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For Your Emmy Consideration: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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  • Nick Spake
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    #325259

    When the 2014 Primetime Emmy nominees were announced a couple weeks ago, the biggest surprise didn’t occur in Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Comedy Series, or any of the so-called “major categories.” It was in Outstanding Animated Program. As expected, “South Park,” “Futurama,” and “Bob’s Burgers” all returned to the lineup. After years of being one of the funniest animated ensemble pieces on television, FX’s “Archer” also finally broke into the race. The real surprise, however, was the show that took the fifth spot. It wasn’t “The Simpsons” or “Family Guy,” but Nickelodeon’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for “The Manhattan Project.” 

    If you’re an award show junkie that follows the Emmy’s closely then you probably thought to yourself, “How did something as stupid as ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ pick up a Primetime Emmy nomination? A Daytime Emmy maybe, but a Primetime Emmy? Seriously, how did this happen?’” Well for one thing, the new CGI “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” series actually isn’t all that stupid. Oh sure, it’s still about giant reptiles that eat pizza and practice Ninjutsu in the sewers. As ridiculous as the premise remains, though, developers Joshua Sternin and J.R. Ventimilia have delivered a truly compelling show that mixes action, drama, and comedy better than any previous incarnation of “TMNT.”

    When “Ninja Turtles” first rose into popularity in the eighties, older audiences all likely had the same reaction. “This is just a dumb fad that will never last.” Yet, almost thirty years later, “Ninja Turtles” is still one of the most popular franchises around. Is that because there will always be kids that are drawn to stupid ideas? Well yeah, why do think they keep watching “Power Rangers?” Unlike “Power Rangers,” however, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a franchise that’s shown considerable improvement over the years.

    While the concept originated in the comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, “Ninja Turtles” hit the mainstream market with the 1987 cartoon series. Like most cartoons at the time, the series primarily existed as a means to sell toys to wide-eyed children hopped up on sugar cereal. Where “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” took on a more straight-faced tone, the people behind the “Ninja Turtles” cartoon seemed to know how ridiculous the premise was. As a result, “Ninja Turtles” played up its goofy, kid-friendly humor rather than hardcore action. The comedy itself often ranged from legitimately funny to insultingly corny. Nevertheless, James Avery’s Shredder and Pat Fraley’s Krang were always good for a laugh.

    Kids got a darker take on “Ninja Turtles” with the 1990 live-action movie. The film was pleasant to look at, had some well-choreographed action, and can be viewed today as a 90’s time capsule of sorts. In retrospect, though, we all know that the “Ninja Turtles” cartoon and motion picture aren’t necessarily good per se. They’re still a ton of fun to watch, but that fun derives more from nostalgia than quality. Obviously, they’re not in the same league of something like the best Disney animations, which hold up as great art without nostalgic glasses.

    The biggest problem with both the show and movie was the serve lack of distinctive leading characters. As mentioned before, this was an era where kids shows were solely made to mass-produce toys. Because of this, it was customary to simply color coat characters instead of giving them distinguishing personalities. That’s not to say that the four Ninja Turtles didn’t have some differences. As the title theme song written by Chuck Lorre goes, “Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool, but rude, Michelangelo is a Party Dude.” But aside from those slight character traits, they were all basically the same interchangeable turtle that spouted dated slang like, “Cowabunga.” The only things that honestly set them apart were their weapons and the colors of their bandanas. Maybe that’s why the voices constantly got mixed up.

    It wasn’t until the 2003 reboot that the Ninja Turtles started to emerge as individuals. The turtles each had the key traits they were given in the previous cartoon series, but those traits were all significantly expanded upon and given more depth. Never before had Ralph seemed more badass, nor had Mikey been more of a wiseass. For the first time, you could tell the difference between the four based on personality and not bandana color. The showrunners set out to explore to dynamic between this unlikely family, producing some legitimate drama.

    Speaking of drama, this was easily the most adult incarnation mass audiences had ever seen from the Ninja Turtles. As far as kid shows go, it was probably the darkest we had gotten since “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Gargoyles.” Sure, there was no blood, but there might as well have been as Leonardo is stabbed through the shoulder and Baxter Stockman loses a body part per episode. As for the Shredder, let’s just say that compared to the 1987 series it’s like “Dark Knight Rises” Bane VS “Batman & Robin” Bane. The show never went too far with its more adult approach, though. The creators always knew this was “Ninja Turtles” and that the show had to be fun for kids above all else.

