Sunday, November 13, 2005

How Toyetic Can You Get?

I recently wrote, in full-on '80s nostalgia mode, a post about cartoons based on toys. Continuing that theme, I'd like to post an article I wrote about what was probably the most entertaining of the toy-based cartoons, "Jem (and the Holograms)." Warning: it's a long damn thing, and goes into way more detail about the relationship between cartoons and toys than any sensible person should really want.

This show was based on a line of Hasbro toys, and produced by Sunbow animation, which consisted mostly of people from the just-out-of-business DePatie-Freleng company. The success of “My Little Pony” made Sunbow the obvious choice to do a show based on Hasbro’s most ambitious project yet: Jem. Or, Jem and the Holograms. Or, Punk Rock Barbie.

For some time, Hasbro had been trying to come up with a way to outdo Mattel’s Barbie dolls, which had given Mattel an invincible lead among young girls. In the mid-‘80s, Hasbro came up with what they thought was the answer: create a doll as pretty and anatomically-impossible as Barbie, but make it cool and hip. And what was cool and hip at the time was punk rock, with its elements of – in the words of the Jem show’s theme song – “glamour and glitter, fashion and fame.” Al Carosi, Hasbro’s senior vice-president of marketing, explained to the Los Angeles Times: "We wanted to get into the fashion-doll section of the toy industry. We had identified the interest young girls have in rock 'n' roll music. With the advent of MTV, Nickelodeon and 'Miami Vice' a rock 'n' roll feeling has permeated the youth market.” So Jem had pink hair, what clothing she wore was pink, and she had a star apparently tattooed around her eye. All this was supposed to give the impression that she was more rebellious than Barbie, leading less of a sheltered life; but to make sure that she wouldn’t come off as a bad role model, she had a team of adversaries – a rival rock group known as “The Misfits” – who represented all the bad things about the punk rock world, so that Jem could look like a saint by comparison.

In fact, the backstory of “Jem” was unusually detailed for a toy, and this derived from the fact that the TV show was planned from the beginning as part of the promotion. Hasbro and Sunbow planned it out together: who is Jem, who are her friends, who are her enemies. The resulting scenario would be the basis for the toys and the cartoon: Jerrica Benton, the daughter of a recently-deceased music mogul, inherits a share in his record company, “Starlight Music,” and a shelter for homeless girls (the plight of the homeless had become the issue of the time), the “Starlight House.” She immediately comes into conflict with her partner at the record company, nefarious record executive Eric Raymond, over his corrupt business methods and his promotion of a trashy punk group, The Misfits. Jerrica’s problems are solved when she discovers a third thing her father left her: his secret supercomputer, Synergy, capable of projecting “sophisticated holograms” that can change people’s appearance. To get money to keep Starlight House afloat, and to stop Eric from taking over the record company, Jerrica uses Synergy to transform herself into the “truly outrageous” and mysterious Jem, and forms a rock group, The Holograms, with her sister Kimber and two multicultural friends, Aja and Shana. But she hides her secret identity from her purple-haired boyfriend Rio, which creates complications when Rio finds himself becoming more and more attracted to Jem.

This secret-identity gimmick derived from both toy-related and TV-related concerns. Hasbro wanted to make sure that Jem wouldn’t be too far out and funky for girls to relate to, so they created the “Jerrica” alter ego, to let girls know that underneath all those layers of pink, Jem is just a regular gal like them (if they owned a music company and a giant hologram-projecting computer). And Sunbow, conscious that the show would be going into a market dominated by boys’ action-adventure series like He-Man, wanted to make sure that Jem would have enough action elements to keep the boys from tuning out, the way they tended to tune out of My Little Pony. So Jem became something of a rock n’ roll superheroine, with a secret identity to preserve, and recurring villains to fight – Eric Raymond, the Misfits. Plus the Misfits tended to be so crazy and violent that they would inflict enough damage to keep the violence fans happy; indeed, they probably did more actual harm than Skeletor ever managed.

