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Looking Back: Chowder

This month, two cartoons will have ended their runs permanently on the Cartoon Network. Chowder and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack represent the beginning of an era to some and the end of one to others. Their relatively short lifespans have been marked by high drama, extreme office politics, and a chuckle here or there. Both shows’ runs can both serve as cautionary tales, tragedies, or horror stories, depending on your outlook. Twice this week, I will look back on what was and what could have been on these two shows. The first is an oldie but a goodie, Chowder.

 

Despite only being four years apart from the present day, the Cartoon Network of 2007 seems like ages ago, an alien world compared to our current situation. They were uncertain times. The network was starting to experiment with live-action programming, and the animated situation looked pretty dour. Most new cartoons seemed to fizzle by the second season, and it seemed as if the channel’s main strategy was to coast on tried-and-true hits like Billy & Mandy and Kids Next Door as long as they could. Meanwhile, Moongate had rocked the executive rosters at Turner, setting into motion events that still effect the Cartoon Network of today. Amidst the chaos and stagnation, Chowder premiered on November 2nd.

Chowder was about the titular plucky young chef-to-be, and his adventures in the kitchen with his mentor Mung Daal (along with his abrasive wife Truffles) and grumpy co-worker Shnitzel. The show opened to rave reviews and great ratings, and for good reason: Chowder was different, a quirky, eclectic diamond in a sea of otherwise forgettable shows afraid to take risks. The show was the beginning of a new era for Cartoon Network Studios, in that focus was put once again on the artists and their creative visions, with storyboards controlling most of the action. While the show was more dialogue-based and less visually anarchic than the studio’s later efforts, Chowder was still host to breathtaking and exotic architecture and imaginative concepts of food and how the citizens of Marzipan City cooked it. And with Spongebob and Billy & Mandy alum C.H. Greenblatt at the helm, the show seemed to have a bright future ahead of it.

And for a time, it did. I personally remember Chowder as the show that rekindled my interest in the Cartoon Network, and the excitement it caused in the fan community, this feeling that the good times were only beginning. Was this praise deserved? While I admit that a lot of hyperbole was thrown around back then (I admittedly was a part of it), the hype was real. Unlike a lot of other series, Chowder jumped out of the gate and kept on running. It started strong and surprisingly got even stronger for quite some time. That first season had something for everyone. Children could enjoy the bright colors, fantastical worlds, and wacky (and sometimes gross) humor. Teens could pick out hidden cultural references (Heck, the episode “Grubble Gum” was built almost entirely on a Katamari Damacy reference) and innuendo. Even adults could find some humor in Mung and Truffles’ dysfunctional marriage, with some episodes (like “Mung on the Rocks” or “Shnitzel Makes a Deposit”) cutting it shockingly close to real-life adult situations.

The characters themselves were all pretty likable. Unfortunately, I feel that some characters weren’t as fleshed-out as others. Despite being the title character, Chowder himself never seemed to break-out of his “dim-witted and gluttonous apprentice eager to cook” persona. A nugget of character development would be placed here or there in the early episodes, but this would be all but forgotten by the end of season one. He eventually became more of a plot device, a character who would cause a problem and then tag along for the ride as the more developed characters actually solved it. The first season finale “The Apprentice Games” was the first big example of this, where Chowder seemed to exist in the episode only to be funny, while other characters like Mung or Gorgonzola moved the plot forward. That episode would become a taste of things to come. Panini also suffered from becoming a one-trick pony, while not as severely as Chowder. It’s a very sad sight when tertiary characters such as Gorgonzola and Ceviche actually have more personality than the main character of the show.

On the other hand, the adults got much better treatment. Mung not only had his complex love-hate relationship with Truffles, but also was at an odd crossroads between the reality of being a married father-figure and his fantasy of being a swinging ladies man. As the show drifted off past any semblance of reality, Mung would adopt his swinger persona full-time. Truffles also had quite a bit of time to grow, even having a full episode (“The Elemelons”) dedicated to her and how she treats others. Despite being cast as the nagging wife, Truffles wasn’t very mean more as she was vain and naive (“The Flibber-Flabber Diet” was an exercise on how self-centered Truffles can get. The answer? Very). While having almost no intelligible dialogue, Shnitzel surprisingly got the most character development out of any of the characters. Little nuggets of his personal life outside of the kitchen and interests would be shown (even visiting his house in “Weekend at Shnitzel’s”), and his relationship with his co-workers would be assessed multiple times. He is often treated as the catering company’s pack mule, always doing most of the dirty work while never quite getting the respect everyone else got. This resentment would lead to a strictly-business approach when associating with Mung and Chowder, and “Shnitzel Makes a Deposit” reveals that the main reason he even works there is solely for the paycheck. Shnitzel’s finest moment would be seen in the double-length “Shnitzel Quits”, where tensions come to a full boil, and Shnitzel decides to leave Mung for his rival chef, Endive, only to realize that he had a larger attachment to his old workplace than he thought. The episode would also plant seeds of a (mostly one-sided) relationship between Shnitzel and Endive, something that would be picked up upon in the series finale. Speaking of Endive, even the “villain” of the show had a life outside of besting Mung, and even understandable reasons for why she did what she did (Her hatred of Mung stems from being stood up at their wedding). The only exception to this is sheltered manchild Gazpacho, who for all of screentime on the show, never seemed to stray from his “controlling mother” shtick.

