To be honest, I skipped a lot of All Stars. I left Pahkitew Island on in the background while I did my homework. I've watched and rewatched TDI to procrastinate, but I've never rewatched TDA, TDWT, or TDROTI.
Why? We know why. Hackneyed plots. Corny half-jokes. Cringe-inducing moments of awkwardness--sometimes it seemed as if the writers room was made up of Dwayne clones saying "How do the youngsters talk these days?" A show's only worth watching if you care about the story or find it funny. For a while, Total Drama was neither. As someone who loved the original as a kid but now had Adult Responsibilities such as Applying To Graduate School, I was thinking about leaving it behind for good.
Then Ridonculous Race happened. And boy howdy, was it good. I wouldn't multitask during it. Heck, I'd rewatch the episodes sometimes when my procrastination reached epic levels. I'd spend days at my job daydreaming about which teams would make it to the finale (I got two out of three correct, thank you very much--and it would have been all three if it weren't for that stupid emu).
If experience is any guide, there will be more seasons of Total Drama yet to come. Here's what I think brought the show back to its glory days:
1. It was relatable (not realistic)
We don't expect these shows to completely mirror real life. What's the point of a cartoon if you can't test the boundaries of reality? But without any way to relate it to our own experience, it's just sort of like watching abstract art. Loud abstract art with bright colors and fart jokes.
TDI worked because you KNEW these characters. You may not have known a guy with a green mohawk, but you knew a Duncan--a tough-guy burnout with a heart of gold. You may not have known a guy who walked around with a cowboy hat 24/7, but you knew a Geoff--that guy who was the life of the party and brought everyone along with him. You knew a Heather, you knew a Gwen, you knew a LeShawna, you knew an Owen. That was what drew people in. What if people from your high school had to compete on a reality show together? Who would hook up? Who would backstab whom? It was fun because we saw this kind of drama play out day to day--and watching the Owens and Gwens win and the Heathers get what they deserved was a kind of wish fulfillment.
The reason TDPI was awful is because no one knows a weird little dude who literally fantasizes about being "the eeevilll ruler of the world." Nor does anyone know a guy who legitimately believes the world is under constant threat of a zombie attack. Nor does anyone know anyone who would try to explode an entire island full of relative strangers just for giggles. I never cared what happened to any of those characters (although, come on. Shawn beating Sky? Worst possible ending). Basically, the show went downhill when it decided it was going to turn Ezekiel into a feral Gollum, and then kept getting worse and worse (Mike, then Mike on crack, then Max).
TDRR brings the series back to its relatable, grounded routes. Everyone knows the dorky dad, the eternally friendzoned "bff," the reluctant stepsiblings, the type-A law student (I'm actually dating one! But she's got a better sense of humor than Emma). The daters-to-haters and Adversity twins were great parodies of reality TV archetypes. I don't know a flamboyantly gay ice dancer, but it's not out of the realm of possibility (and pretty hilarious). I rooted for Carrie and Devin because I remembered being Carrie. I rooted for Emma and Noah because they reminded me of my girlfriend and I. I rooted for Dwayne and Junior because I know someday I'll be that dopey dad. I rooted for Geoff and Brody because their bromance is exactly what my best friend and I are like when we're drunk. And I imagine that all these characters were similarly relatable for all the people actually in Fresh's target demo.
2. It was funny (not silly)
One of the main problems from TDA-on was that you could've changed the show's name to "HOW MANY FARTS?" and no one would have batted an eye. There was heavy emphasis on cartoon slapstick and easy jokes. It's not that the presence of these cheapens the show--but their presence combined with the absence of anything actually funny just felt empty and boring. Only so many times you can watch Shawn fall out of a tree or see Mike do an accent.
RR, in contrast, was HILARIOUS. It was clever, it was sarcastic, it was sometimes side-splitting. Here are some things that worked:
-They didn't feel compelled to give every character a gag. Emma & Kitty and Carrie & Devin worked far better as "straight-men" than people who were trying to make a half-cocked joke at every turn, and the writers let it happen.
-They got rid of the "one-joke" characters early. Vegans, geniuses, LARPers--all those were pretty much the same punchline over and over again. (See: Shawn & Max, who basically repeated the words "flesh-eaters" or "evil" ad nauseum until they were eliminated or--gag--won.)
