"Jem & the Holograms: The Complete Series": Beauty and the Beat
I’m just going to get these out of my system early: Outrageous. Outrageous. Outrageous outrageous outrageous outrageous. TRULY outrageous. Truly truly truly outrageous.
Now that that’s out of the way–
Jem is a very good series. Inspired by the success of MTV, based on a line of dolls, designed to appeal to both the girls who would buy the dolls and the boys Hasbro felt would control the remote, all molded by the expert hands of writer Christy Marx (who had worked on GI Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and several other notable shows)–the result was one of a kind: a character-driven sci-fi adventure musical soap-opera cartoon, and it works on all those layers. The action is well-paced, the music is (mostly) catchy and memorable, and it’s fascinating to see how the characters interact and progress as the series goes on; what seems at first to be a standard Saturday-morning show of the period in fact has several subtle character arcs. The show doesn’t even feel dated despite being so obviously influenced by the trends and fashions of the 80s; instead, the slightly out-of-place feeling just adds to the charm. It’s not completely clunker-free–there are a few mediocre episodes, and a couple of truly horrible ones–but when it’s good, it’s worth watching more than once.
The first season opens with the aptly named “The Beginning,” and right away I was won over by the fast yet powerful pacing. The first half of this episode moves like flying freight train–dead dad orphanage evil executive SONG holograms!–but it conveys so much about the characters and the basic themes of the show in those fifteen minutes! (It’s also a welcome change from Hero Tales, which I watched opposite Jem, where characters might take entire episodes just to change moods.) I also fell pretty much instantly in love with two other aspects of the show: the voice actors and the music. The voice cast is simply brilliant. There’s not a person out of place, though I’d have to place Susan Blu as the adorable supposedly-bad-girl Stormer and Charlie Adler as slimy businessman Eric Raymond at the top of the list. Even characters who you’d expect to be annoying, like the band of foster-girls, are done well. (In an interview included with this set it is mentioned that the show had a habit of hiring actual children to voice it’s child-characters, a practice which paid off.) The only even vaguely irritating character is Kimber, Jem’s younger sister, but this is excusable because she is purposefully written as slightly annoying (although even with that knowledge, you may still want to shake her a bit after the tenth “OutRAgeous!”).
The show’s attempt to cash in on the success of MTV is mainly felt through its placement of three music videos in each episode, complete with the name of the band and title of the song appearing in the corner of the screen. The music isn’t always good. Sometimes it’s surprisingly catchy and enjoyable, sometimes it’s screechy and irritating, and sometimes it’s just there. But good, bad, or mediocre, I liked the music videos because of the unique feeling they give each episode. It’s not an idea that had been tried before or has been tried since, to my knowledge, and the videos are placed well enough that they break in at just the right moments and never last too long. The animation for these videos also gets bumped up significantly. For the most part Jem is only okay visually: the designs are nice enough and the linework is lively, but the animation is non-existent and there’s just not that much to look at generally. That changes during the music videos, though, are often ingenious from a visual perspective. Movement is more fluid, the timing of the animation to the music is excellent, and the visuals themselves can be astoundingly creative. This starts to ebb a bit as the show wears on–the second season starts to re-use songs– but on the whole it’s an aspect of the show that I really enjoyed.
The first season is very good. There’s not a single episode I really dislike, and it has a few of my favorites in it. However it just doesn’t reach quite as far as the show later would. Episodes don’t really stand out so much as blend together in a pleasant mass. Part of the problem is the time spent setting things up: Directly after the five-parter that establishes the show we get a three-parter designed to introduce us to even more elements. But a lack of really outstanding content is also a factor. The best stories here are in the two other multi-parters, “The Music Awards” and “The Jem Jam.” “The Music Awards” is a sincere and surprisingly complex little story that ends with a scene that mildly impressed me and will probably seem positively Shakespearean to the shows target audience; it is the first group of episodes that feels big, as if it could be a featurette in its own right. “Jem Jam,” meanwhile, showcases the show’s (later more frequent) willingness to occasionally shake up its own formula by having a plot that focuses mainly on the Starlight Girls, the group of foster children Jerrica is responsible for–they even sing the songs. But nothing else springs to mind as being particularly noteworthy.
It’s the second season where things start getting really memorable. The second season has two basic types of stories: silly ones and serious ones. So we get Jem dealing with one of her foster girl’s addiction to drugs alongside an episode where she travels back in time, or we get an episode about illiteracy next to one about Jem searching for Shangri-La. For the most part episodes in both of these categories are more ambitious then anything tried in the first season. This means that there are a larger number of bad episodes, but it also means the good episodes become really good. Take the two-parter that opens the second season, “The Talent Search.” It involves the introduction of two new characters to the series, and this risky move (new characters can often spell creative death for a show) pays off wonderfully, injecting new blood into the series just as it was intended to do. The best part is that while the introduction was likely decided due to marketing–Hasbro wanted two new dolls, I’m guessing–Marx (who writes these episodes and most of the other really good ones) brings the characters to life. Another favorite is “Out of the Past”, which deals with Jerrica’s childhood and the death of her mother in a powerful and not at all sappy way. It also showcases just how thorough the writing staff for this show generally was–scenes from as far back as the first episode are referenced and expanded upon. “The Bands Break Up” and” Roxy Rumbles” puts the spotlight on supporting characters in an endearing way, and” Alone Again,” while ham-fisted, is still a rather touching anti-drug episode.
