Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Old School Lane's Nickelodeon Tribute: My Life as a Teenage Robot with James Bevan

The first new original Nicktoon that debuted in 2003 was the last cartoon short that debuted in Oh Yeah! Cartoons! A cartoon that was mixed with action, science fiction, superhero, and drama. That cartoon was none other than My Life as a Teenage Robot that debuted on August 1, 2003. 

Joining me today once again is Manic Expression member James Bevan. James, welcome back to Old School Lane.

James- Glad to be back, Patty. I'm thrilled I have the chance to join you for another discussion of one of my favorite Nicktoons. Nice to see that we've got a new face here as well. 

 Patricia- The show was about a teenage robot named Jenny (real name XJ9) who is a robot built by a scientist named Dr. Nora Wakeman. She built Jenny to defend the world from aliens, villains bent on world domination, and natural disasters. However, Jenny is not interested in saving the world. She's interested in making friends, going to school, reading teen magazines, and fashion. While Dr. Wakeman built her into a powerful robot, she installed her mind similar to a teenage girl's personality. As time went on, Jenny became friends with her next door neighbors Brad and Tucker Carbuckle.

James- The premise alone is what makes this so great; it's not a standard superhero show or a teen slice-of-life series; it blends both genres very well to deliver a show that appeals to fans looking for action, comedy, and down-to-earth drama. What sells this are the main characters. Jenny (voiced by Janice Kawaye, who has also voiced Yuzu Kurosaki in Bleach and Ami in HiHi Puffy AmiYumi) is a young woman who has been sheltered most of her life and is learning to adapt to the new world that's opened up to her. She's a bit naive, easily taken in by fun new experiences, and subject to quick mood swings when upset (she was programmed with emotions). But overall, she's a kind person who just wants to help her friends and do what's right for others. Her "mother", Dr. Noreen Wakeman (voiced by veteran voice actress Candi Milo) is an interesting mix of mad scientist and overprotective parent. Initially she wanted to keep Jenny a secret from the outside world, called upon only to prevent disasters, but gradually accepted that she deserved her own life. Dr. Wakeman has a number of amusing quirks, such as adding syllables to certain words, misusing slang, and looking for the prospect of an invention or scientific discovery in almost everything. Despite her age, she's no pushover, capable of holding her own against serious threats.


The Carbunkle brothers are a mixed bag. Brad (voiced by Chad Doreck) is one of the show's main comic relief characters. He's very enthusiastic, sometimes tending to act before he thinks, which can get him and his friends into very strange dilemmas. He also fancies himself a ladies man, with his attempts to charm the girls he finds attractive often ending up making him look foolish. But in spite of his flaws, Brad is a pretty compassionate, intelligent guy who frequently helps find solutions to the issues he and his friends get caught up in. Tucker (voiced by Audrey Wasilewski) is probably my least favorite character. I know the writers were going for an "annoying little brother" trope, but he's just TOO annoying. Overly-energetic, manipulative, selfish, there aren't really many redeeming factors I can find with him. That's just me though.

Rounding out Jenny's circle of friends is the incredibly geeky Sheldon.

Wrong Sheldon.

That's the one. Voiced by Quinton Flynn (best known as Raiden from the Metal Gear Solid series), Sheldon is the stereotypical high-school nerd taken to the extreme. He's socially-awkward, has a bad complexion, a nasally voice, and a heart of gold He's incredibly proficient with technology, capable of building machinery so advanced that Jenny often uses some of his inventions as upgrades. He actually has a romantic interest in Jenny, making him a literal technophile, and has made repeated attempts to get her to fall in love with him, even creating a mech suit to pose as a robotic superhero known as The Silver Shell. It's sweet, but at the same time, a bit disturbing for a show aimed at young viewers.

Patricia- The show was created by Rob Renzetti. While working on various cartoons such as Batman: The Animated Series, Two Stupid Dogs, and Dexter's Laboratory, he created and developed a pilot called My Neighbor was a Teenage Robot

But he put it on the side to try to make a TV series of a few shorts called Mina and the Count. The synopsis was about a little girl named Mina who befriends a vampire known as the Count. He presented the Mina and the Count shorts and a few other shorts he created to Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, but they rejected them. 

Afterwards, he went to work on other cartoons such as Family Guy, The Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack before he decided to go deeper into his concept of his first short. Fred Seibert saw the short and liked it. The short eventually became a TV series.

James- I loved Mina and the Count; Mark Hamill was great as the titular beleagured vampire. Pity that show never made it to series, but at least we got another great show from Renzetti. I have to say, though, I wish some aspects from the pilot short would have been retained in the full show. I liked the different designs used (especially for Jenny and Dr. Wakeman), and I thought the electronic undertone to Jenny's voice was a bit of a nice touch.

Patricia- Some of the great things about My Life as a Teenage Robot were the villains. The one villain that everyone remembers in Teenage Robot was Vexus, the leader of Cluster Prime, a planet that is inhabitated by robots. Vexus even tries to lead Jenny to join Cluster Prime since she's a robot and she would fit in with them more than with the humans who mostly don't understand her. Not to mention she's voiced by Eartha Kitt, whose awesome in anything she does.

James- Definitely. Miss Kitt (may she rest in peace) was absolutely phenomenal as Vexus. Cold, strategic, manipulative, she was definitely a force to be reckoned with. I really did like the concept of the Cluster as a recurring antagonist; a fully mechanized society that believes robots are superior to organic life, yet they're always bested by a robot who fights for co-existence rather than dominance. And while almost all of their plans involved reprogramming or converting other robots to aid in their conquest, there was always a bit of variety to keep the threats fresh. The variety also extended to their visual designs; every soldier of the Cluster empire had a unique build based on an insect motif like beetles, flies or bees. 

