Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review: Jonny Quest [TV]

Throughout my weeklong miasma I watched a good deal of TV, so remarkable is it for demanding absolutely no cognitive activity from the viewer whatsoever. Anyway, as I watched and watched I began to notice a lack of cartoons in my viewing. So as I looked and looked I found only a lot of junk on Cartoon Network, vulgar and dappy nonsense. Saturday morning cartoons have shrunk to a small quarter of badly animated singsongy nonsense for children.

Now I watched a lot of nonsense growing up, but I had Garfield and Friends, which was splendid satire of TV itself, poking barbs at writers, producers, networks, and the viewers themselves. I also watched reruns of Rocky and Bullwinkle, with their cleverly retold fairy tales and fables from Aesop, and of course the adventures of the titular moose and squirrel, which always turn satirical, skewering everything from college sports to the stock market to government assistance.

One of my favorites, though, I looked up this passed week and found not on TV but streaming from Amazon Prime: The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. The show only lasted two seasons with a total of 52 episodes, but what a blast it is.

Like all good adventure serials, the premise is simple. Dr. Benton Quest and his son Jonny scour the world investigating unusual phenomena. Along for the ride are Benton's friend, Race Banner, and his daughter, Jessie. Countering the kids' unrestrained zeal is their friend Hadji, who brings a dose of prudence and moderation to their plans. Inevitably, adventure calls and inevitably the kids, separated from Benton and Race, must fend for themselves and help save the day.

It won't do to summarize serials, but we should look at what makes Jonny Quest so satisfying.

First, JQ walks a reasonable line between visual excitement and graphic violence. While cartoon action programming has mostly vanished and there's no standard or median today, it's easy for a show to be too bloody or squeaky clean. JQ has a surprising amount of violence, but there isn't a lot of visual detail. People sure do die, though. They're shot, blown up, trampled, impaled, and eaten. Many episodes open with a spectacular death as a maguffin, just like movies. This is just the right level of realism to remind a young boy that the world's a dangerous place, but not enough to shock him with the blood spattering and limb-flying gore of 300 and Call of Duty. It's just enough to remind us that Jonny is in some real danger.

Second, there's no backup. The cavalry is rarely, if ever, on the way. Jonny and friends have to start thinking and acting for themselves. Help is not around the corner.

Third, there is a palpable masculine vibe to the show. Tools, technology, myths, legends, globetrotting, danger, mystery. . . all without Jonny being nannied to tie his shoe laces, go to bed, and look both ways before crossing the street. It would have been more dramatic if Jonny's mother were living and she could contrast the boys' zeal, but her complete absence gives the show a freewheeling boys-and-toys energy.

Fourth, there are plenty of toys, both electronic and traditional. On the one hand the team has the digital wizardry of "Quest World" and its array of 3D imaging, computational, and data-sharing abilities. On the other hand the team invariably finds itself in the middle of nowhere, technology lost or destroyed, and resorting to devising traps, making fires, makeshift weapons, and guile. It's a welcome blend of the geeky and brawny, either of which grows tiresome on their own.

Fifth, and some people will balk about this one, the Quest team explores plenty of myths, legends, and tall tales, with them on occasion turning out to be true. Hardline materialists will balk, and the tales are silly, but if all the mysteries turned out to be false then the show would lose the sense of mystery which drives it. The writers probably could have finessed both ways with some fancier writing, but this is a dramatically acceptable turn even if we have to look the other way on occasion. These stories, from the philosopher's stone to the Mary Celeste, are springs of mystery which get us excited about investigating the world, and keeping them mysterious leaves the world, to paraphrase John Buchan, an oyster for the opening.

Sixth, the villains hold their weight. Among clashes with looters, poachers, predators, nature, and the supernatural, Team Quest has two fierce adversaries. The first is their formal nemesis, Dr. Jeremiah Surd, who dogs the team hoping to acquire their technology and take revenge on Race Bannon for the injury which consigned the doctor to a wheelchair. On the other hand we have Ezekiel Rage, who is equal parts brimstone-spewing preacher, Bond villain, and Jason Bourne. Both villains were spurned government agents, adding a political dimension to their personal vendettas with the Quest Team.

Finally, there's a slight but noticeable and welcome cultural thread running throughout. Whether it's Hadji's Confucian aphorisms, historical quotes or references, or Race's homespun wisdom, the team is wrestling with questions by means of ideas as well as guts. Whether it's fighting off poachers, outwitting their longstanding enemies, or rescuing artifacts, the team is always balancing whom or what to save and what to sacrifice. It's not always brilliant or novel, but satisfactory and satisfying for serialized adventures. In an especially nice touch after one adventure, Benton begins reciting the end of Tennyson's Ulysses, which Jonny completes, and without naming the title.

Jonny Quest isn't highbrow or perfect, but it's a young man's Indiana Jones or Hardy Boys. Sure, it'll introduce to him some interesting ideas, but more importantly it might stiffen his sinews and kindle in him perhaps a little of the old strenuous zeal. Most of all, it shows that Jonny's courage is the key to practicing the other virtues. A young man could do worse.

The show also has an irresistably energetic, swashbuckling opening:

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