    While it was equally fun and dramatically involving, the 2003 reboot wasn’t without its share of dud episodes. The final “Flash Forward” and “Back to the Sewers” seasons can pretty much be skipped altogether. Still, the show was a massive step forward for this franchise with sharp animation and sophisticated storylines. The original cartoon’s sheer camp value has made it a more definitive version in the eyes of popular culture. Nevertheless, 2003’s “Ninja Turtles” is undoubtedly the superior series in terms of quality, revealing that this franchise could be more than just colorful junk food.

    When it was announced that a third “Ninja Turtles” animated series was in the works for 2012, I had a hard time getting even remotely excited. We had already gotten a campy cartoon with the 1987 series, a gritty cartoon with the 2003 series, and a made for television crossover movie that brought everything full-circle with 2009’s “Turtles Forever.” There was no reason to reboot “Ninja Turtles” yet again. After binge-watching the first season, however, I stand corrected.

    You know how some people have argued that if you took the best parts from the old “Spider-Man” movies and the new “Spider-Man” movies you’d have the perfect “Spider-Man” film? That’s kind of what Nickelodeon has done with the new “Ninja Turtles” animated series. The show flawlessly combines the joyful humor of the 1987 cartoon, the darker tone of the first movie, and the strong character dynamics of the 2003 reboot. The newest “Ninja Turtles” goes beyond barrowing from previous incarnations, though. Nickelodeon has worked in a number of it’s own inspired signatures, including some Beauty and the Beast styled romance, ongoing parodies of “Star Trek” and anime, tragic back-stories, spot-on voiceover work, morals that tie into the story without feeling forced, a brilliant twist towards the end of season one, not to mention the catchiest rendition of the classic theme song you’ll ever hear.

    This is also probably the most self-aware interpretation of “Ninja Turtles,” noting how improbable it is for Donatello to fight off alien technology with a stick. The animation itself is a unique blend of various different styles, creating something incredibly likable to watch. That’s more than can be said about the pointless 2007 CGI movie, which just looked like footage from a video game. In many ways, the new “Ninja Turtles” has become everything the “Kung-fu Panda” animated series could have been, finding just the right balance of silliness and drama.

    Nickelodeon’s “Ninja Turtles” is not only a prime example of how this franchise has evolved, but also how children’s TV shows have evolved. Granted, the 80s and 90s brought us a number of wonderful cartoons that still hold up like “DuckTales” and “Pinky and the Brain.” But let’s face it, there are just as many cartoon that don’t hold up as well as we remember. Is it blasphemous for me to say that “Pokemon” is actually kind of annoying?

    There’s still undoubtedly a lot of pandering crap out there aimed at kids today. At the same time, however, never before have we gotten more kid shows (and movies for that matter) with grown up appeal. The ongoing storylines and running gags seen in “Adventure Time,” “Phineas and Ferb,” “The Legend of Korra,” “Gravity Falls” and of course Nickelodeon’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is proof of that. If you still think everything marketed to kids nowadays is automatically inferior to the shows of yesteryears, you’re either getting old or maybe you haven’t grown up much at all.

    Considering all of the above, it’s actually not that surprising that “Ninja Turtles” earned a Primetime Emmy nomination. If anything, it’s encouraging that the Academy of Television would recognize the show as serious entertainment. Does that mean “The Manhattan Project” is bound for Emmy gold next month? Probably not, especially since it has to go up against “Futurama” for its touching final episode and “South Park” for its epic “Black Friday” story ark. If anything can be taken away from this nomination, though, it’s that you can never judge a show based on its exterior. Every ridiculous idea has potential to produce something magnificent, even one called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

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    Macbeth
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    #325261

    Since my favorite animated shows The Simpsons and American Dad! were so stupidly snubbed, I don’t give a damn about this category, so whatever wins is fine by me 

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    Ahiru77
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    #325262

    Leonardo for win!!!

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    GoMe91
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    Sep 25th, 2011
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    #325263

    Besides the Pokemon shade, I think this is a very thoughtful write up. TMNT isn’t really my top choice (Bob’s Burgers and Futurama are the two programs I’m rooting for the most), but I enjoyed thi particular episdode they submitted. The animation itself is great (I could see the show win an indicidual acheivement Emmy). However, I wasn’t really surprised by the nomination (since the Emmys have happily nominated other Nickelodeon Programs from Spongebob to Madagascar) and I wouldn’t be surprised if it won as well. 

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    Tyler The Awesome Guy
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    Nov 19th, 2011
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    #325264

    Hells to the no. Even if The Penguins of Madagascar surprisingly won a few years ago, I would think that it’s likely that they are going to give Futurama a goodbye hug and give it one final win then to give a little known freshman show a win.

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