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"Total Drama Island Season 1": Stupid, Ugly Fun

by on September 28, 2009

Smile! Your 15 minutes of fame are about to start!I did not want to like Total Drama Island. It’s a very ugly show. It’s drawn with a cheap style of Flash that almost all self-respecting animation fans would turn up their noses at; the character designs are angular, and at first glance completely unappealing. The animation is limited to Filmation-esque levels, with several moments that should have been funny ruined by stilted movement. Character animation is non-existent. The only thing the show has even remotely going for it on an aesthetic level is a decent color palette, and that’s not nearly enough to make the show look good. Lowering my expectations even further was the fact—much discussed on the Internet—that the show had been edited when brought from Canada to America, and that purportedly a large amount of its humor had been diluted in the transition.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the time I was done watching.

The series presents itself as a parody of reality TV. Twenty-two teenagers are sent to the intentionally filthy Camp Wawanakwa, where they compete in a series of challenges lasting over a period of eight weeks (that’s about twenty-six episodes). The cast includes a variety of TV clichés: the Goth chick, the mean girl, the dorky kid, the nerd, the gentle giant, the fat guy, the dumb blonde, the… well, you get the point. The show is hosted by Chris McClain, whose sadistic pleasure in forcing indignity upon indignity on his contestants is a sight worth seeing. Supporting cast members include the semi-psychotic “Big-Scary-Black-Dude”, Chef Hatcher, and a plethora of animals, the most notable being a rather intelligent bear.

Though it calls itself a parody, Total Drama Island can actually be surprisingly sincere, about both its plot and its characters. A lot of its appeal comes from the very Survivor-like tension built up by the fact that a member of the cast has to leave the show almost every episode. Though the series was often too blatant about who it was going to send off, some of the removals were genuinely shocking, creating a very satisfying conclusion to some of the episodes. Although all of its characters are, as previously mentioned, blatant stereotypes (this was done intentionally, as an attempt to lampshade personalities commonly found on reality TV), they’re also often genuinely affecting personalities. I was shocked to find myself actually caring when two of the campers had their romance broken apart. Their are bad apples in every bunch, of course; Harold is pure cliche, and Leshawna is borderline offensive. Still, for these most part, these more caricature-like creations are easily over-looked in favor of the more interesting campers, or at the very least are portrayed as pure comic-relief that we are not supposed to even attempt to take seriously. And, at the same time, the series still has enough of a sense of ridiculousness about its challenges and its setting that its status as a parody is never quite broken. The only other time I’ve ever seen a successful balance between parody and legitimacy was in the first Shrek movie, so its nice to be reminded that it can be done.

Dodge thisAnother of the show’s strengths, and one that I think may be a bit overlooked, is that its a cartoon. Let me explain: Obviously, the show has next to no visual value, but at the same time the reality TV show format is more suited to animation. One of the biggest reasons I didn’t watch Survivor was the realism with which it portrayed its characters; they played the part of everyday people a bit too perfectly, so that I was a bit unnerved seeing them repeatedly humiliated. Total Drama Island removes this unpleasantness simply by having its characters be cartoons; though I may wish it was animated more fluidly, I can’t deny that it gains a lot of strength simply by being animated.

What the show lacks in visual flair (and I can’t say this enough: it lacks a lot) it often makes up for with a charming score and terrific voice-acting. The music is often used in place of reaction-shots in order to convey the humor of a scene; the best example I can think of off the top of my head is the Torture-Montage at the end of I Triple Dog Dare Ya, which also qualifies as one of the funniest moments in the series. The voice-acting is an even bigger strength; the girl playing Lindsay sounds as if she could float, and Chris’s voice-actor is able to put the perfect amount of sadism and self-awareness into the character. As the series goes on, the voice actors seem to get even more comfortable in their roles. Though the show still cheats itself out of one too many laughs, it works a surprising amount of the time. Some of the series humor is of the kind that you feel guilty for laughing about directly after doing so; for example, “Who will be selfish? Who will be selfless? And who will eat shellfish?” I chuckled, and I feel terrible about it. These kind of stupid-but-funny jokes are common throughout the show. Finally (though I hate to admit it) the character designs had grown on me by the end of the show, except for the unforgivably ugly ones like Sadie’s and Harold’s.

Like, OHmyGAWD! At least we don't have to pretend this wasn't SCRIPTed!The show has other problems besides its visuals, foremost of which are an occasionally grating juvenile sense of humor and a few noticeable inconsistencies. The show has quite a few fart jokes, for example; though they’re thankfully over-shadowed by smarter types of jokes (there are no coconuts in Muskoka), its still annoying. Despite being, as I mentioned earlier, one of the only successful “Sincere Parodies” I’ve ever seen, some of its attempts at parody are more annoying than sardonic. For example, tell me something: Is Leshawna a stereotypical black girl, or a parody of a stereotypical black girl? And how can you tell, and is there really a difference?

The editing that I was so worried about seems mostly undetectable. The most obvious form of censorship is that certain episodes have speech edited over what were originally bleeps signifying curse words. This is annoying and pointless (why censor a censorship tool?) but it’s also mostly harmless. There are also blurs over naked body parts, but as Canada isn’t Japan I suspect they were always there. Extras on this 4-disc set are sparse; despite being advertised as including the Reunion Special “Total Drama Drama Drama Drama Island,” the only real special feature is an amusing, short (seven minutes) film featuring fictional cast interviews for the contestants in the show.

I didn’t want to like Total Drama Island, and I still don’t want to, but I enjoyed it in spite of myself. The show is ugly and stupid, but it’s ugly, stupid, hilarious fun, and I eagerly await the second season DVD release. Recommended.

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