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Cartoon Network's 2011 Upfront in New York: My Take

It’s finally that magical time of year again: upfront season. While upfronts are like unwrapping Christmas presents for most of the press, the childrens’ side of the spectrum usually lays low, with Cartoon Network usually being the only network to put out really surprising information out there. The other have been putting up an impressive show this year, though: Disney XD has put out some promising information on animated Marvel and TRON properties for their network, Nickelodeon has a shockingly diverse slate of originals, acquisitions (which by themselves are pretty surprising for such an insular business), and programming strategies, and I’m quite sure that the Hub will continue to shock and awe the public as consistently as they have been doing since last year. So, how does the Network’s offerings stack up this year? Let’s see:

The Problem Solverz

Certainly one of the network’s most bizarre project to date, Ben Jones’ Problem Solverz has been turning heads ever since the show was first announced. While the public’s confused and at time violent reaction to the unrepentantly lo-fi and offbeat show is not a very good sign when it comes to this show’s chances of success, I have deep respect for a network that would not only order something so risky and different, but also give it the support it needs to find an audience. I really do hope this experiment is a success, because the Problem Solverz is the fresh, artsy, avant-garde kick in the pants the mainstream hasn’t seen in a long, long time.

Secret Mountain Fort Awesome

Each CN upfront tends to have one mysterious project where no information leaks out for long periods of time, only for said show to break the claims of vaporware by suddenly popping up the next year. Last year, it was Sym-Bionic Titan, and it seems Pete Browngardt’s follow-up to the original Uncle Grandpa pilot (from the similarly mysterious failed Cartoonstitute initiative) will also creep up on the viewers. There still isn’t much to talk about yet, but I’ve noticed that the original X-Men-ish premise of monsters coping with a world that hates and fears them being replaced by a shallower description of “crazy characters doing crazy things” that seems all too similar to CN’s other shows in production, but without Adventure Time‘s heart, Regular Show‘s maturity, or Problem Solverz‘s audaciousness. Still, I enjoyed the original pilot, so I trust the Browngardt will come up with quality product.

The Amazing World of Gumball

Toonzone’s own Huntsman has been tirelessly digging up information on this British-born show in the hopes that news of a stateside premiere would come from Turner, and they sure didn’t disappoint, with news of an incoming premiere date in May and a second season order. With all of its mixed styles blending together into a colorful potpourri, Gumball really is a visual treat, and the amount of love and effort put into this show can be seen from the press photos alone. From the things I’ve seen about the show, it looks to be skewing younger than Regular Show and MAD, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as CN should overlook younger children entirely. Hopefully Gumball‘s writers fall out of CN’s mid-00′s blandness trap and realize that writing for a younger audience doesn’t necessarily mean patronizing older ones.

The Looney Tunes Show

I have some really mixed feelings about this show right now. On one hand, it’s great to see Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network finally working together again to introduce the Looney Tunes characters to a new generation of children (bringing back the original shorts to television is a nice touch too). On the other, this isn’t Looney Tunes. I’m fine with a suburban setting and Jessica Borutski’s designs. I can even handle the CG Roadrunner sequences. But the clips and previews are portraying this series as a (rather poorly-executed) sitcom starring the established characters, with some uneven animation to boot. The end product doesn’t look very pretty, but if it results in more awareness for the classic shorts, then I’m all for it.

Level Up

The idea of a comedic live-action movie-series combo reminds me of Out of Jimmy’s Head, and the monster-hunting premise seems like Nickelodeon’s the Troop. Neither lasted very long, so I don’t expect stellar results for this either. The CG effects used to display the monsters aren’t very good, and while I guess having obvious CG would fit for a video game coming to life, it seems to me that this could have been animated for a cheaper budget and a more convincing rogues gallery, just like last year’s seemingly-aborted KROG pilot.