The head writer of the TV series was Christy Marx, who had started with DePatie-Freleng on a "Fantastic Four" series where network censors forced the Human Torch to be replaced by a robot. She later recalled that she didn’t particularly want to do Jem, feeling that it was too “girly” after all the red-blooded action shows she’d been doing. But she liked the challenge of writing a show that combined the features of girls’ shows – romance, friendship, music – with features taken from action-adventure and even soap opera. Her five-part pilot of Jem was unusually entertaining because, unlike any other Saturday morning cartoon of the time, you hardly knew what to expect next. It starts as a soap, with Jerrica mourning the death of her father and discovering Eric Raymond’s plot to take over the company. Then it becomes a fantasy, with the arrival of Synergy and its rather overblown computerized powers. (In the ‘80s, when computers were just starting to arrive in people’s homes, there were many movies and TV shows that fantasized about the power of computers, inflating their abilities to near-mythological levels; remember 1985’s Weird Science, where ordinary home computers literally have magical powers?) Then it’s a musical, with a battle of the bands between Jem and the Misfits. Then it introduces various action-adventure cliffhangers: Starlight House gets burned down, the Holograms are on a boat about to crash into another boat, Eric Raymond slaps Jerrica and Rio punches Eric (He-Man could never get away with that kind of violence). By the end of the fifth episode, and Jem’s first, truncated season, you feel like you’ve actually seen something unique, and whatever the crudities of the animation or the dialogue, that made Jem a breath of fresh air in 1986. The fact that it was based on a toy didn’t change the fact that it had more to offer than most shows that weren’t based on toys.

One of the things it had to offer was fairly entertaining music. “My Little Pony” had usually included one original song per episode, but “Jem” was a full-fledged musical: every episode contained three original songs, usually two by Jem and one by The Misfits. The songs were vaguely related to the plot (Jem sang a song called “Deception” castigating herself for deceiving Rio; the Misfits went to Hawaii and sang “We’re Misfits in Hawaii”), but they were presented as MTV-style music videos, complete with band and song identification at the beginning and end. The videos could be unusually wacky and visually imaginative for a Saturday morning cartoon, with lots of shifting backgrounds and crazy visual ideas that commented on the lyrics of the song: the videos for the Misfits’ “(I’ve Got) Universal Appeal” actually showed their faces floating in space, as big and bright as the Earth. These one-minute segments may have been silly, but they were among the few moments in Saturday morning cartoons that gave any real visual opportunities to the animators.

And if you listen closely, the songs weren’t bad either. The lyrics were by Barry Harman, who was a veteran of shows like “All in the Family” and “The Carol Burnett Show”; he was also a real musical-theatre lyricist, who would have a show produced on Broadway (“Romance, Romance”) not long after he started working on “Jem.” He and the composers, Ford Bryant and Ellis Kinder, responded surprisingly well to the challenge of writing songs that sounded like ‘80s-style pop songs but functioned like integrated musical-comedy numbers.

They also did a good job of coping with the rules that the show imposed on the songs: Hasbro’s rule was that Jem and the Holograms had to sing songs with positive messages, while the Misfits would sing songs about being greedy and selfish (but without directly telling the viewers to act that way). Not surprisingly, Harman found the Misfits more fun to write for. “Jem and the Holograms were sweet,” he recalled, “but it’s hard turning out songs that are all so positively based. I think we did a decent job, but it’s more fun misbehaving!” Jem’s lyrics usually sounded like this:

People who care
Are people who share,
People who give
So other people can live.

While the Misfits got the fun stuff, and allowed the lyricist to enjoy himself with some references and rhymes that the kids might not notice:

The world belongs to the major movers,
The ones who'll keep up a relentless pace.
If you ain't up to their fast manoeuvres,
You're gonna wind up in second place –
You're gonna wind up with egg on your face!
All the prizes go to the swift;
You gotta be fast, you gotta be fast
Baby, baby, are you gettin' my drift?