-Instead, they mined comedy from the personalities--not the surface attributes--of the characters. Two good examples--the cadets' jokes weren't cop puns, they were rooted in MacArthur's take-no-prisoners style and that conflict with Sanders' by-the-book, measured approach. The ice dancers' jokes weren't about Olympic figure skating--they were about one deranged maniac who would do anything to win and one flamboyantly gay dimwitted sorta-maniac who sometimes was OK being pushed around and sometimes wasn't.
-It never felt like they were trying to shoehorn in a joke. It seemed as though there were slightly fewer attempts-per-minute than previous seasons--but far more of them hit the mark.
-They effectively mixed "low comedy" and "high comedy." The fart jokes felt funnier in the context of clever wordplay, witty asides, and hilarious banter.
-They picked amazing and fun characters where the jokes wrote themselves. I imagine that, for a lot of characters over the past few seasons, the writers were wracking their brains trying to think of something funny for them to say. This time, it seems like they started from a place of "what pairings would be really hilarious and fun to write?" and then went from there.
-They went the extra mile and added layers with characters whose schtick could have gotten tired real quick. We could have been treated to half a season of Ryan and Stephanie screaming at each other, which would have gotten old real fast. Instead, they had Ryan try out some of his dad's reverse psychology techniques.
3. It was a competition (not a drama)
One of the reasons Total Drama Island worked was that it looked and felt like a reality show. It was a clever, authentic parody, which made it fun, but it also felt like a real competition--giving us something to watch for and giving the characters an extra sense of motivation and purpose. The drama was never secondary to the reality show challenges--in fact, they heightened the tension and raised the stakes.
After TDI, the show essentially became a sitcom where the characters happened to be on a reality show. DJ cheating, Chris using Owen as a mole, Amy and Samey disguised as each other (or something, I didn't care anymore)--it got to the point where the competition clearly wasn't relevant and didn't matter, which made the show so much less interesting. The reason Heather was (and still is, sorry Ice Dancers) the best villain of the series is that she wasn't just backstabbing for fun, she was backstabbing to win $100k, which added a level of urgency. Scarlett, meanwhile, is trying to blow up the island...because? It's unclear, so no one cares. Competition gave the series a clear narrative thread, gave the characters clear motivation, and set up dramatic tension. But especially in the past three seasons, it seemed like challenges were an afterthought--an elaborate setup so that the contestants could spend the rest of the episode wandering around in the woods (or, God forbid, in Mike's brain), bickering, farting, and trying to awkwardly initiate hookups.
RR brought the element of competition back in a profound way. The race was the narrative vehicle that drove the show. Teams interacted with each other insofar as they were competitors. Characters actually talked about wanting to win the money--probably more in this season than the past five combined. And the race felt real--the challenges, while sometimes silly, were clever and not too far from what you might imagine on a real show. The rules--penalties, boomerangs, either-or challenges--gave you a sense that actions had consequences, which kept you invested in the choices the characters were making. And really, truly, honestly not knowing who was going home next was enough to make you keep watching out of suspense.
But it also made the characters that much better. Instead of the ice dancers just being silly and sadistic, they were cutthroat and victory-obsessed, a much more compelling narrative. Instead of falling straight into their role as fanbase favorites/infinite slashfic fodder, Noah and Emma had to go through a dramatic and ultimately fulfilling will they/won't they storyline because they had to balance their love with the competition. The same dynamic, to an extent, affected Carrie and Devin. MacArthur could have stayed an arrogant blowhard all season, but unlike past seasons, contestants actually needed to do well at the game in order to win (*ahem* Cameron *ahem*), and so, in one of the best moments on the show, she realized she needed to listen to Sanders in order to win.
4. There was depth and development.
One very clear conclusion: 26 episodes is the way to go from here on out. That's the time you need to tell a compelling story.
Depth and development are two separate things, in my mind, but they both matter because (a) the more layers to the character, the more and better jokes, and (b) because even though this is a silly kid's show these are still characters and we want to care about them just a little bit. If I wanted to watch something fun and invest nothing emotionally I would just watch prank videos on youtube or some junk like that.
Depth, to me, is sketching out a full character beyond their one-line introduction ("the Goths," "the Rockers," etc). This was something that to date the series did poorly--even TDI wasn't great. Gwen was a well-written character, but there was nothing beneath the surface except more goth. Trent was mysterious guitar hipster good guy all the way down. Duncan was really the only one who was written with real depth in TPI.