The voice acting was a mixed bag. Dwight Schultz did an amazing job as Mung, and the always-hilarious Dana Snyder made Gazpacho a lot more tolerable than he could have been. And as usual, Joe DiMaggio turns in a top-notch and surprisingly emotive performance for Shnitzel, whose vocabulary consists of almost exclusively one word. On the other hand, Tara Strong’s Truffles was very grating to listen to, and I still can’t stand listening to her talk for long periods of time.  My biggest problem with the voice acting was the child actors. I like the idea of having children voiced by actual children, but the execution really doesn’t work too well. With the exception of Panini (voiced by Liliana Mumy), the child actors can get unbearable to listen to. While Nicky Jones fits Chowder to a tee, his screaming voice (which tended to be used a lot by the end of the series’ run) gets very annoying after a short while, and his singing talent is non-existent, sadly making some potentially good musical numbers very cringeworthy. I think that the worst example of this is 10-year old Will Shadley’s Gorgonzola, whose well-written dialogue could have been all-around funnier had it not been for the overly screechy and loud voice.

The animation was competent. It’s certainly a step up from most series, but Chowder’s visuals to me signify this odd transition from the bland, “good enough” style of mid-00’s Cartoon Network to the artistic wackiness found at the network by the end of the decade. I love the exotic architecture of the city, the simple-yet-sweet character designs, and the show’s signature “static-pattern” effect, but something about the show’s look always felt bland to me. Maybe shows like Flapjack and Adventure Time spoiled me, but the show always felt like there was something really visually creative trying to blossom than never quite realized like it could have. The really striking things about the show’s visuals like the patterns, the stop-motion sequences, and the occasional funny expression never really left, but everything in between seemed to stagnate in comparison to its cousin Flapjack, which really pulled out all the stops when it came to art direction. The quality of the actual animation was pretty uneven. The early episodes had a very rough feel to it, with very raggedy outlines. This sketchy approach to animation can work in some cases (like Ed, Edd n Eddy), but the execution on Chowder made it look like the viewers were watching a rough cut, as if the animators had forgot to clean up the animation. After a bumpy start, the animation started to look cleaner until it hit the opposite end of the spectrum at the show’s tail end, where the animation was so clean that everything looked cold and sterile. Otherwise, the animation does a good job. Nothing more, but nothing less.

The score was one of the few aspects of the show to stay consistent throughout the series’ length, and it’s one of my favorite things about the show. While I’ve never been a fan of the show’s musical numbers, the background music is top-notch and reminiscent of funky 60’s psychedelic rock. I have to admit that I occasionally get some of the score’s catchy tunes stuck in my head every once in a while.

Flash-forward to 2009. After over a year of top-notch episodes, season two was about to begin, with more hype than ever before. While an unusually short third season order seemed ominous, there will still plenty of episodes to watch, and popular consensus was that the only place Chowder could go was up. It didn’t, but the beginning of the season contained some of the sharpest material of the series’ history. And while I still hold a deep resentment for what was to come, season two ironically contained my favorite episode of the show: “The Hot Date”. Unlike most episodes, it eschewed the main stars in favor of some of the lesser-seen tertiary characters. In this case, it was the Marzipan City Police Department and Endive. In the episode, chief of police Sgt. Hoagie tries to close a case involving Mung Daal’s Catering Company, Miss Endive, and a swimming pool disaster in time to catch his blind date. He misses the date, but eventually spends the night out with Endive. “The Hot Date” to me epitomizes the best of Chowder: hilariously quirky characters, cultural references that are cool yet not overdone, surprisingly dark and adult humor, and hilarious line deliveries. Another one of my favorite episodes is the pilot, “The Froggy Apple Crumble Thumpkin”. That episode focus almost entirely on Mung and the gang cooking in the kitchen, and it was something I wish the series did more of. I liked the central motif of cooking, but I felt that they never really did that much with it, with the fascinatingly creative dishes usually serving to move the plot forward. The show really could have put a little more focus on the dishes themselves and the process of making them.

