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"SpongeBob: The First 100 Episodes" Is Absorbant, Yellow, Porous Nostalgia

Its been interesting to watch SpongeBob SquarePants blossom into a bona fide cultural force. When it first aired, the show’s quirky humor and endearing characters came as a relief at a time when Pokémon dominated Saturday mornings, Disney was on the decline, and Nickelodeon seemed determined to greenlight every piece of ugly, poorly written trash that Klasky-Csupo pitched them. As other people gradually picked up on SpongeBob‘s virtues it became the biggest breakout hit in cartoondom since The Simpsons. As a testament to all that the yellow, spongy one has accomplished, Nickelodeon has rounded up SpongeBob’s First 100 Episodes in a grand DVD package.

As I relived my turn-of-the-century Nicktoon nostalgia by watching the first season of SpongeBob, it became clear to me that the show just had all of the ingredients to be a smash hit. It is not a complex show. It focuses on the titular specimen of the Porifera phylum and his relationships with his dopey starfish friend Patrick; his (amazingly intelligent at times) pet snail Gary; his avaricious boss Mr. Krabs; his curmudgeonly neighbor and co-worker Squidward; the scheming villain Plankton; and, most bizarrely of all, Sandy, a squirrel SpongeBob saves from a giant clam before the first half-hour is over. Rounding out the cast is SpongeBob’s long-suffering boating school teach Ms. Puff and the elderly semi-retired superheroes Mermaidman and Barnacleboy, whose encounters with SpongeBob form a small arc within the show.

The main characters are introduced and their basic personalities established within the first three half-hour episodes on the first disc of this DVD set, and the 97 episodes that follow just focus on the different tribulations this small troupe of characters get involved in. That, in a way, is part of the beauty of this show. In spite of the bizarre nature of the characters, SpongeBob SquarePants at its core is very much a simple character-driven comedy show whose humor mostly derives from the way the characters live and breathe and bounce off each other. SpongeBob, as has been described by many, is a naïve and optimistic sort who is endearing whether he’s reaching out to his friends or busting their chops. Mr. Krabs remains hilarious in the face of his progressively nefarious efforts to get or hold onto money. Squidward is often forced to admit that his life would be pretty boring without SpongeBob. And no cartoon villain has made evil look quite as exciting as Plankton has.

Seasons 1 and 2 are inarguably the best seasons of the five seasons included on this disc. Most of the staff that worked on SpongeBob in its early years had worked on The Ren and Stimpy Show or Rocko’s Modern Life before taking on the sponge, and it almost goes without saying that their experience on those superlative shows rubbed off on SpongeBob in a major, positive way. Almost every episode is jam-packed with witty dialogue, amazingly funny sight gags, “wink-wink” jokes that escaped Nickelodeon’s notoriously scissors-crazy BS&P department, and all sorts of little, idiosyncratic touches. Rewatching these episodes reminded me of how lucky we are that it was SpongeBob that became an international cultural smash instead of, say, CatDog or Rocket Power.

Season 3 starts off almost as strongly as Season 2, but has the most “gimmick” episodes of the show’s pre-movie run, resulting in a surfeit of Patchy the Pirate. Patchy (portrayed by Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob) appears in live-action bookends that surround the half-hour specials and does shtick related to that episode. He only appeared in 1.5 episodes in Season 2, where his material was legitimately funny, but he appears in twice as many episodes in Season 3, and his material is significantly more tiresome. The writing becomes flatter, the comedy becomes more telegraphed, and episodes begin to stop making sense even by the standards of earlier episodes (For example, in one SpongeBob must overcome his fear of injuring his butt to save Patrick and Sandy from a gorilla).

Fans aren’t entirely unjustified in their disdain for the seasons that followed. By the time seasons 4 and 5 were in production, creator Stephen Hillenberg’s involvement in the series had dwindled away, and most of the writers had departed en masse for Cartoon Network and elsewhere. Thus, the newest episodes of SpongeBob, like The Simpsons after Mike Scully and Ian Maxton-Graham took over things, trade in much of the subtlety and wit for base and often juvenile writing. Episodes that had once been driven by quirky personalities are now coldly beholden to clichéd sitcom-style plots. In one, Patrick, due to a misunderstanding, dresses up as a woman that Squidward and Mr. Krabs fight over; in another, Patrick becomes an erudite genius of almost Brainy Smurf-level insufferability. Everything from “SpongeBob and Patrick mistake a maximum security prison for summer camp” to “SpongeBob and Patrick must shrink in order to enter Squidward Fantastic Voyage-style” is covered.

The characters have shifted too. SpongeBob is no longer quite as well-meaning, or even capable of a frame of mind other than sheer destructive hyperactivity, and this is not helped by the fact that Tom Kenny’s vocal performances have lost a lot of their range. Most cartoon writers nowadays believe that idiot characters must also be utterly unbearable and callous, and so Patrick is now twice the jerkass that the latter-day Homer Simpson ever was. It was a running joke that Plankton had an overinflated and misplaced confidence in his own “college-educated” plans, but now he can’t even breathe without a reminder from his computer wife.

Still, at least the later episodes haven’t fundamentally changed the show’s core dynamic. When the creativity began to run dry on Rugrats, Klasky-Csupo indiscriminately started adding assorted Cousin Olivers, Scrappy Doos, and Poochies to the show’s cast, abused it with gimmick episodes, did lousy crossovers, and created a spin-off in which the babies were “Totally Radical” tweenagers. Even if the writing isn’t what it once way, SpongeBob SquarePants is still about the title character and his friends, just like when the show first debuted. I have to respect that.

The First 100 Episodes doesn’t really offer much in addition to previous season sets. “Just One Bite” once again lacks a scene in which Squidward is blown up with a lit match and bucket of gasoline, but the uncut version has been run so infrequently and inconsistently than I don’t even think of the scene as censored anymore. However, “Help Wanted” is once again the first segment of the first episode, and best of all “Shanghaied” is restored to its original televised form, meaning that the alternate unaired endings for the episode and the Patchy footage that goes along with them are intact. Audio and video presentation hasn’t really changed from previous DVDs, which is pretty much a moot point.

On the special features front, commentaries are available for select Season 5 episodes, but regrettably for none before that. “Help Wanted: The Seven Seas edition” is a version of the pilot that cuts back and forth between different languages, making it basically a super-sized version of the bonus on the SpongeBob Season 2 set. Meatiest of all is Square Roots, a full-blown documentary that aired on VH1 last year. A number of individuals are interviewed as the history and cultural influence of the yellow one is looked at in detail.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The First 100 Episodes is an exceptionally good deal if you don’t own any of the previous season releases. It’s a mammoth and surprisingly reasonably priced set that contains all the SpongeBob anyone could ever ask for.

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