But, oh my God, RR. The Jacques and Josee backstory that had Josee not just hyper-competitive but trying to work her way back from abject humiliation, and Jacque constantly trying to atone for his mistakes? Ryan & Stephanie not just being dysfunctional daters, but workout buffs who use their athletic competitiveness to muscle it out through the Hater phase and eventually reconcile? Ennui and Crimson actually being preppy-looking people underneath and sharing an awkward smile in the cab ride? Brody, who out of all of the characters is the one I least expected to have depth, having an 11th-hour identity crisis about being a good friend? They gave us--such as it is for a Cartoon Network show--real, interesting characters, not just broad sketches of one-joke stereotypes.
Development, to me, is when characters grow and/or change over the course of the season--a "character arc," if you will. Not every character or team needs to develop for the series to be good--for instance, the Ice Dancers stayed roughly the same people (though they grew slightly more crazy), but still played an important role in the story and were downright hilarious. I counted 10 teams with arcs (Mother & Daughter, Stepbrothers, Father & Son, Sisters, Reality TV Pros, Goths, Daters, Best Friends, Sisters, Cadets) and 3 with mini-arcs (Fashion Bloggers, Rockers, Surfers).
In contrast, all TDAS characters ended the season roughly where they had started as people (Duncan was in jail, but that's not a character arc), except for Mike (and I don't even WANT to go into that). Similarly, in TDPI, all characters started and ended in roughly the same place. Sky was confident and poised, but she came in confident and poised. The last shred of real development the series has seen is Cameron shedding his bubble in TDROTI. Until now.
I did a little dance when Devin finally got the courage to tell Carrie he loved her. I thought it was cute watching Dwayne and Junior walk off into the sunset together, closer as father and son. I nearly cheered when Kelly got the nerve to put Taylor in "timeout," ten years too late. After assuming a Daters reconciliation would be corny and stupid after Stephanie had been such a harpy, I found myself actually touched when they got back together.
Parks and Recreation it ain't. But I'm glad to see my favorite low-budget animated show go back to its glory days--and possibly even get a little better.
TL;DR: Possibly the best season yet. Formula for continued success: (1) Keep it relatable, though not necessarily realistic (2) Make it funny, not just silly, (3) Let the competition drive the story, and (4) Continue wiht 26-episode seasons to build depth and development into the story.
THINGS THAT WORKED:
-Don. I loved Christian Potenza's voice work, but Chris McLean's "WHERE IS MY COFFEE" hysterics pale in comparison to Don's deadpan asides. I like the idea of the host being the sane one on the show, confused by the wackos, as opposed to the other way around.
-This season was a lot better than previous ones at (a) showcasing strong female characters and (b) not letting characters of color be defined by stereotype.
-Introducing a little chaste Carrie/Ryan flirtation to get Devin and Steph to step up their game. The show could have easily crossed the line into Gwen/Duncan territory but didn't. Thank God.
-Everything about Sanders & MacArthur.
-Other hilarious teams: Goths, Ice Dancers, Father & Son. Nailed on all counts.
-Noah & Emma are the best, most natural couple since Gwent/Duncney. I dig it. It does throw a little curveball at my outline for a novel set 25 years later with the original TDI cast that assumes Noah is gay (and managing Courtney's campaign for Prime Minister of Canada), but that's OK.
-They clearly invested a lot more time, energy, and money into the visuals. The gags--dressing up the Don Box, the detail on the caricatures, etc--were hilarious on sight.
THINGS THAT DIDN'T:
-Brody & MacAllister. Still don't get it.
-Can we please not with the body shaming? Not sure why nearly every woman on the show has to have a waist literally a quarter the size of their hips, and anyone who isn't gets lots of jokes made at their expense (especially MacAllister). They did a slightly better job with a variety of body types this season (Taylor, Carrie, Emma) but not as good as they could be considering how many young girls watch the show.
-Devin's half of the will-they/won't-they arc was a little too drawn out.
-Was I the only one who got really tired of Rock's guitar noises real fast?
Interested to hear others' thoughts on what worked and didn't, whether or not this was the best season yet and why, and whether you think the next season will live up to this one!