In my opinion, “The Hot Date” was the peak of the show, a height it would never really reach ever again. The end was near for Chowder; there was no renewal in sight, a lot of talent had already moved to different projects, and Greenblatt in particular seemed convinced that the show was on its way out, as evidenced by his blog posts, which got more and more bitter as time passed by. When I first heard the news, I felt angry at the network. Why would CN drop a show so fast, for no apparent reason? Greenblatt stated that the show still had a chance, if enough viewers watched the last season. Desperately hoping for Chowder to get renewed, I gave the new season my full support. I watched a new episode. It wasn’t very good, but I decided that it must have been a fluke. So another came and went. And another. And another. And another. They weren’t very good, either. This is where things went south for me.

I have a very love-hate relationship with this show, mainly because I absolutely adore the first season and I think it still holds up to this day, while a vehemently detest the second season and everything that it represents. Chowder became a caricature of itself. The characters, once full of intricacies that the viewers could relate to, were reduced to three-word descriptions and nothing more. Chowder himself suffered the worst of this, as pretty much anything that made him an endearing character was stripped away, leaving only an dim, unlikable glutton who yelled all the time (and when I mean all the time, I mean ALL THE TIME). The writers essentially took everything funny and memorable about Chowder and cranked it up to eleven, getting rid of everything else. Fourth-wall gags (which were only funny because the audience didn’t expect them) riddled the scripts to the point where they became smug and self-congratulating more than anything else. Another hilarious thing from Season One that was only funny in moderation was Gazpacho, the show’s Steve Urkel. For a time, everyone thought he was hilarious. The Chowder crew took the hint, because he was later shoehorned into EVERY episode no matter what, even getting his own solo episode. Quiet moments became nonexistent, and the focus on cooking all but disappeared, with the exception of when the writers needed some plot device or MacGuffin. The visuals became sterile and lifeless, even when the artists tried to ape Flapjack‘s style of visual humor. One of the few things I can credit these episodes with is that they actually did a decent job with fleshing out and introducing new characters, like Ceviche. The absolute nadir of the series for me was “The Dinner Theater”. Not only was I disappointed, I was flabbergasted. Not one joke worked, not one thing made me chuckle. I stayed through those 22 minutes desperately trying to enjoy it, but I just couldn’t. While not all episodes were terrible (“The Grape Worm” and “The Blast Raz” are a few examples), the show never recovered.

I felt betrayed. This was it? This was all the fuss, all the frustration, all the campaigns were about? I’d like to believe that this was why Chowder is canceled, that the executives were mortified at what happened to the show they originally picked up. In my mind, Chowder‘s cancellation was a mercy kill, a safeguard to prevent it from becoming “that show”, the one that had a few good episodes mixed in with the tripe. My question isn’t “Why?” but “What happened?”. One could say that the crew that made the show so great had left, but I doubt that. Greenblatt has gone on record in saying that late season two is where the show “hit its stride”. What I hated the most about this ordeal was Greenblatt’s overly negative stance on the show’s end. I can understand being mad, but I feel that he needlessly burned a lot of bridges on his way out, to the point that I doubt he’ll ever work at the Cartoon Network again.

So months after I acclimatized to the fact that the show was over and never coming back, I decided to watch the much-hyped, much-fabled finale “Chowder Grows Up”, in which Chowder is forced to grow up and take responsibility for his own actions. While it’s not a bad episode, it felt like there was so much wasted potential. It felt like a regular episode that was extended for 22 minutes. After an overly long opening of young Chowder that could have been used to something less predictable and dull, a musical number sends Chowder into a future where he doesn’t mature. The “future” in this episode really disappointed me, in that it looks exactly like the present. Barely anything’s changed (including the characters’ looks), and an exploration on what each character is like in adulthood is eschewed for a Gazpacho subplot in the desert. While Gazpacho finally got some character development, it felt like too little, too late. By the time Chowder actually had to “grow up” and teach his apprentice as a master chef, there was too little time in the episode to actually make any emotional statements or show that the characters had grown in some way. Instead, we got a quick moral about “being original”, followed by a rushed “happily ever after” epilogue. This episode was everything wrong with later Chowder in a nutshell, and it’s a shame that such an interesting episode plot got wasted like this.

And with that, I am finished with the show. While the show’s lows were really low, its highs were very high as well. I would still recommend the first half of the series to anyone looking for a good laugh. In contrast to Chowder‘s spectacular burn-out, I’ll be taking a look at its cousin The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack tomorrow, and see a different endgame scenario and a different series.

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