Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Things That Suck: THE SMOGGIES

One of the weirdest ideas about popular culture is that the pop culture of the '80s was predominantly right-wing. I grew up in the '80s and that ain't the way I remember it. A few Rambo movies here and there, a few revenge fantasies, a few movies like Red Dawn, yes. But if you look at a broader range of '80s movies and TV shows, you will find the following themes expressed far more often, in more or less these terms: a) Nuclear war is bad and scary; b) Russians are people too, and this whole Cold War thing only happened because we don't realize that; c) Nature is all good and wonderful and we must protect the environment at all costs. '80s pop culture was so far from being right-wing that, as I've previously mentioned, a movie character could be identified as evil just by having a picture of President Reagan on his desk (eg. Ralph Bellamy in Trading Places). If anything the pop culture of the '90s was quite a bit more to the right in its general themes.

This is all a prelude to saying that the '80s was the golden age of that most terrifying type of kiddie show: the enviro-toon, the cartoon that seeks to "educate" children about the importance of preserving the environment. The most infamous is Ted Turner's hideous "Captain Planet," but the one under review, "The Smoggies," was pretty offensive too; it started in the late '80s as one of those cartoons made for world distribution -- that is, made as cheaply as possible, dubbed in many different languages, and distributed anywhere in the world that kids' TV programmers are looking for cheap filler. The premise of the show was that three comic villains, "The Smoggies" (a bumbling sea captain, a woman who's sort of a blandified version of Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, and a big dumb guy), sail around on a dirty boat and try to pollute stuff. Their pollution plans fail miserably and, supposedly, comically, because of the intervention of the "Sun-tots," a bunch of little annoying Smurf-like creatures who use solar power and never get anything, but anything, dirty. Here's an "official" description of the show:

The Suntots live in harmony with all nature, but their lives are disrupted by the arrival of the Smoggies. The Smoggies pollute the air and sea around them and the Suntots must find inventive ways to solve it all. Uses animation to teach children about environmental issues.

The enviro-toon didn't start with the '80s; Dr. Seuss wrote a bunch of books with more or less that aim, and I wouldn't say they're among his best work, but they're not bad. But the '80s enviro-toon is the worst of the worst, combining the condescention of the worst educational kids' show with the simplistic morality of one of those action cartoons about steroid-enhanced heroes. What I mean by this is that the enviro-toon poses as an "educational" show, but it's not actually educating in the sense of teaching children about certain facts; instead of facts, it teaches a particular morality, and stacks the deck to make it seem like their morality is the only one that kids should accept. It's indoctrination, and though I don't like polluting sea captains any better than the next kid, I feel queasy about using cartoons to indoctrinate young children. (Someone on another site once compared the "Captain Planet" cartoons to Jack Chick Bible tracts.) Also, as another writer pointed out in talking about "Captain Planet," cartoons like this invariably portray villains whose only goal is to pollute. This doesn't even make sense; you'd get the impression, from watching a show like this, that there is absolutely no reason why anyone would pollute except for the desire to do mischief. The problem is that if the villains were trying for some other objective -- say, building something -- that created pollution, then this might introduce moral ambiguity and require the writers to explain why sometimes you have to give up certain short-term things for the long-term health of the environment. And you can't write that kind of script in five minutes.

"The Smoggies" was not as badly made as "Captain Planet"; the humor was stupid, but at least it had a sense of humor. Still, when I watched it as a kid over ten years of age, I knew I was in the presence of a show that was trying to spare me the tiresome burden of thinking, and I was surprisingly ungrateful about it.

And now here's the main thing people remember about "The Smoggies": the theme song, one of the last songs written by Sesame Street songwriter Joe Raposo. It pretty much says it all about the approach of this show and the enviro-toon in general:

Have you met the Smoggies?
We love the soot and grime,
We make the whole world dirty,
And we have a real good time.
We love to make things messy,
Just as dirty as can be,
And you can bet we'll mess you up

Make way for the Sun-tots,
A neat and tidy crew,
We'll stay young forever,
And we want the same for you.
If we get your magic coral,
Then forever young we'll be,
Do you think you'll find it somewhere
In the clear blue sea?

We use the water, wind and sun,
To make our homes and gadgets run,
Where else can you have such fun,

Come and see our island,
And smell the sweet, sweet breeze,
Where we'll live for ever,
Just as happy as can be.
With the Sun-tots and the Smoggies,
Choose the way the world could be,
A messy mess or shiny clear,

Sun-tots, Sun-tots,
Earth and wind and sea, and
Smoggies, Smoggies,
Smoky, oily, greasy...

To review: all pollution is caused by ugly, bumbling people who have nothing better to do than dump icky stuff in the water. Good guys use pure, clean, non-icky power and are rewarded by staying young and cute forever. There is nothing to gain by polluting and nothing to lose by not polluting. In the words of another Joe Raposo song, it's not easy being Green.