"Transformers Animated" Season Two: Still Kicking Skid Plate, but Slipping Gears
The premiere to Transformers Animated was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2008—a fast, fun, and fascinating bit of lightweight fluff that updated the venerable robot toys for a new generation of kids. The first 13-episodes of the show kept up the pace, slipping only a bit with a few weaker plots and characters. The next 13 episodes in season 2 are now available on DVD, and unfortunately it seems to slip a bit further in quality from the pilot movie. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad show by any stretch. It’s simply to say that the seams are beginning to show a bit more.
Between the hanging plot threads from the prior season and the show’s need to introduce new Transformers characters/toys, the second season of Transformers Animated is certainly not hurting for story material. At the end of the first season, the heroic Autobots barely beat back an attack by the Decepticons and their leader, the resurrected Megatron. The price for their victory was terribly high, though: massive destruction to 22nd century Detroit; the capture of Dr. Isaac Sumdac, the robotics genius and father of stalwart friend of the Autobots Sari Sumdac; and, worst of all, the shattering of the Allspark, source of all robot life. In season 2, the Autobots have barely recovered from their great battle when the Autobot Elite Guard arrives on Earth to take possession of the Allspark, while the Decepticons have gone to ground, hiding all traces of their presence on Earth while plotting a surprise attack on the Autobot homeworld of Cybertron.
The earlier episodes of this season do an admirable job in keeping all these storytelling elements in the air at the same time. Bringing the Elite Guard to Earth leads to a terrific trilogy of episodes to kick off the season, dealing with threats large and small and threatening to violently upset the status quo. The fragments of the Allspark scattered throughout Detroit also serve as an exceptionally flexible plot device, triggering mayhem, acting as a catalyst to get Autobots and Decepticons into conflict, and converting normal vehicles into new Transformers, such as the Constructicons and the amusingly malleable Wreck-Gar. The Allspark also resurrects one character thought dead by the end of season 1, and the producers of the show take this plot twist as far as it will go, even reaping big laughs for an episode by turning him into the robot equivalent of South Park‘s Kenny. The disappearance of Dr. Sumdac also puts young Sari in charge of her father’s robotics corporation briefly, until slimy executive Porter C. Powell seizes control by claiming that there was no record at all of Dr. Sumdac ever having a daughter. Perhaps the season’s greatest accomplishment is that many of these plot threads run throughout the season, seemingly unconnected until a bunch of them suddenly crash together for the big, impressive two-part season finale.
The guest stars are definitely one of the most enjoyable things about this season. Some old favorites from season 1 return, including the Dinobots and the wonderfully ambiguous characters Lockdown and Black Arachnia. A few human guests return as well, including the Headmaster (sadly, not any more entertaining than before), Meltdown (still creepy fun), and the bizarro villains Angry Archer and Professor Princess (both of whom have grown on me for being so unapologetically weird and loopy). However, season 2 brings a bumper crop of new faces, many of which show the same flair for distinctive character design as the original five Autobots. A cool mystery car debuts in “Velocity,” and its visual design seems to be an old-school shout out to Speed Racer’s Mach 5. The aforementioned Autobot Wreck-Gar is voiced by “Weird Al” Yankovic with great gusto and good humor in “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” and Fred Willard lends the Decepticon Swindle his delightfully unctuous smarm in “S.U.V. – Society of Ultimate Villany.” That same episode also introduces Slo Mo, a human would-be crime boss who’s a lot funnier than she has any right to be, thanks to the rapid-fire vocal patter of Tara Strong that’s reminiscent of Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy. It’s also worth pointing out the excellent work of Phil LaMarr as the fan-favorite Autobot Jazz and Townsend Coleman as the uptight and totally clued-out Sentinel Prime. The only notable misstep among the new characters are the Constructicons—construction machines brought to life by the Allspark. They’re meant to be comic, and many kids in the audience will probably find them so. However, they’re also excessively broad, one-note characters in a show that has gives us many other characters with surprising nuance and characterization. Unfortunately, the Constructicons are also the most prominent new characters added, appearing throughout the second half of the season.
Clearly, Transformers Animated has plenty of material to work with for the 13 episodes of season 2, which makes it all the more annoying that they seem to keep repeating a lot of the same sorts of stories we saw in season 1. A few too many episodes resort to “Autobot Learns a Lesson” stories, but with all that’s at stake and all the character development that happened in season 1, a lot of these stories have to make characters regress to older versions of themselves or just get saddled with a monster-sized Idiot Ball to work. “Rise of the Constructicons” is perhaps the worst offender, with a plot that requires all the Autobots to act out of character, as well as to completely forget their search for Allspark fragments and allies against the Decepticons. Also, the major Sari subplot is brought up early, only to be mostly ignored for the entire season, even though anyone with the tiniest sense of imagination will immediately guess the big secret revealed in the last minutes of the last episode. None of these things are deal-breakers (although the Constructicons come perilously close), but the missteps are a bit too big to just brush under the rug, especially compared to the far more successful season 1.
Like the earlier Transformers Animated DVDs, the season two set presents the episodes in full-frame format and plain stereo sound. The full-frame format is a bit of a disappointment, especially since the show is apparently animated in widescreen and airs that way on Cartoon Network HD. Thus, the image on these DVDs is chopped off at the edges for no very good reason, and while no real information is lost, there’s also little reason to release the cropped version on DVD. Other than that, though, the presentation here is perfectly fine, with the same sharp image and sensible chapter stops as the earlier releases. The season 1 DVD was a major disappointment for extras, but the season 2 set takes solid steps to make amends. All the extras are on disc 1, with the best of them being the 2 commentary tracks that accompany the episodes “Mission Accomplished” and “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” Both tracks feature Supervising Director Matt Youngberg, Art Director Derrick J. Wyatt, Story Editor/Head Writer Marty Isenberg, and Hasbro Lead Product Designer Eric Siebenaler. The number and variety of participants ensures that these commentary tracks are tremendously informative and entertaining, with no dead spots or vapid comments. From their comments, it’s also clear that the crew has as much fun making the show as fans will have watching it. We also get two more animated shorts, this time starring the Decepticons. They’re not quite as amusing as the ones starring the Autobots that were on “Transform and Roll Out,” but they’re not bad. The last extra is another photo gallery, but be forewarned that it contains major spoilers for the episodes on disc 2, so don’t page through it before you’ve finished watching the whole season.
The second season of Transformers Animated still manages to be fun more often than not. It isn’t any more substantial than the first season, but it remains a fast-paced, high-quality action show suitable for all ages that’s far better than it needed to be. It does succeed in raising the stakes and expanding the show’s horizons, so let’s hope that it manages to exploit those opportunities a bit better in the upcoming third season.