Sunday, March 17, 2013

Series Obituary: Young Justice

Today I’m debuting a new series on this blog—which probably means I’ll do it twice and never come back, but that’s neither here nor there. I’ve written about TV a time or two before, but I’d like to start doing it more consistently (though, in all likelihood, not more frequently). Reading over my Friday Night Lights piece, I realized that what I was attempting to do was essentially write an obituary of the show, as it unfortunately had to wrap up. While that piece didn’t totally do that perfectly, I like the idea, so I’m going to try and start writing a short (ha!) essay when a show that I really like ends, beginning with the ones that have ended in 2013. Of the two, 30 Rock ended first, and I’ll get to it (probably), but I want to start with a show that ended far too soon: Cartoon Network’s Young Justice

Ever since I was in the prime Saturday morning cartoon demographic in the mid-90s, I’ve been quite fond of the young adult oriented action cartoons that used to air on Fox and WB and now appear on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. There have been a bunch of really good shows over those two decades, from Gargoyles and Batman: The Animated Series, and X-Men in the 90s to X-Men Evolution, Justice League Unlimited, and Avatar: The Last Airbender more recently. Of course, some of these (and their numerous kin) are better than others, and some hold up better over time, but many of them have a surprising amount of genuine quality. No one would care about Batman two decades after it premiered if it was just disposable crap for kids—instead, it still has pretty devoted admirers, both popularly and critically, all these years later because the creators and writers put genuine effort into their product. And I’d put Avatar up against just about anything any of the broadcast networks have made in the past decade.

So ever since Avatar ended in 2008, I’ve been looking for a successor. Until last June, however, I hadn’t had a ton of luck, either because something didn’t totally work for me (Batman: The Brave and the Bold) or it was quickly cancelled (Wolverine and the X-Men, which was actually pretty good). So as I was getting set to jump back into the Avatar-verse with the sequel series Legend of Korra, I happened to stumble upon another series that was just starting its second season: Young Justice.

Although I’ve never read comic books, I enjoy the mythos and have always liked the animated TV shows (and, more recently, movies) that have sprung from them. Young Justice* had a lot going for it even before I started watching, and I’m a little surprised it took me as long as it did to find the show. It had an art/animation style that I liked a lot, was tonally much closer to the 90s shows and Justice League than the other prominent “young hero” show of the past decade (Teen Titans, which was always a hair too silly for me to totally get into), and maybe most intriguingly was produced by Greg Weisman, the creator of the cult-classic 90s show Gargoyles. It had a ton of promise, and, as I started watching, it totally delivered. In fact, though I liked Korra a lot, to my surprise it was YJ that I really latched onto.

*I’m forced to acknowledge once in this piece that, yes, the show has a really goofy name.

The premise of Young Justice is, like the comic book entity of the same name and similar to Teen Titans, a team of sidekicks. As the first series starts, four famous sidekicks—Kid Flash/Wally West, Robin/Dick Grayson, Speedy/Roy Harper and Aqualad/Kaldur’ahm (a character created for the show who has since appeared in the comics)—are receiving what they consider long-overdue promotions to true members of the Justice League. However, it turns out to be more of a gold star than a real promotion, as the three are denied full membership and instead given something like an official pat on the back for their hard work. Speedy is sorely disgruntled and leaves to start a career on his own as Red Arrow, but the other three are not much happier. However, when the Justice League is distracted, the three heroes take initiative and rescue a young, less powerful Superman clone (Superboy/Conner Kent) from a suspicious lab, proving their mettle. The Justice League decides that they’ve shown enough ability and responsibility to form a new team for younger heroes (functioning basically as a development league, like MLB’s minor leagues). Lead by Aqualad, the team initially consists of him, Robin, Kid Flash, Superboy, Green Arrow’s mysterious new protégé Artemis, and the Martian Manhunter’s “niece” Miss Martian. Though there are some initial stumbles and tension between the new teammates and the first three, the six quickly gel into an effective force, and just in time, because an enigmatic entity known as The Light has ominous plans that are beginning to go into motion.

The first season of YJ is pretty perfect, and I don’t use that word lightly. Surprisingly for a superhero show, it’s quite heavily serialized (probably a three on my scale), and the pacing of the Team’s* conflicts with the Light—and the mystery of what The Light’s actual plans are—is very deliberately spread over the twenty-six episodes. The first season has taken some snark for the way that almost every seemingly unrelated conflict is revealed (usually at the very end of the episode) to have somehow furthered The Light’s schemes, but I loved how (improbably) complex it got—and after all, this is a show from the creator of David Xanatos on Gargoyles, the namesake of the many TV Tropes having to do with dizzyingly complicated schemes. The mysteries play out deliberately, and come together very satisfyingly at the end of the season. However, as much as I enjoyed the plot of the show, the real strength—and the reason I’d put the first season of YJ on a list of my top twenty or so TV seasons ever (yes, that’s the same list that has stuff like The Wire and Friday Night Lights on it) is because of the character work the show includes.

*In the show, the characters only ever call themselves The Team. The phrase “Young Justice” is never uttered, which I found interesting.