There are stinkers, though. “Aztec Enchantment” is a tedious little exercise. The talented Paul Dini doesn’t seem to be 100% sure what show he’s writing in “Music is Magic,” and “Renaissance Woman” is baffling and inexcusable–like someone took a script from some scrapped Robin Hood series and hastily pasted Jem characters into it. And occasionally the show gets a little too ambitious. The “Hollywood Jem” two-parter reaches for the sky and draws back a nub when it tries to have Kimber get married. The show is meant for children, but for the most part it’s not written for children–it just deals with issues in a way that is accessible to everyone. “Hollywood Jem,” though, tackles something a little hard to simplify, and it is one of the few episodes to actively seem to talk down to its audience. Overall though, the second season is the strongest, with several memorable episodes and a generally higher quality of production.
Something I began to notice in the second season is the show’s rather nice moral center. Jem and the Holograms always “win” because they’re good, friendly people. The Misfits (Jem’s main rival band for the first and second seasons) always end up losing–even when they win–because they’re mean. The show, like a lot of shows from the time period, is chock-full of morals, but they rarely feel forced. Instead they’re just gently portrayed through the characters.
The third season introduces a new, third rival band in the excellent two-parter “The Stingers Hit Town.” Again this new dynamic (at first) seamlessly fits with the rest of the show, showing us new facets of the other characters rather than marginalizing them. Unfortunately, none of the later season three episodes lives up to the expectations these two set. One big problem is that only Christy Marx really knows how to write Riot, the Stinger’s leader. Other writers make him either too villainous (as in the awful “The Day the Music Died”) or too nice (like in the equally bad “Riot’s Hope”) instead of striking a balance between the two and managing to make him seem to be a bit of a goofball as well. Another problem: the two-parter has the Stingers and the Misfits operating simultaneously, but in most of the other episodes only one group or the other will be featured. This feels lazy after setting such a magnificent precedent for character interaction. Saturday morning cartoon clichés abound here, as well. Jem had never been entirely free of them–as early as season one you had” The Princess and the Singer” (a prince/pauper plot) and season two had “One Jem Too Many” (a someone-is-impersonating-the-protagonist-and-doing-bad-things plot). But they never seemed as poorly handled as they do in “The Day the Music Died” or “A Change of Heart,” which have the worst kind of trite plots. Two other episodes, “Straight From the Heart” and “That Old Houdini Magic,” have downright baffling stories that focus on characters created for those episodes.
But that’s not to say that season three is all bad. Indeed, it was shaping up to be quite good – the new additions to the show’s love triangle was intriguing and several ongoing issues seemed to be about to come to a head. Unfortunately the show was canceled due to poor merchandise sales before it could come to a suitable stopping point. The hasty finale is decent (it’s more than poor “Pirates of Dark Water” got) but it still left me sad. There were obviously more stories to tell with these characters.
A special-features disc is included with this set and is quite interesting. There are three featurettes, one focusing on the show’s creation, one on the cast, and another, annoyingly, on the fandom. The first two are worth watching, but I was disappointed that the second only featured three cast members; surely the time spent talking about JemCon could have been better spent getting Susan Blu to do the Stormer voice! Original toy commercials make up the second special feature; these will be primarily of interest to old-school fans of the show who owned the dolls, of course, but it’s a good thing to include anyway. Next are animated storyboards for a few of the shows music videos, which allow for a good look at the really nice, energetic line-work behind the show; it’s a pity it was often obscured by cheap animation. The best feature, for my money, is the Writers Bible that can be accessed as DVD-ROM content: cute little piece of animation television history. Each disc also has a “Video Jukebox” section where you can watch individual music videos.’
The first two seasons and the first half of season three are already available on three separate DVDs. I don’t own these sets, so I can’t compare them. (But here is a review/discussion that talks in depth about the changes . I do know that this is the only way to get the second half of the third season, and that the earlier sets didn’t include most of the special features that this one came with. As far as video and sound quality goes, I can’t say I noticed many egregious flaws. Some episodes look crisper than others, the pink Jem logo that appears during the theme song and credits often either glows, is grainy, or seems too bright, and the episode “Alone Again” actually skips for a second during one scene, like it was recorded from a VHS. Other than that I thought the set was perfectly presentable.
I didn’t grow up in the eighties, so it’s safe to say nostalgia isn’t clouding my vision when I say this is a great show. This isn’t just for fans. Those interested in animation from the 80s and those looking for a present for children should also give this set a look.