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Do The Critics Of “Teen Titans Go!” Have A Point?

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Teen Titans Go! is one of those rare shows that responds to its own critics, and last week it fired the biggest shot yet with a cartoon titled “The Return Of Slade.” Slade was the biggest villain of the original Teen Titans series and also its darkest. This title was chosen purely to get bitter fans of the former show to tune in to something they’d vowed never to watch again….so they could see the entire conflict resolved offscreen and the entire rest of the cartoon revolve around something else. This probably didn’t win any of them back over, but the cartoon went on….

The real message of the episode was that nostalgia tends to cloud judgement, as we’ve seen many many many times on the Internet. “(Stupid show) is terrible! It’s nowhere near as good as (equally stupid show I have fond memories of)!” This phenomenon has been pointed out over and over, usually to deaf ears, but I’ve never seen a kids’ show ITSELF bring it up. It makes me wonder how children watching this today are going to develop now that they’ve been warned in advance.

This was taken to a satirical extreme when the subject of derision was literally a clown. Cyborg and Beast Boy complained that the clown hired for Robin’s party was “too kiddie” and that clowns in their day “had an edge.” Robin pointed out it was the same clown both times. This didn’t deter BB and Cyborg, who invented a raygun that would turn the clown into the version they remembered. It ended up literally creating a monster.

It was a good message, one that needed to be preached, buuuuut….The more troubling suggestion this episode implies is that the Teen Titans Go! writers don’t understand where the criticism of their show is actually coming from. This has been the progression of DC’s television animation since 1992:

Batman: The Animated Series
The Batman/Superman Adventures
Batman Beyond
Justice League/Unlimited
The Batman
Young Justice
Teen Titans GO!

One of these things is not like the others. Even if we put the original Teen Titans in the list, one of these things is still not like the others; Teen Titans was a very versatile show that could be both comedic and dramatic. TTG! is 24-7 Up-To-11 insane and is very much the black sheep of the DC pantheon. It started development as the last hope of the DC Nation block at a time when CN had abandoned production of action cartoons period; going the crazy route was the only way it could get on the air at all. This show was set up to be despised from the beginning, and even if they broadcast the single funniest cartoon EVER INVENTED BY MANKIND next week, a certain section of animation fans would STILL hate it. It’s in a situation it can’t win.

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But here’s the thing. Hatred is commonly illogical, but the folks who hate THIS thing? I can see where they’re coming from. There’s a valid, logical reason to not like it.

The problem with telling the haters of TTG! that they need to gain perspective — that the shows they loved were just as kiddie — is that it doesn’t really apply to THIS situation. Most of those action-oriented DC cartoons still hold up. They had adult fans when they were on, and they have adult fans who watched them as kids and still love them now. It’s a special case for Batman: The Animated Series, one of the most influential, respected and revered cartoon series ever made. People will still be watching B:TAS a hundred years from now. Will they be watching Teen Titans Go?

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I couldn’t tell you how much of a cultural lifespan Teen Titans Go! will have. It’s very controversial at the moment. There are people who hate it just because it killed the DC action-toon legacy. There are also people who hate it because they find it too mindless and juvenile. Then there are those that have a taste for cartoons that just focus on humor and getting the biggest laugh possible. I count myself among them, and I don’t see anything wrong with TTG! as a concept. Not every cartoon has to be Shakespeare. It’s not a law that every DC cartoon has to be dead serious either. The more we limit ourselves creatively, the more we risk getting into a stale rut. Besides, I don’t care who you are, nobody can watch a single TTG! cartoon and not start cracking up at some point, against their will. The show is popular because it knows how to nail a gag — there’s talent behind it.

BUT.

The DC cartoons of the 90’s and 2000’s weren’t beloved because they were “grimdark” as “The Return Of Slade” implies. That’s a very simpleton way to look at it. They were beloved because they were intelligent, groundbreaking and pleased a much bigger cross-section of humanity. And shock of all shocks, people still seek them out and watch them today. Even though they were “for kids.”

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This is a simpler show. TTG! is very much the clown we saw. It makes the kiddies laugh, but it’ll be replaced by another clown a few years from now and no one will know the difference. And very much like Cyborg and Beast Boy, the kids of today will look back at TTG! as the adults of tomorrow and think, “This isn’t as good as I remembered it being.” A cartoon’s real shot at immortality lies in if it can appeal to future generations, and the best way to determine if it has that chance is if it appeals to multiple generations when it’s NEW.

Frankly, if I was put in charge of a “children’s” program and had to decide whether to take the chance to leave a lasting legacy, something my great-grandchildren might watch…..or to just say “screw it” and write WAFFLES WAFFLES WAFFLES WAFFLES WAFFLES WAFFLES WAFFLES WAFFLES WAFFLES WAFFLES all over the script like some starving version of Jack Torrance, I would go for the former option. Another message “The Return of Slade” appears to be getting across is that a show for kids is just supposed to please kids, and if it accomplishes that, it doesn’t need to please anybody else. How anyone can cling to that belief in this day and age is beyond me.

Teen Titans Go! is surrounded at the moment by the greatest lineup of toons Cartoon Network has ever put forth. Adventure Time, Regular Show, Steven Universe, Gumball, Clarence, We Bare Bears, Over The Garden Wall….Similarly to Pixar’s strategy, they’ve established a relationship of trust with their audience. It’s the assurance that the CN brand means something of quality, and both kids and their parents have responded with open wallets. The question of if a cartoon should please a wide-aged audience is no longer a debate. CN has proven it can be done and they’ve proven it works. No one can throw out the “but it’s for kids” excuse anymore if the cultural reaction to their doodles is negative. If your creation only appeals to people whose brains haven’t fully developed, and no one else, it means your creation sucks.

I don’t think Teen Titans Go! sucks. It may sound like I’m pulling my punches but I mean it: it’s a darn funny cartoon. But the producers seem to be implying that this entire genre can’t be anything more than that. And now that we’ve seen the in-universe endorsement of a very flawed creative strategy that’s created many a bad show in the past and even led to a Dark Age for animation that lasted decades….that’s not a good thing.