Young Justice, over the twenty-six episodes of the first season, does a fantastic, textbook job of character development and arcing. All six of our main cast members have well-written, believable character arcs. I was constantly impressed by the detail and subtlety of the writing, which took often-annoying stock elements that often appear in these kinds of shows and did something interesting with them. A couple of examples: in the first half of the season, Kid Flash is disdainful and rude to Artemis, but the show makes it clear that it’s because Wally looked up to Speedy/Red Arrow and was hurt by his abandonment, and through no fault of her own, Artemis is his replacement on the team (as the archer) and so is the brunt of Kid Flash’s immature but understandable petulance. Meanwhile, Miss Martian (also named M’gann M’orss, or Meagan Morse) has an annoying catch-phrase that she says whenever she’s overlooked something…but as revealed later in the season, there’s actually a legitimate reason which ties into her past that leads her to say that. The character conflicts are not overblown and always develop (and resolve) organically.

The show also manages to find a fantastic balance among the cast, which becomes pretty spectacularly large as the season progresses. Aside from our main six (who all have at least one spotlight episode), several other younger heroes are recurring (most prominently Red Arrow and Zatanna), as is the Justice League. While some members of the League only show up occasionally and in the background, a number are fairly important characters—and not always who you’d expect. Superman and Batman show up and are important, of course, but several lesser-known leaguers get much more screen time, including Dr. Fate, Red Tornado, Black Canary, and Captain Marvel. All are well-written and developed (I especially enjoyed Black Canary as team mom/therapist), but don’t overshadow the main group. The show also takes time to (gradually) introduce and flesh out its villains, and again the most commonly appearing ones are not always the DC villains you’d think. The Joker appears only one, for example, while T.O. Morrow, Cheshire, Sportsmaster, Klarion, and Queen Bee all appear many times over the season. And even Lex Luthor’s prominence is not so much as an antagonist as it was due to his links to Superboy. The season had a very satisfying, well-balance roster that it knew when and where to utilize, and it all culminated in a pretty fantastic season finale.

YJ scheduling was always a little odd, with long, seemingly random gaps between groups of episodes (which I’m sure didn’t help it find an audience), and so it was a little odd that the first episode of season two aired the week after the first season finale—and with a fairly ballsy five year timeskip to boot. The second season sees the team changed quite radically—Kid Flash, Artemis, and Aqualad are gone, Dick Grayson is now team captain (and Nightwing), and Miss Martian, though still a team member, has gone a little Dark Phoenix, with a new hairstyle, costume, and somewhat relaxed sense of morality. Only Superboy is more or less the same. In addition, there are ten new team members, including a new Robin, and a whole host of other important new characters, some allies, some enemies. This time, the team must uncover and stop what appears to be some sort of alien invasion of Earth—and the Light have been ominously quiet.

While I still liked season two quite a bit, it was a pretty clear step down from a nearly perfect first outing. There were two main (and related) problems, which can be summed up as the show biting off more than it could chew. The second season had at least as much plot as the first, but six less episodes in which to contain it, which lead to a pretty frenetic pace, especially in the last nine or ten episodes. Consequently, plot arcs and twists really never got a chance to be fully set-up and resolved before the show had to race on to the next development. Even worse (and as a result), there was not nearly as much time for characterization, particularly for the new team members. Of the ten, only Blue Beetle/Jaime Reyes gets as much development as any of the main six did in the first season (though I should note that his arc is quite strong), and a several of the new characters—notably Nu-Robin/Tim Drake, Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, and especially Wondergirl/Cassie Sandsmark—have almost comically little to do. I doubt Wondergirl got more than twenty lines over the whole season. The original characters also get only varying degrees of adequate attention; Miss Martian has perhaps the most screentime of any character other than Blue Beetle and has a very nice arc, while Kid Flash only appears in a handful of episodes, which gives his final fate in what turned out to be the series finale an especially sour taste. The show managed to juggle a huge cast amazingly well in the first season, but adding more balls into the routine in season two lead, unfortunately but probably predictably, to quite a few of them being dropped.

All that said, as I said above I still really liked season two. The plot is conveyed too quickly but has a ton of great moments even so, like a surprisingly plausible and tense fake defection/undercover arc, and there were a bunch of really great individual episodes. Characters didn’t always get enough time for further development, but they had enough strong characterization from season one that almost all of the individual moments paid off nicely. And above all, the show remained very fun.

From a technical perspective YJ absolutely shone. I’m a big fan of the art style and character models, and the show struck a very nice balance between the old DCAU and the more anime-inspired look of later series like Teen Titan. The animation was impressive and very fluid, particularly during often gorgeously directed combat scenes (though there was a slight but noticeable dip in non-combat animation during the final batch of episodes after the show’s cancellation had been announced). The voice cast too was superlative, especially Danica McKellar as Miss Martian. Just about the only American animated TV series I can think of that consistently looks and sounds better is Legend of Korra.

Which, unfortunately, brings me to the series’ cancellation. YJ never found much of an audience, whether due to it’s somewhat more mature tone, intricate (and occasionally hard to follow) plotting, or it’s very strange scheduling. Cartoon Network declined to renew it for a third season, and it will be replaced with a revival of Teen Titans (which is apparently going to be a “more comedic” version of the original. Uh oh.). Unfortunately, this decision was made after the season had been written and produced, and the final episode of the second season* is very unsatisfying as a series finale, with a bunch of setup for the third season and very little in the way of satisfying final character moments. However, DC is currently making several full-length DVD-released animated movies a year (some of which have been quite good), so I’m hopeful that this isn’t the last we’ll see of this universe or these characters. But even if it is, we got forty-six always entertaining, often superlative episodes of this show, so I shouldn’t complain too much.

*Which is, sadly and appropriately, titled “Endgame”

Final Verdict

Too Soon, Just Right, or Shoulda Ended Earlier:

Too Soon.


No comments: