I’m not just talking about “The Clash of Triton,” which even by the standards of recent SpongeBob episodes is a remarkably mirth-free zone. I’m talking about the way they keep dragging this corpse of a once-brilliant series around like it’s the title character in Weekend at Bernie’s.
Once upon a time SpongeBob SquarePants was a bright, cartoony oasis of cheerful inanity and ingenious nonsense. It wasn’t about much of anything, really, except the characters’ happy neuroses. SpongeBob, or Squidward, or Mr. Krabs (or Sandy Cheeks or Patrick Starfish or Mrs. Puff or somebody with a goofy quirk) would just get caught up willy-nilly in a situation and make a donkey of himself or herself in a sublimely entertaining way. There was rarely a “story,” only a lot of perfectly pitched gags working themselves out in baroque variations.
It reached a pinnacle of a sort in “Idiot Box,” which was eleven minutes or so of nothing but SpongeBob, Squidward, Patrick, a box, and the boys’ remarkably powerful imaginations. It crystallized all that was awe-inspiring about the show—appealing characters doing funny, illogical things—and it made you picture the cartoonists themselves pulling similar stunts: squatting in boxes and churning out fantastical cartoons to the puzzled bemusement of network executives, all through the raw exercise of untrammeled imagination. But somewhere along the line they mislaid their boxes or had them taken away from them, and the dreams all turned to dross.
Mostly, it seems like SpongeBob has just faded into another “cartoon sitcom.” The writers work up a “situation” or a “problem,” and then they force one of their characters to solve it. In “The Clash of Triton” the problem (which takes almost ten excruciatingly unfunny minutes to set up) is that King Neptune has become estranged from his son, Triton, and his reflections on their sad separation ruin his 5000th birthday party, which is being held at the Krusty Krab. Already you can see how far it falls below the standard set by “Idiot Box”: It takes only a dozen words to capture that short, but more than three times as many just to describe the set-up to “Triton.” I haven’t even tried describing Triton’s punishment, or why SpongeBob tries to reconcile the quarreling relatives (hint: it requires more plot, this time involving Mr. Krabs), or what happens when he finally brings Triton and his dad together. The plot isn’t even well structured, being slack and inefficient about getting from one situation to the next.
The story’s dullness itself blunts what few gags there are—which aren’t even that funny to begin with—and it’s not even clear what is supposed to be a joke and what isn’t. In a flashback, for instance, Triton discovers his son experimenting with a chemistry set; Triton boasts of having concocted a cure for “all mortal diseases”; and an angry Triton smashes the set because, being gods, his family can’t catch diseases. This is just bewildering. Gary Larson once came up with a terrific gag about a juvenile deity and his chemistry set (“God as a kid tries to make a chicken in his room”), and in the old days I’m sure the SpongeBob crew could have spun out eleven minutes of hilarity on the same theme. But these days you have to wonder: Did no one look at the storyboard and ask “Is there anything intrinsically funny about chemistry sets? If not, why don’t we add something funny? Is there anything funny about ‘curing all mortal diseases’? Is there anything funny about smashing a chemistry set? Is there anything in this sequence that is funny at all?”
The whole special is like this: plot points clumsily rolled out to “motivate” other plot points, which are themselves there only to motivate yet more plot points. But somehow, while they were distracted by all this wheezing machinery, they forgot to put any actual humor in.
And it’s not going to end, either. Thanks to the DVD, we can collect our favorite shows; and as long as new DVD sets sell the studios will keep making new episodes, no matter how decrepit the shows themselves become. That’s why it isn’t funny: Used to, they would actually stop making cartoons—they stopped making the Looney Tunes and the Silly Symphonies and the Tom and Jerry’s—because the creators got too tired to keep it up. Nowadays there is no end to the shame and the embarrassment.
And the promise of that, the prospect of an endless, tepid stream of schedule-plugging make-work, diluting our memories of the really clever stuff they once made—that is even less funny than a solitary, sad mediocrity like “The Clash of Triton.”
SpongeBob SquarePants: “The Clash of Triton” will air on Nickelodeon on Monday, July 5, at 8:00pm (ET/PT).