Extremely Extreme, to the Extreme
In an episode of The Simpsons a couple of seasons ago, the producers of the hyperviolent Itchy and Scratchy cartoon try to boost sagging ratings by introducing a new character named Poochie, designed specifically with “attitude” for maximum kid appeal: “I’m a kung-fu hippie from Gangsta City / I’m a rappin’ surfer, you the fool I pity,” says Poochie (voiced by Homer Simpson), representing in his theme song. The character is an immediate flop—he doesn’t actually do anything but spout buzzwords and give attitude—and is killed off after one appearance. When Homer blames his own performance, daughter Lisa reassures him, “It wasn’t you, Dad. It’s just that Poochie was a soulless product of committee thinking.”
Nickelodeon’s Rocket Power (from the producers of fine fare like Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys) is chock-full of “attitude,” and while certainly not a flop, it is every bit as soulless as the late, unlamented Poochie. Much like Disney’s recent live-action theatrical painfest Meet the Deedles, Rocket Power is little more than a daily collage of every activity that appears next to the word extreme in the lexicon of the current fifteen minutes. While it’s not required that every show for children contain a positive message and moral—as a kid I hated it when my cartoons tried to make me a better citizen—the message this cartoon sends seems especially geared toward encouraging a new generation of self-absorbed punks: winning isn’t everything, but it’s way cooler than losing.
The ‘toon, set in Southern California, concerns the adventures of four friends, all around ten or eleven years old, whose lives revolve around their passions for “extreme” sports and hip media. Surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, trick biking, street hockey, volleyball, triathlon—if it’s on ESPN on Saturday afternoon or offers the chance to snap a spine, these kids do it. Otto Rocket is the group’s shades-wearing, dreadlocked leader, the best at any aggressive sport and obsessed with winning. His sister Regina (“Reggie”) is no less skilled or competitive but has something resembling a conscience, which she applies to her widely read zine. Twister Rodriguez documents the Rockets’ exploits with his ever-present camcorder, and Sam Dullard is a brainy, doughy kid with glasses who ordinarily wouldn’t be given the time of day by the others except that he knows computers (and isn’t it lucky for him that the internet’s cool right now?), which makes him tolerable.
The gang roams the beach and boardwalk of Ocean Shores under the semi-watchful eye of Otto and Reggie’s dad Raymundo, a widowed, aging beach boy who runs a burger joint with his old Hawaiian bud Tito. With Tito’s help, Ray struggles with the constant challenge of raising two hyperactive kids with serious obsession issues. He adopts a laissez-faire approach, allowing Otto and Reggie to get into their messes and then waiting for them to do the right thing, which they inevitably do. These are fictional cartoon children, after all, as immune to ethical consequences as they are to splintered tibiae. When Reggie denies her part in helping Otto and Twister make an ice cream mess in the kitchen because getting grounded will preclude her from participating in a triathlon (which she will inevitably win), her conscience forces her to drop out of the race. Otto abandons the skateboarding competition that he is (inevitably) about to win because he had to duck his obligation to help at the restaurant in order to compete, but Ray relents and allows him to finish the contest, as the boy has theoretically learned his lesson. Ray understands his kids’ needs—after all, back in the day he and Tito were the best surfers in SoCal.
They’d have to be. While these lessons about taking responsibility and accepting consequences are all well and good, they seem terribly hollow and secondary beside Rocket Power‘s determination that its characters be unwaveringly bitchin’, meaning that they must be the best. It’s not enough that Otto and Reggie participate in all of these “extreme” activities and try hard. They must be winners, and their dad must be a winner, and their dad’s friend must be a winner. The only acceptable alternative to winning is to engage, as Twister and Sam do, in noncompetitive hobbies that are nonetheless—I’ve run out of synonyms—cool.
There’s no real reason to fault Klasky-Csupo for concocting this Poochie-like mix of prepubescent fantasy-stuff, as Rocket Power‘s success is indisputable—when it is one of the options available during Nickelodeon’s daily “U-Pick” segment, home viewers almost always choose it—but there just seems to be something awfully cynical about the concept, something shrill in its relentless assertion of its own extremeness and its equation of dangerous sports and winning with self-esteem. Maybe I’d just like to see the Rocket gang acting like the kids who watch them, with less “attitude” and more soul.