrobe and puts him into some “round pants,” all of which is just a prelude to another plot line that has him becoming Squidward’s protégé at the Krusty Krab and imitating his testy colleague’s worst traits. “Squid’s Visit,” meanwhile, opens with SpongeBob trying to cajole Squidward into paying him a visit, and takes a side trip by having SpongeBob borrow his neighbor’s vacuum cleaner, before ending with Squidward suffering a nightmarish visit when he finds that SpongeBob has redecorated his pineapple as a creepily exact replica of Squidward’s own home.

“Squid’s Visit” thus contains about three good ideas for a cartoon—SpongeBob’s desperation to play host to his neighbor, his plot to get Squidward over to his house, and the shenanigans that ensue—but none of them really feel developed or even hang together all that well. Narrative and story logic are not something that SpongeBob ever really worried about in the past, and in trying to cook up elaborate motivations, as “Squid’s Visit” does, the episode wanders away from the obsessive, cartoony humor that was its original trademark without finding anything memorable in return. It’s hard not to come away from that story (or from many of the others) without the impression that the writers were unable to flesh out one idea, and so just picked up and discarded a bunch of them sequentially as they tried to fill up the running time.

On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Squidward, you will find a lot on this disc to entertain you. Aside from those first two, very Squid-centric episodes, there is “Slide Whistle Stooges,” which starts with SpongeBob and Patrick torturing Squidward as they accompany his actions with their slidewhistles, then turns Squidward himself into a maestro of mayhem as he spreads horror through the town with his own slidewhistling antics. And “Boating Buddies” puts him in Mrs. Puff’s Boating School with SpongeBob. The former, at least, has something of the old SpongeBob‘s obsessive grip on a single idea; but, by and large, your enjoyment of it and the other Squidward episodes will depend on how much of the lugubrious cephalopod you can stomach.

The disc also features “The Krabby Kronicle” and “Grooming Gary,” which are clever if a little full of themselves. In the first, Mr. Krabs decides to get rich by publishing a tabloid newspaper, and the imaginative stories he has SpongeBob write ruin the lives of many of the sponge’s friends. I suppose there’s always room for another satire on the power of the press to cause mischief and malice, but it’s a one-note idea that takes far too long to reach its glaringly obvious climax. Meanwhile, “Grooming Gary” has some Best in Show-type fun at the expense of dog shows and the like, but the jokes are more notional than real, and, again, they lead to a conclusion that is easily predictable.

The best two episodes collected here are, easily, “The Splinter” and “The Slumber Party.” “The Spinter” does feel a lot like an early SpongeBob episode, as it revolves entirely around what happens when SpongeBob gets a splinter in his thumb. I don’t recommend watching it while or just before eating; the resulting infection is vividly illustrated. “The Slumber Party” suffers from a few dead spots and some lame “sitcom” writing in spots, but it features a good three-way battle between SpongeBob, Mr. Krabs, and Mr. Krab’s daughter, Pearl, when the latter tries to throw a slumber party.

Whether or not you think SpongeBob has deteriorated from its incredibly high standards in the past few years, it still remains a cheerful and imaginative show. Those who are still fans of the show during its current run will have no reason to disdain this latest offering; those who nurse memories of what came before will still find much to entertain them. As with The Simpsons (which has traced a very similar trajectory), it’s a mark of just how amazing the series once was that it can inspire heated debate about how (and even whether) it has lost any of its sparkle.

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