Review: "Clarence" Gets Off to a Pleasant Start
With such series as Adventure Time, Regular Show, The Amazing World of Gumball and Teen Titans Go!, Cartoon Network’s successful comedy lineup has been largely powered by eccentricity and fantastical things in recent years. Skyler Page’s new series Clarence is a more modest affair, taking a bet that a series that’s more down to earth and revolving around everyday life can also be a hit.
The titular Clarence is a portly and messy kid defined as being “optimistic about everything,” a positive trait which both gets him through the day and goes a long way toward making him an appealing character. In the pilot for the series, “Fun Dungeon Face Off,” he throws a party that only two kids attend, which he simply takes as a chance to make two new friends rather than any kind of disappointment. These kids are his best friends Jeff, a straight-laced and sensitive kid, and Sumo, a hyperactive boy who serves as a foil to Jeff. Clarence himself is about as simple as the show itself is, preoccupied with having fun while being just oblivious enough to never let anything get him down.
Clarence’s carefree nature isn’t always an idyllic thing. “Fun Dungeon Face Off” centers around Clarence trying to lure Jeff into a fast food restaurant playground by swiping his fries, even after Clarence promises not to and after Jeff makes clear that he has a hangup about other people touching his things. These shenanigans set Jeff off and almost end very badly, all due to Clarence’s lack of consideration. To his credit though, Clarence is aware enough to know when he crosses a line and humble enough to apologize. In the second story, “A Pretty Great Day with a Girl,” Clarence spends a day outside with the tomboyish Amy. Clarence’s personality is an asset when a bully named Belson notices, gets jealous and sets out to pick a fight, accompanied by his posse. The ensuing conflict more resembles childish feuding than a serious fight though, and Clarence just takes it all in stride as playtime. Meanwhile, part of the time he spends hanging out with Amy involves some bonding over their respective families. The show introduces subtext regarding Amy’s worries about possibly moving away because of her parents’ divorce, which Clarence’s cheerfulness and anecdotes help alleviate. It’s also refreshing that Clarence is simply interested in hanging out with Amy as her friend for the entire episode, in contrast to what the overactive imaginations of the other boys were speculating. The series’ humor relies substantially on ironic gags and understated jokes about what Clarence considers fun or cool, such as one awkward moment where he gives Amy a lizard’s tail and speculates it will grow into a new lizard.
If I had to describe Clarence simply, at its best it’s a cross between Steven Universe and Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip. Clarence definitely feels like a kindred spirit to Steven Universe in some ways, as both are goofy, large kids whose innocence and good intentions drive the plots of their respective shows, and it’s plausible to me that more than a few little boys can see something of themselves in either character. I wouldn’t describe the two as equal though, simply because there is more going on with Steven than with Clarence. Steven’s got individual little brother / big sister relationships with the three “Crystal Gems” that are his caretakers on top of his interactions with other kids and adults in his life, and many of his adventures have to do with bonding with them or in Steven trying to prove himself. From what I’ve seen so far, an episode of Clarence is like dropping in on a day of somebody’s summer vacation. It is no more or less than an attempt to capture everyday childhood life, which isn’t exactly a bad thing, but for me it’s an open question whether any more can be expected from this show and its characters than what we’ve seen already, and whether lighthearted hijinks mostly are all we’re in for. For now though, Clarence is off to a decent start and stands as palatable children’s fare.
Clarence will premiere on Cartoon Network at 7 PM Eastern Time.