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"Total Drama: Revenge of the Island": Reboot Camp

Let’s talk about Total Drama Island, and why it didn’t suck. The first (and weakest) season of the popular franchise was filled with archetypical characters, lame jokes, and contrived plotlines, but a few things kept it going–and me watching. The first was the fact that, while the characters were archetypes, they were not always one-note–there were too many OTHER archetypes around for them to react to. If you take a caricature and put it in situations where it laughs and cries and wins and loses and looks ridiculous and gets embarrassed and brags, then you don’t really have a caricature anymore, now do you? So while some characters did remain truly one-dimensional throughout the first season, the majority I actually grew quite fond of. The second thing was the cartoonish pseudo-reality show tone, which combined the best of two worlds–we got the competitive nature that made the best reality shows so popular, but we also got to enjoy the types of over-the-top challenges that live-action could never emulate, and we got the gently spoofish, self-referential aspect that that implies.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about my thoughts on the first season in a review of an episode from the fourth episode from the fourth season, it’s because my thoughts remain basically the same–just MORE so. Despite what certain fans of the franchise think, I believe that Total Drama steadily played to its strengths and improved with each season. By World Tour (my favorite season so far) even the weakest of the characters had fleshed-out personalities, some of them quite complex. The jokes were funnier on average, the plots were genuinely surprising and inspired, the voice-actors had grown more comfortable in their roles, the challenges were so winkingly over-the-top that it was impossible not to enjoy them.

Now, with Revenge of the Island, the franchise has been rebooted with a new cast of characters, but all of those qualities are intact. I was a bit worried about this at first–like I said, I’d really gotten to know the previous cast–but the new characters have the same kind of infectious personalities as the previous ones without the disadvantage of such a shaky beginning. It took until World Tour for me to not hate Leshawna and Owen, but there are no Leshawnas or Owens among the new cast. So while forcing the show to start fresh means that this season doesn’t seem quite as emotionally satisfying or exciting as season three, it is significantly more pleasant than season one.

Besides, the nostalgic among us will find a lot to enjoy here even without the old contestants. The show is still hosted by the increasingly devious Chris McLean (voiced by the brilliant Christian Potenza), and, as the name suggests, this season returns to the previously-and-now-one-again-titular Island. Furthermore, plot twists I can’t reveal seem to hint that events from the previous seasons are not going to be ignored.

I have seen fans complain that later iterations of the show became much meaner; that holds true here, but I think it’s a blessing. The show is much sharper and harder than it was in the first season, but that makes it much funnier. The emotional moments being rarer also strengthen their impact, and make the sub-plots seem much less forced. It’s just one way the writing on the show has tightened up.

There is one thing that hasn’t changed much since the first season: the art style. The character designs are really angular and, initially, really unappealing. I eventually got used to the old cast, but now we’ve got a whole new bunch of designs and some of them will certainly take some getting used to. The animation is pretty stilted and character-less–at its worst this could be a low-budget computer game. That said, while parts of it are still not actually well-drawn, the show has become progressively sleeker, and some of the backgrounds and effects in this episode are pretty impressive.

Will fans enjoy this new season as much as much as I have so far? Hard to say. The loss of the old contestants will take a bit of getting used to, and I know some people liked the show better when it was a little softer and sappier. But I think this continues to be one of the most fascinating and fun franchises in TV animation.

Total Drama: Revenge of the Island premieres on Thursday, January 5, 2012, at 7:00 PM (ET/PT) on Teletoon

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