You can tell those aren’t real ‘80s pop/rock lyrics because they actually rhyme. But kids loved the songs, so much so that Sunbow considered doing an album of “Jem” songs.

Before that or any other “Jem” tie-ins could happen, though, a problem arose. Not with the show; the show was doing fine. But the toys weren’t. And because the show had mostly been intended to help sell the toys, that was a problem for the show, too.

While the Jem dolls didn’t sell that badly, they didn’t sell nearly well enough, considering the huge promotional budget Hasbro put into it and the equally huge number of dolls produced. At the end of 1987, the company was left with $9 million worth of unsold Jem dolls that had to be sold off at discount prices, like remaindered books.

Carosi blamed it on size: ''One of the things we did wrong, in retrospect, is that we made Jem an inch taller than Barbie, so that the clothes weren't interchangeable for both.” Another possible problem was that if you didn’t know she was a good girl – that is, if you hadn’t seen the show and learned about her reassuring backstory – Jem looked kind of scary, as if she’d been made up for Halloween instead of a date. Hasbro had counted on the TV show to give the doll mainstream appeal to little girls. It turned out that all the TV show did was give mainstream appeal to Jem as a cartoon character; the doll was on its own. It had succeeded as a cartoon series, but it failed as a marketing tool.

And so, in 1988, Hasbro announced that Jem dolls and all associated paraphernalia would be taken off the market. The company turned its attention to a new girls’ doll, Maxie, described by the New York Times as “a fresh-faced high-school girl from California - a sports- and beach-oriented type.” In other words, the punk look was out and wholesomeness was in again. (Maxie didn’t catch on either, but Mattel executives at least paid her the compliment of saying that she was a better doll than Jem ever was.) And Jem became a fixture in remainder bins all over the continent.

But what of the cartoon show? The ratings were still good; girls and even boys were singing the songs; the people who worked on the show were willing to make more episodes. But by the time the toys were off the market, the show had gotten up to the magic number, 65 episodes, and Hasbro had no intention of making any more; they didn’t need any more for syndication profits, and with no toy to sell, there was no benefit, as they saw it, in making more episodes. By the time she wrote the last episode, Marx knew there wouldn’t be any others, and she was able to write it as a sort of makeshift series finale (with one of Jerrica’s adorable orphan charges finding her long-lost father). And then, nothing. Jem, a successful, well-regarded show, had been cancelled not because it failed to pull in the advertisers, because it failed as an advertisement in and of itself.

While what happened to Jem was the most spectacular example of marketing problems taking precedence over ratings success, it happened elsewhere, too. To a certain extent it even happened with He-Man. Mattel launched a spinoff series about He-Man’s sister, She-Ra: Princess of Power, to promote a new line of girl-oriented action toys. The show was a mild success, but the toys were not, and the show faded away with the toys. Moreover, with Filmation having taken most of the He-Man staff off that show to work on the spinoff, the success of He-Man started to wane, and with it, the success of the Mattel toys (and He-Man was one of the few cases of a show that really demonstrably helped to sell the toys it was based on). So when Mattel got burned by its rush to promote new toys, Filmation wound up losing one big hit series and one mildly successful one. The company never really recovered, though there was one more Mattel-Filmation collaboration, Bravestarr, featuring a toy that was described as “A sort of sci-fi Western, featuring a Native American space sheriff.” It flopped.

1 comment:

Frank Berrocal said...

I remember the first time I saw JEM. I was astonished because another show was eliminated to run this one. Five minutes later, I was just amazed. 22 years later I am still amazed. I will be in the future. I developed all my talents trying to reach Jem stuff: music, painting, tailoring, writting. So, I think this is one of those cases were a real positive influence can reach a child and mark it for the rest of his life. I am greatful for that.