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"Detentionaire": Stuck in the Middle with Deja Vu

Whirr. Clang. Click. That’s the sound of countless tropes and stereotypes locking around the viewer as Detentionaire, a new animated series from Nelvana/Teletoon, makes it debut. Everything in this show–in the episode I was asked to review, anyway–is so generic and familiar that even the novel bits–if there are any–will leave you feeling manacled.

The series protagonist is Lee Ping, who on his first day of tenth grade finds himself framed for an “epic prank,” which has consequently earned him a full year of detention. So, even though he’s now hugely popular, he’s determined to find the real culprit. The series, apparently, will be framed with this Fugitive-style device, with Lee following a trail of clues through a chain of episodes as he tracks down the truly guilty party.

This melodramatic plot, of course, is just a framework for the show’s real purpose, which is to gather up and display a lot of tired jokes and character types, like exhibits in a menagerie of clichés. It wouldn’t take the Amazing Kreskin to prognosticate what you’d see in a high school-bound cartoon comedy of this type; and, sadly, it doesn’t disappoint. I’m sure future episodes will lengthen the list, but here is a partial checklist of what you’ll find in the episode “Jock ‘n Roll High School.”

[_] Beefy jocks: These are represented by the football team: giant, round-shouldered slabs who barrel through the hallways taunting the smaller, weaker kids. Not content with this, it embellishes their basic stereotype by giving them silly little tics and interests: Steve, the quarterback, has a Linus-like attachment to his workout towel; Biff, a bully, likes to knit. These sorts of things might be interesting counterpoints, but as played in the story, they are just jokes meant to further demean characters who are basically unsympathetic.

[_] Overbearing authority figures: The school is led by Principal General Barrage, a one-eyed quasi-cyborg with an R. Lee Ermey complex. Would that he said anything a tenth as fun or interesting as the character he’s ripping off.

[_] Silly ethnics: Lee’s two best friends are Jose Camilio and and Holger Holgaart. In “Jock ‘n Roll High School,” Jose is merely dull: a sweet, shy guy who flirts desperately with the girls, but whose dress code stamps him firmly as “ethnic.” Meanwhile, Holger is on hand because the Germans and the French are the only non-Anglophone nationalities one is permitted these days to mock for their ethnic attributes. Here, Holger gets to be the weird, prissy, Euro-metro-sexual whose every word, gesture and action is screamingly funny because it is just so extreme and unlikely.

[_] Bubble-headed cheerleaders: Where there’s a football team, there will be cheerleaders. These as such don’t get much play in “Jock ‘n Roll High School,” but the basic idea–looks-obsessed nitwits–gets ample play in the form of Chad Monorainian, the male co-anchor of the school’s TV channel. You’ll win no points by guessing that “hair care products, obsession with and devastation over loss of same” is a recurrent nugget of “humor” associated with this character.

[_] Smart, put-upon hero: That would be our protagonist, Lee Ping himself. He is so transparently the audience-identification figure–so perfectly engineered to fit around the fragile egos of the target demographic–that I wonder if that audience might feel a little condescended to. He is the underdog (a sophomore, even), so you’re supposed to root for him. He’s a whiz at all kinds of stuff like physics, math and computers, so you’re supposed to admire his smarts; but he’s not a studious nerd, so you won’t feel intimidated by the work that goes into actually acquiring those smarts. He’s popular and sports stylish clothes and hair, so you’re supposed to like him as “not a loser”; but he isn’t interested in popularity, so you can’t despise him as a suck up. He even has a girlfriend, so, wow, he really isn’t a loser; but he seems to have no time and even negative interest in her, so there’s nothing to get in the way of the boyish high spirits. So he has everything that a certain cross-section of the middle/high school population wants: popular and successful without strain or effort, but a victim of circumstances beyond his control, so he can still feel sorry for himself.

The show itself moves with skill and precision, marching its clichés about like a stern warden overseeing the exercise floor. Design-work is depressingly contemporary, and the animation, though energetic, has no flow, pulse or beauty. Like 99% of modern cartoons, Detentionaire is animated only because real human actors would be too quirky, too idiosyncratic, and too complex to embody the flat and boring characterization the series prefers.

After having a 5-episode sneak peek last September, Detentionaire makes its regular debut this Thursday, January 5, at 6:30 ET/PT on Teletoon.

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