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Hosted by Derek McGrath, literature doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University
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I don’t know why I keep getting surprised by this show. If anything has characterized Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it’s the writers downright Republican belief in their own abilities and product. Given that sort of confidence, there’s no reason for them to do anything but double down on what they’ve done so far, which is precisely what they did: the premiere of the show’s second season is a retread of everything they’ve done so far, made utterly worse via repetition. Somewhat paradoxically for a show about mutation, nothing has changed.
The turtles are still jerks. They have always, to different degrees, been lacking in things like empathy, but here it’s taken to a whole new level, as they set about in motion a chain of events that leads to April losing her father—again. Faced with the prospect of a new Kraang offensive, the Tortuga Brothers decide that for some reason, they need Kirby O’Neil to handle the jury-rigged radar system they cooked up when they were last besieged by an invisible ship—only he has the skills such a job requires.
…which doesn’t make a lot of sense, really. Not only is it not clear why the radar now works differently—it didn’t require a fifth person in “The Enemy of my Enemy”—there’s no clear reason why Kirby would be able to operate it. He’s a scientist, the turtles say, which is true in the same way that a leopard is a cat. As April explains in “T.C.R.I.”, there was never any conceivable reason for the Kraang to need her father, being a psychologist instead of any sort engineer. While this show and consistency have never been all that close, this is a big thing to be inconsistent about, and yet the show treats it like a light switch to be treated on and off at their convenience. Kirby needs to be in a position to gather intelligence on Kraang activities? He’s a scientist, forced to help Kraang in their schemes. Kirby needs to be a red herring? Not a scientist. In my language, this is the sort of thing that distinguishes characters from plot devices, and Kirby is on the wrong side of that line.
More glaring, though, is the turtles’ casual insistence that the guy currently so traumatized by his experience with the Kraang that he can’t sleep at night and is paranoid (yet correct) about their possible (imminent) return is precisely the guy they want to then face his own worst fear. It’s the biggest sign of their self-centeredness yet, and one that comes off as, unfortunately, not at all out of character. Mikey gets hit especially hard by the jerk ball here, as the turtle who in season 1 treated Leatherhead with such kindness now proves utterly unable to read a fucking room, and decides to twist the knife further by treating the mutation of Kirby O’Neil as if it were nothing to be concerned about. While the turtles should have definitively come clean about their role in Kirby’s transformation, his complete lack of actual concern for April goes beyond childishness and begins approaching sociopathy. The reality check that the turtles get at the end is much deserved, but does little to convince me that these character flaws with be dealt with with seriousness they deserve: the writers are far too in love with the character archetypes they’ve established to change them to any significant degree, as they’ve already shown—this is not the first time the turtles have been brought down to earth after getting cocky.
Worse still is how April reacts, or doesn’t. After a token objection—which is then refuted with the “he’s the only scientist we know!” canard—she then goes and gets his father to help her set up the radar…without telling him what it’s for.
Okay, so I realize the concept of trigger warnings isn’t exactly general knowledge. Still, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect April to know that it’s quite an asshole thing to do to take someone with a particular fear, and then pit hir against that fear without as much as a “here there be dragons”. It’s easily the worst thing she’s ever done, and why it’s impossible for me to feel the sympathy that we’re meant to feel by the end of the episode. While that particular turn is in no way her fault, it becomes especially hard to care what she feels, because now that we’re finally scratching the surface of who she is, she’s revealed as someone capable of being just as big a jerk as her friends. And the thing is this jerkiness is absolutely unnecessary. Losing a Kirby who was out there helping because he knew the stakes and placed the world above his emotional well-being would have been just as tragic and guilt-inducing as losing one who’s helping because he’s being lied to. And yet, the writers have chosen the one that makes April come off like an ass
Metatextually, the episode raises one question: why? What, exactly is the point of this arc meant to be? In the end, there is very little this setup facilitates that could not just as easily been done under the previous season status quo. Provide a reason for April angst? Could have been done last season. Strain the relationship between her and the turtles? Could have been done last season, especially as the turtles did not seem at all committed to rescuing Kirby unless a clue just happened to fall on their laps, and botched their first rescue mission because Michelangelo is the worst. Show us just what April is made of? Could have been done last season. What’s more, the creators last time that they’re not interested in exploring the implications inherent in April’s story, so why set up another story that demands those very same explanations? Could it possibly be that the creators have become aware of last seasons’ missteps, and now wish to correct them by trying again?
(Hat tip to the creator of this lovely GIF, whose identity, has been, sadly, lost to the mists of time.)
The impression I’ve gotten from the writers’ continuing use of this particular well is that, for some reason, they think April not having her father makes her a stronger character, but that they for some reason can’t kill Kirby off. Why else bring him back, just to take him away again? It’s baffling.
Just as inexplicable is the writers’ continued use of the Kraang, whom reappear here mere in-universe weeks after being defeated. I’ve never seen a convincing case made for their status as prime recurring baddies in the series, and this episode does nothing to convince me otherwise. Their persistence reminds me of Team Rocket or the original cartoon’s Technodrome crew, with only a fraction of the charm. What’s more, they insist of using machines with highly visible, easily exploitable weakpoints, which are then, just as inexplicably, not exploited.
Finally, because there is really nothing about this episode I liked. A couple of comparative nits. First, just how the hell does Splinter conclude that defeating the Shredder—if we could call it that, since in the end, the effect was nil—means he won’t be a problem again? And why oh why does he think that keeping the Miwa revelation away from the turtles is a good thing? I get the feeling that the turtles won’t be made of that particular bit of info until they somehow seriously harm Karai, which…God, this show. Also, was it just me, or did the timing of the intro feel, somewhat off? Like it’s been thrown out of synch by the (actually rather nice) changes in the visuals.
