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Leap of Faith

by on January 18, 2011

This is a real television show that is being produced for Cartoon Network.

As one may guess, reactions to the Problem Solverz are polarizing at best. I personally love it, if just for how absurd it is and the incoming critical trainwreck when this show meets the press. But I would be lying if I said that most of the network’s viewing audience would feel the same way. The Problem Solverz is abrasive to the eyes and ears, and the main audience for this type of show are adults who are familiar with the work and visual aesthetic of art collective Paper Rad (seizure warning) and their contemporaries Tim and Eric. The best the network can do is hope that the first episode doesn’t scare all the children away. For a medium that has become more and more obsessed with higher ratings at any cost necessary, greenlighting a project like this is financial suicide. And that’s what I like about this series the most, and something others should like too.

The Problem Solverz is art for art’s sake, something we haven’t seen in a long time, outside of premium cable. More importantly, it represents how the experimental and mainstream can coexist peacefully and break even financially. As long as you are willing to accept that profits will not be maximized, you can easily show Problem Solverz if you have your popular hits, your Ben 10s and Scooby-Doos backing it up and financing it. You can appeal to the masses without compromising artistic integrity or staying creatively stagnant, something Cartoon Network was guilty of until it had no real choice but to take a leap of faith or be mired in further ratings mediocrity. Heck, thinking outside of the box can even turn the offbeat mainstream: Adventure Time is a recent example of a bizarre arthouse cartoon finding commercial success on a station that would give it the time of day and chance to prove itself. And truth be told, those who are willing to take the first step forward are usually the ones to be rewarded.

Nickelodeon didn’t create Spongebob because they were looking for “the next Spongebob“. Spongebob Squarepants was greenlighted because the head executives liked what they saw of Hillenburg’s vision, regardless if it adhered to the trends of the day. In a bit of irony, it seems that Spongebob has poisoned the well at Nickelodeon; ever since the show’s runaway success, the executives have not been as forgiving to later projects, with most underperforming (by Nick’s exceedingly high standards, anyway) series managing a second season only if the network had high enough expectations of it to order one before the series premiere. Had Spongebob premiered under this environment, it would probably not be passing the much-envied 200 episode mark by now. This culture that promoted short-sighted lemmings produced a market drowning in bland knock-offs of more successful properties, resulting in a creative stagnation that led viewers to a more prosperous market across the pond from Burbank.

If there’s one thing detractors of the “anime style” can not deny, it is the Japan’s success of elevating animation from a genre to a medium, with animation directed towards all audiences in all genres. While this was commonplace in Japan, animation with the amount of content and diversity seen in the heyday of anime licensing was unheard of in the American market. As is the norm with supply and demand, as long as there was plenty of demand for “edgy” and “different” anime, there was plenty of licensing companies ready to exploit that demand and supply the audience until the cows came home. As with all similar bubbles, the burst was inevitable, big, and unforgiving. Licensors acquired everything animated and Japanese regardless of the amount of demand for it, and paid the price. While the crux of the big collapse was most definitely too much substandard product flooding the market, a similar target of blame could be the amount of risk taken, which unfortunately does not have any correlation with success or quality.

For every smash hit like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z, you have your Heat Guy Js and Big Windups that fail spectacularly. The latter two are rather exaggerated examples of the reality that faced many pickups at the peak of the bubble: there were so many untested and risky decisions made and they didn’t pay off, leaving the licensing companies burnt and financially hurting. There was a separate but also important factor in this dour parallel story of risk, and that involves Japan, whose animation industry was entering financial tough times, partly fueled by piracy and other economic factors. Japan decides to take a different yet similar route taken by mid-00’s America: risks were risky business, but companies in Tokyo could reap more economic benefits than the stodgy executives in Los Angeles who had ridiculously high expectations by having ridiculously low expectations, letting anything fly as long as it appealed to the base that would reliably buy product year after year.

Unfortunately for those outside the loop, this base tended to have rather uncomfortable tastes, ranging from super-blatant fanservice, to the sexualization of minors, to even incest fantasies (For a recent example, see Oniichan no Koto, which somehow made it onto television). While this may guarantee the base, making the majority of shows in this mold can, has, and will alienate the mainstream audience and eventually lock out everyone except the base, resulting in low to nonexistent growth for the industry, with little to no attempts to even try by most production companies, which are willing to milk a cash cow for all its worth. Meanwhile, Burbank was slowly starting to fill the void anime left behind with newer, more creative, and riskier series of their own like Phineas & Ferb and Chowder.

The Japanese industry continues to follow the industry using proven niches instead of proven successes as a guide. This kind of thinking is dangerous not only because it limits the audience to a small group that will eventually grow out of those niches and disappear, but also because it is creatively shortsighted and dangerous to focus on replicating a success instead of making one, with no “next big thing” in sight. That much is true, no matter the location or reason.

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