For a lot of people during this pandemic, media has acted as an excellent way for them to escape the harsh realities of daily life. Throw on the news for five minutes and you’ll be inundated with story after story of misery, death, disease, and unemployment. It’s certainly tough and explains why many are beginning to fall back on nostalgia for comfort.
That’s why the idea of a new season of Animaniacs seems like it would be neat. Back when it was announced in 2018, many people were bemoaning how creatively bankrupt Hulu was, but the past few years have not been kind to anyone. Getting a chance to revisit some classic characters and see them given a new, HD makeover could be just the remedy we need for this difficult period.
Sadly, I’m not sure that’s what has happened here. Despite having most of the original cast and crew involved, Hulu’s take on Animaniacs only occasionally channels the zany energy that the ’90s original had in spades.
Animaniacs (Hulu Season One)
Showrunner: Wellesley Wild
Release Date: November 20, 2020 (Hulu)
As you’ve likely seen from many of the clips shared online, Animaniacs begins with a recreation of one of the most iconic scenes of ’90s cinema: the scene in Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs are first shown off. A monumental moment in cinematic history, it works as a way for everyone to gawk at the HD makeover Yakko, Wakko, and Dot have received after departing the airwaves in 1998. A lot has changed in animation and technology over 22 years, so it’s a fun way to nudge and wink older viewers while welcoming in newer ones that may not be accustomed to what the Warner siblings are about.
For the first episode, too, this works pretty well. The format this time around isn’t really about experimentation, but more reintroducing and replicating the two most memorable segments of the originals. Each of the 13 episodes contains one segment with the Warner’s, one with Pinky and the Brain, and then a closing skit that’s roughly 2-4 minutes in length. It’s breezy, if repetitive.
The original Animaniacs had a subtle way of introducing more politically charged themes into its writing and that’s the biggest difference this time out. Instead of giving the adults in the audience a way to feel smarter, Hulu has seemingly mandated that each episode be very overt with its political satire. In the second episode, we’re already seeing a facsimile of Donald Trump trapped on an island and acting like a jackass.
Again, this all works for the first few episodes. There’s some really prescient writing here considering this current season was scribed back in 2018 (of which a song even points out). Clearly, the writers had their fingers on the pulse of America, though I can’t believe they predicted that a pandemic would strike the world. It makes you think that this season is going to be spectacular.
But then it never reaches those heights again. In fact, by the tail end of the 13 episodes, the show falls back on formula and rarely does anything beyond, “Oh, yeah, here’s this heavy-handed allegory for political unrest.”
The best example I can give is this one segment with “buns.” In an obvious joke meant to parody how shockingly easy it is to acquire guns in America, a salesman starts getting everyone at the Warner lot to buy bunnies from him. They end up reproducing and creating a massive problem that is starting to affect the Warner siblings’ very way of life. When Yakko, Wakko, and Dot try to return their buns, the salesman basically gaslights them into believing they caused the problems themselves.
This might sound funny out of context, but the writing is just so blunt that it ends up insulting your intelligence. The segment even ends with Dot saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’m done with this allegory that very clearly doesn’t have deeper connotations.” Haha, so funny, right? Right, guys? Why aren’t you laughing?
Pinky and the Brain even devolves into this type of setup, mixing sometimes oft-kilter storylines with very obvious social commentary. In one episode, Brain experiments on a female lab rat so that he can have a shot at winning the presidential election. With a wonderful wife at his side, he believes there is no way for him to lose. As you could probably guess, the plot then becomes how this lady is better than Brain and everyone hates him because America has an obsession with strong women in 2020.
On its own, these ideas aren’t bad. I’m also not opposed to Animaniacs getting more political or anything like that. If you go back and rewatch the original series run, there are so many jokes that flew over our heads as kids that each episode takes on a completely different meaning now. It just seems that after 22 years, the writers either didn’t have confidence in their viewers or simply didn’t have the time to better structure these segments.
Cartoons of the ’90s are so fondly remembered by Millennials not just because they were what we grew up with, but because of their wit and daringness. Things like Rocko’s Modern Life, Invader Zim, Animaniacs, and even Ren and Stimpy pushed the boundaries of censorship while introducing idiosyncratic and satirical comedy to the masses. Parents loved it because of how deep the writing was and kids liked it because certain groups were up in arms over “controversy.”
In the time since, a multitude of shows have come and gone that have not only done Animaniacs’ idea, but have done it better. South Park isn’t really a fair comparison, but that show consistently mixes political and social commentary in a manner that typically feels insightful. It’s been doing that since before Animaniacs originally left the airwaves.
You also have series like Gravity Falls on Disney and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time that upped the ante in terms of zaniness while giving viewers shockingly deep characterization of its main cast. Animaniacs completely lacks that depth and feels like stepping into a shallow puddle in comparison. There simply isn’t much of a reason for the Warner siblings to be back in our lives right now.
I’m not sure how much of this feeling can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Practically everything has been affected in some way, shape, and form, so it’s not too far out of the realm of possibility to say that the writers needed to rush the final stretch of this season. That does seem to be the case, as the first five or six episodes are markedly better than what comes after.
Considering there is another season to come from this Hulu run, there is a chance that the writers can improve things yet. With partner show Freakazoid also set to return, maybe this run was just a test to get everyone back into the swing of things. We can only hope.