You know, I don’t think I’d hate this show so much if it were merely bad. Bad or tepid I can tolerate, and even enjoy if the underlying ideas are solid enough—Lord knows I’ve done so plenty enough, with this franchise. My bigger issue is that the show as a whole is morally bankrupt, starring people whose horrible behavior we’re supposed excuse and find funny because they occasionally deign to try and help, and then declaring that we should consider them admirable. It’s an astonishingly cynical conceit, and one I reject in its entirety. Good intentions do not in any way equal heroism, and when our “heroes” are the cartoon equivalent of the U.S. during the second Iraq war (which I mean the people who decided upon the war and the strategy to be used, and not, I stress, individual soldiers) I fail to see why the heck I should care about what happens to any of them.
An excellent start of the season. And by excellent, I mean the precise opposite.
Ian, if this series was more of a parody like the 1987 cartoon was at times, or even the first issue that Laird and Eastman made, do you think this series would be easier to watch?
Because at this point, I really wish this show was a parody, as I am so frustrated seeing these turtles, who in other adaptations while not always likeable were at least heroic, devolve into this mess that Nickelodeon has put on the air. It feels like Peter Hastings and the rest of the crew decided that making the turtles edgy depends on making them unlikeable, rather than giving them threats that would legitimately require them to take morally ambiguous actions (I mean, the first live action film had Splinter and Casey Jones effectively kill the Shredder—pretty dark if that film was to target children, but at least an action that starts a debate rather than another moment of Michelangelo doing something ridiculous such as tapping on Timothy’s glass or trying to name April’s mutated father, for the sake of a name-drop to appeal to the 1980s fans.)
I spoiled myself by reading summaries before the episode aired—and I still have not watched this episode, as just those summaries made me so upset. I have been a Ninja Turtles fan since preschool, and the films and the 2003 series have shown the Turtles as flawed, at times unlikeable, it was towards making them into realistic characters who learned, developed, or, in such parodic form as the original comics and the 1987 cartoon, because they were cartoony, satirical approaches to Frank Miller and the superhero “monster of the week” genre.
The Nickelodeon series has tried to be both a comedy and a gritty action show, while sacrificing appealing characters as part of some strange approach that that network has taken with its cartoons. (If you have not read Mime Paradox regarding The Legend of Korra, please do so—it seems the theme for both Korra and TMNT this year is to reduce every character into an unlikable mess of cliche archetypes.)
It’s not fair for me to criticize this episode without seeing it. But right now I refuse to watch it because nothing from the sound of it sounds different from the first episode. I was already bothered from Episode 2 forward at how glib the turtles are about mutations. Snakeweek is mutated—because Donatello inexplicably left the mutagen container (a piece of evidence towards their own origins, and perhaps reversing the mutation that has cursed their father) in the back of the van. Um, why? To create a random monster to fight instead of rescuing the two humans? Vic, Xever, and Bradford get mutated—meh, who cares, they were jerks! Who wants some existential crisis about losing your humanity when we can have wacky hijinks?! Timothy gets mutated? He’s a buffoon—let’s tap on the glass and make a joke about it!
While the 2003 cartoon may not have done everything possible with the mutations that it introduced—convenient fixes to Donatello’s second mutation, Hun’s mutation kept until the series finale—they did enough to draw out the emotional appeal. If I remember correctly, Michelangelo made some jokes about Donatello’s mutation before and after—not about his brother being a monster, but to make light of his own fear that Donatello was likely going to kill him. Hun’s mutation was treated as serious and as a plot-based karmic justice—in the Nickelodeon series, as Ian has pointed out elsewhere, every mutant feels easily substitutable, just another villainous lackey to get the plot moving. It unnerves me as well that (spoiler) Baxter Stockman will be mutated into a fly, and I fear it will be just for nostalgia purpose, rather than making a more interesting character. The 2003 cartoon reduced Stockman to just a talking brain—yet the half-dead villain still was able to pose a challenge to not only the Turtles but also to the Shredder and Bishop, all while receiving significant character development thanks to the short-lived tie-in comic, “Insane in the Membrane,” and Fast Forward. What will Fly Baxter get—more corny one-liners from Michelangelo?
As much fair criticism as Turtles Forever receives for reducing the 1987 turtles to a one-note joke so that all four of them are pretty much the same character, at least they were not unethical jerks like the Nickelodeon characters have become. It is one thing to make your characters flawed; it is another to make them unlikeable. And for that second reason, I stopped watching this series.
As to your last point about Splinter: again, he’s unlikeable. It’s fine for him to be a troll—that’s a good character trait that the other adaptations have had, and it’s fun to see a straight-laced teacher be not so above it all now and then. Yet I have read fans struggling to make sense of the character, as every episode he has a a new “lesson of the week” that contradicts the previous ones. While it is interesting to see him adapt lessons to individual turtles, and to show that advice is contextualize rather than universal, it is jarring to see him proceed badly without being called out in narrative. Aside from April’s criticism of him towards the end of last season, he is treated in-story as being always right—despite some disagreeable actions that he has taken. (Seriously, why is your family crest on the weapons that you give to your sons? That’s begging for the Foot to identify it and locate you in New York.) If Splinter was more similar to Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I think we could have a more interesting show that debated what constitutes proper actions: do you kill Glory even though that also kills Ben, what do you do with Spike, and so on. I hope that this series gets to that point with Splinter—and maybe, if it ever does get to that point, I will watch the show again.
But for now, I cannot watch this adaptation.
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