Untitled Ben 10 Series

A fourth one, already? While Ben’s on-air presence in the US has been diminished over the past few years, the show still sells like hotcakes overseas, which is why I would guess CN is so overzealous when it comes to ordering new Ben 10 projects. Three series later, the franchise still hasn’t really reached its true potential, but I give the Ultimate Alien writing crew for slowly but surely experimenting with what the franchise can do. It will be a drag to see Ben 10 without talents of the sorely missed Dwayne McDuffie, who was behind the Alien Force series and is responsible for the the franchise’s current look and feel. Hopefully fourth time’s the charm for Ben 10.

ThunderCats

Nearly all of the internet has seen the images and trailers for this show now, and the bits of information we’ve been given so far look promising. I’m getting a definite Avatar vibe from both the interesting setting and the anime-inspired designs that don’t try too hard to shallowly jump on the anime bandwagon. The idea of Thundera not being destroyed from the outset and being placed on Third Earth instead seems like an interesting change from the original that could add more depth to the show than the original.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series

As someone who is completely burnt out on Batman cartoons (as good as Brave and the Bold is), seeing an underused character like the Green Lantern get his time to shine is very welcome news from Warner Bros. Animation, who has been diversifying their production slate as of late. Something I’m also looking forward to is not just the use of Hal Jordan, but also the entire Green Lantern Corps. The Corps and their off-world surroundings always seemed very underutilized in animation to focus solely on Earth’s Green Lantern, and his exploits on Earth or with the Justice League. I’m completely sold yet on the use of CGI, but hopefully Bruce Timm can pull it off.

DC Nation

If Disney’s purchase of Marvel was the first rumble of an incoming television war between the Big Two comic publishers, the announcement of Cartoon Network as DC’s home for series premieres and other exclusive media is the official declaration of war. To me, this is the most interesting announcement from today’s presentation, if just for the sheer possibilities it entails. By launching DC Nation with a Young Justice spinoff miniseries, DC Animation seems to be taking a page out of DC Comics’ book by creating special tie-in events and miniseries to turn series into events that creates a universe and a scope far broader than that of one insular series. I really hope they explore the idea of miniseries more as time goes on by giving underused characters their own miniseries to prove themselves with. This new block also seems like an ideal place to show DC’s growing library of direct-to-video animated movies and shorts an outlet on television. I really look forward to seeing where CN and DC will take this new venture.

How to Train Your Dragon

Nearly everyone was shocked when Dreamworks announced that they were straying away from their usual partner Nickelodeon to make a HTTYD series for Cartoon Network, myself included. Not much information is out there, but their intent to make a series that expands the world and atmosphere instead of dumbing it down for television is an admirable one.

Total Drama: Revenge of the Island

After a super-popular first season, a less successful (and in my opinion, inferior) second season, and a quieter, but more fun third season, the once-unstoppable Total Drama series looks to be on its last legs here, as major retooling and a shorter season length doesn’t inspire much confidence in the old formula by the network. I’m honestly glad they’re ditching the old characters for this season; While last season’s two new additions kept the game interesting again and kept it away from falling into Total Drama Action‘s long list of out-of-character moments, the writers have really run out of places to go with the original cast. Total Drama’s fate relies on this new cast, hopefully the writers don’t botch this up. (Also, what’s with the radioactive campsite? Didn’t they learn from last year that pointless gimmicks take away from the meat of the show?)

Redakai: Conquer the Kairu

Not much to say about this one, only that it’s more toyetic fare from Marathon, and that it’s pretty forgettable fodder for Saturday mornings.

Lego NinjaGo

This seems pretty harmless to me. I thought the original NinjaGo special wasn’t bad, but once again, forgettable Saturday morning fodder.

Hall of Game

Probably the most surprising and baffling decisions today. After bombing spectacularly last month, Cartoon Network is gearing up for a second Hall of Game sports awards show. If CN is going to continue to try to make this work, I just hope they learn their lesson and ease up on the advertising a bit.

The one sad note about the upfront was what wasn’t there: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Sym-Bionic Titan, which will presumably be ending after its first season run. But other than that, this was a pretty bare-bones slate featuring a lot of old news, good news, bad news, and a whole lot to be interested in for the next year. Hopefully next week’s second CN upfront in Los Angeles brings more news to the table.

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