Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Very Canadian Cartoon

The latest cartoon I have been watching too much of is “6teen,” an animated tweener "situational comedy." This native product of Canada chronicles the lives, loves and adventures of Wyatt, Jonsey, Jen, Jude, Caitlin and Nikki, six high-schoolers working and hanging out in a huge shopping mall. It’s a colorful show, animated in the line-less Flash style: Erin Esurance would feel right at home there.

Cartoon Network airs this show in the United States (with a TV-PG rating, unusual for a non-"Adult Swim" show) but I've managed to catch most of the episodes on YouTube. As it is with anything on TV I find worthwhile, “6teen” has some quirks to it, both endearing and outright puzzling.

• Six inseparable pals, three guys and three girls, and one “will they-won’t they?” relationship in the mix: sound familiar? Yeah, it borrows heavily from “Friends.” Character traits have been diced up and redistributed from one to the other: “6teen's” Caitlin Cooke is a slightly daffy shopaholic with keen comic timing-- so she’s Rachel and Phoebe. It may be derivative, but all you have to do is recall the lame plagiarism of “The Honeymooners/The Flintstones” to realize this is an improvement.

There is one aspect this Canadian 'toon has way over the American sitcom it derives from: It's characters are (likely by government decree) racially diverse. The "Friends" were lily-white. And “6teen” is, in terms of character, a more mechanically sound and effective comedy than “Friends” ever was. As opposed to the gang of 30-something New Yorkers, the six kids from Canada have a very good reason to carry on like a bunch of 16-year-olds.

• “6teen” is a purely Canadian product. It’s refreshing and unusual to see a show made in Canada that isn’t trying to be American (The late, and very lamented, “Reaper:” set in Seattle, shot in Vancouver). The $5 bills that change hands are blue; everybody is assumed to know how to ice skate. Jonesy-- the tall lothario of the group-- speaks with a strong Canadian vowel rising. (Jonesy is now in committed relationship with Nikki, which makes him both Joey and Ross.)

• If this show is indicative of the society it depicts, Canadians evidently have a strong affinity for humor based on bodily functions. Alright, It might just be the show itself: fart jokes are the definition of sophomoric humor, and “6teen” features, and is demographically designed for, sophomores. The thing that is remarkable is the volume and centrality of gross-out humor, especially considering this show is partly funded by Canadian taxpayers.

Comparing “6teen” to non-cable prime-time sitcoms, it actually pushes the gross humor envelope further than most. One episode is centered on the question of whether or not a man can still love a woman after seeing her excreta. One character is constantly ribbed for having thrown up in his girlfriend’s mouth on a first date—and eventually we get to see this happen on-screen. “Two and a Half Men,” an adult-oriented sitcom on CBS, can barely compete at this level, and remember: this is kid’s programming.

This brings us right to another animated series featuring fart-obsessed Canadians: the Terrance and Philip “meta-show” on “South Park.” According to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, they created the Canadian duo as a response to complaints that their show was all bad animation and fart jokes. But if you tune into “6teen” it quickly becomes plain that Canadians really do own this subgenre of humor. One of three things has happened here:

  1. Trey and Matt actually DID know Canadians are really into poo-poo jokes, and wrote Terrance and Philip accordingly;
  2. The showrunners of “6teen” are knowingly playing into the “South Park” joke;
  3. Native Canadian humor as a whole has, solely by the influence of “South Park,” evolved into a constructed stereotype.

Season four of “6teen” began a few days ago (“Labour Day,” which was shown on Teletoon on Labour Day, the same day as American Labor Day). It was, of course, available online a few hours later.

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