Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Welcome To the 21st Century, Charlie Brown

As the father of five children between the ages of 12 and 1, I am more familiar with children's television programming than I have been since I was an adolescent. (I fondly recall watching Inspector Gadget and He-Man while doing Algebra homework after school, then discussing the episodes with the guys in my College Boards class the following days. But I digress.) My kids are most interested in the newer cartoons (go figure!) that appear first-run on Cartoon Network, Toon Disney, and the other cable kid's channels. Not surprisingly, today's cartoons are very different from the ones that I watched as a kid. Poop and fart jokes are mandatory these days, it would seem -- kind of like how sex and/or nudity, visual or implied, must be a part of grown-ups' movies these days. Plus, the action shows are faster and more furious that anything I watched back in the old days.

The only old cartoon that my kids get into is Scooby-Doo. That dog has a certain timeless quality, despite the fact that he hangs out with a "gang" that includes a 1960s beatnik and a 1980s preppy in an ascot. And he has managed to keep up with the times by appearing as a CGI character in two live-action movies -- with plenty of fart jokes.

When I checked out last night's TV listings, I was overjoyed to see that there was a new Peanuts Christmas-themed special on ABC last night. (Actually, it is four years old but I had never heard of it until yesterday, so it is new to me.) At last! A classic style cartoon featuring classic characters in classic situations! Or so I thought. Everything has to grow up sometime -- or, in the case of Peanuts, keep up with the times without going overboard.

The special, entitles "I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown", focuses on Rerun Van Pelt, the baby brother of Lucy and Linus. Rerun is one of the better things that happened to the strip during the last several years of Charles Schulz's life. Babies are always cute, and Schulz used Rerun as a sort of "commentary" character who saw the world from the perspective of the back seat of his mother's bicycle. He might have looked virtually indistinguishable from Linus, but he was certainly not a rerun of Linus's character. Rerun kept Peanuts fresh for years after the strip seemed otherwise to have run its course.

Another late comer to the cast, Snoopy's brother Spike, had just the opposite impact on the strip. He was never an interesting character, he looked like a ridiculous parody of Snoopy with his hat and mustache, and he ruined every Sunday strip he appeared in with his boring and unfunny letters to Snoopy from the desert. The only way I would have enjoyed a Spike strip is if it had ended with his carcass drying in the hot Arizona sun after being picked apart by vultures.

Mercifully, Spike's role in I Want A Dog... is brief and makes him look like the reject that he is.

The rest of the characters were their old familiar selves. Snoopy hasn't turned into Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. I think. (For all I know, his "quacking" vocalizations might be about poop.) Lucy is crabby, Linus has his thumb and blanket obsession, Schroeder still has to put up with Lucy's infatuation with him, etc, etc. There wasn't much to date this cartoon as a product of the 21st century.

But what there was, was big -- and predictable.

Rerun is no longer a baby. He is approximately five years old and attends Kindergarten. He has a friendly interest -- not romantic, mind you, but friendly -- in a cute girl who sits next to him at school. I had a similar type of experience when I was his age. There was a girl named Sherry in my kindergarten class. We became friends during activity time, usually playing house, which was kind of boring when the other boys were on the other side of the room riding the fun wooden trucks. I hadn't quite gotten into the whole make-believe aspect of playtime, because I was earnestly stunned when Sherry told me that we were already married. You are supposed to go to church and exchange vows with your bride. Marriage is serious business. It's not something to play around with. But she aggressively insisted that we were married, and that was that. I decided that if she said so, it must be so. I never told my mother, even though I knew I should -- but how do you break that kind of news to your mother at such a young age? Eventually, the school year ended and so did my pretend marriage. I never met Sherry again, although I think I walked past her on the street about four years later.

No big deal, right? That was 1973. Thirty years later, in 2003, a cartoon character named Rerun is having a deep, thoughtful Peanuts-style conversation with a Kindergarten classmate. At one point, he suggests that they take a trip to Paris together. He doesn't know why, really -- it's just something that people (adults!) do. He doesn't understand the romantic allure of visiting Paris, or how much such a trip would cost, or even where Paris is located. The next day, he is mysteriously called to go to the Principal's office. I had a bad feeling about this. "Don't tell me that a baby Peanuts character is going to get hauled in for sexual harassment!", I thought to myself. Sure enough, in the words of the Principal, "WAH-WAH-WAH, WAH-WAH". Or, as Rerun echoed, "Harassment????"

Oh yes! In the year AD 2003, Peanuts went THERE! But that was alright. Do you know why? I'll tell you:

  • The makers of this long-running series of animated television specials showed that they are not afraid of keeping up with the times.
  • They treated the charge of harassment as the idiocy that it is, rather than turning Peanuts into a lame Afterschool Special about feelings and consequences.
  • Rerun's suspension started the day before Christmas vacation, meaning that he got an extra half-day off. Nuts to you, mother of the girl who called the school to complain!
  • The Principal violated Rerun's civil rights by punishing him without making him fully aware of the charges against him. Nice way to teach a kid a civics lesson, Mr. WAH-WAH.
It was a scene that could have gone so wrong, yet they handled it so well. If that sequence imparted any lesson to the young viewers, it's this: Adults can be total jerks sometimes. And I should know. I am one. (An adult, I mean.)

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