The Cluster wasn't the only threat Jenny had to deal with, though. Much like Danny Phantom, Teenage Robot had a recurring rogues gallery of incredibly strange adversaries that would cause grief for Jenny and her friends. Some of her more noteworthy foes included Vladimir, aka "Mr. Scruffles" (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson), a lab rat seeking revenge against Dr. Wakeman for the disfiguring experiments she subjected him and other mice to, the Mad Hammer Brothers, a pair of criminal construction workers that bear a close resemblance to Mario and Luigi, and Armagedroid (also voiced by Richardson), a titanic robot programmed to eliminate all weapons on Earth, even if it means destroying the planet in the process.

Patricia- What many people seem to not realize is that Jenny was the first true hero in Nickelodeon with actual villains. While you can say that there were other shows such as The Secret World of Alex Mack, Space Cases, Butt Ugly Martians, and The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius that implicated a villain, My Life as a Teenage Robot was a show about a person who was designed to save the world from destruction and/or world domination. Later shows such as Danny Phantom, El Tigre, Tak and the Power of Juju, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Legend of Korra would have a similar premise. It's something that I find interesting.

James- Definitely. What also helped strengthen the series was how it focused on Jenny's social life. As a robot, she's a true outsider, and her efforts to be accepted by her peers have more impact since her peers are, essentially, all of humanity. The writers did a stellar job with stories that show her dealing with people who are prejudiced against machines, augmenting herself in the hopes of better fitting in, even dealing with the standard teen problems of unrequited crushes and bullies... though when your body is stocked with a weapons system that could put most small dictatorships to shame, harassment shouldn't be that much of a problem. As cliched as this may sound, despite being mechanical, Jenny is well developed as an incredibly human character. Her desires, her weaknesses, her interests - all are well crafted to make her a well rounded protagonist, perhaps one of the strongest central characters in Nicktoons history.

I also have to mention that the art style is great. The development team at Frederator went for unique pseudo-retro style that blends 60s sci-fi like The Jetsons with the classic Fleischer cartoons. It seems like an odd mix, but it actually works very well. The stylized designs give each character a unique, recognizable appearance, and since they didn't obsess over incredibly fancy animation, it meant that the show's success relied on its characters and plot, not simply the visuals. It was also a nice touch that the crew left in subtle homages to the animation style that inspired them, such as the popular after-school hangout being called Mezmer's after Felix the Cat's creator Otto Messmer, and of course the very obvious homage to animation legend Walt Disney in the character of eccentric theme park owner Uncle Wizzly. 

Patricia- Agreed! With the exception of As Told by Ginger, many of the other Nicktoons at the time didn't have their characters grow and develop over time. But with My Life as a Teenage Robot, we see Jenny from a naive, confused teenage robot to a strong, capable hero. We see Dr. Wakeman from a tough, strict, scientist to a more open-minded person who has a love and care for Jenny. We also see Sheldon from a geeky nerd to a more confident person. Things about this show work so great! Also I have to commend on the art style as well. Many other Nicktoons tried to either do animation that was common at the time or trying to get into the 3D realm that many other cartoons did in the 2000's. But with My Life as a Teenage Robot, it was so nice to go for a more retro look when most animators tried to go cutting edge and "innovative". We hadn't seen a classic art style like this since The Ren and Stimpy Show so it was nice seeing it here on Teenage Robot!

Unfortunately, as great as the show sounded, it never got a lot of views from many people and the show was eventually cancelled after 40 episodes. Rob Renzetti went on to work on other shows such as being a supervising director for Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, a story editor for the first two seasons of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and currently being a supervising producer on Gravity Falls. While he hasn't created another show since Teenage Robot, he certainly left a huge impression on what a Nicktoon should be despite many people not really giving too much regards for it. Overall, it's an overlooked gem with great characters, classic animation, and fantastic action that is worth checking out. Definitely one of my favorite Nicktoons of all time!

James- Same here; this is definitely one of the best series in Nick's history. With all the recent reboots, I'm holding out hope that maybe we might see a revival of this show in the future, even if it's just for a mini-series. Of course, it won't be the same since Eartha Kitt is no longer around to voice Vexus. But there were occasions when Cree Summer filled in for the late Ms. Kitt, and did a pretty stellar job, so she could be a good replacement. Though I do worry that it might affect fans the same way a possible revival of Reboot would; without Tony Jay as Megabyte, would the character have the same impact they did when we grew up watching it?

Patricia- I'm not sure. We'll see if they'll be interested in a possible reboot. That would be cool to see. That concludes our review of Teenage Robot. James, once again, thank you so much for joining me on this collaboration review. Hope we do it again soon.

James- Thanks again for having me, Patty. Always great to talk about classic shows with you.

Patricia- That's all for now. Tune in next time as we have Nickelodeon's first teen sitcom featuring a then popular celebrity. Romeo! 

Hope to see you around Old School Lane soon. Thanks for reading!

-Patricia and James

1 comment:

  1. i never watched it when i was younger but i have watched it now, and i love the show. i guess a few ways i like is that most of it is funny and easy to understand, and i guess another way is jenny, i mean who wouldn't like a robot that was built to save the world and trying to fit in at the same time. and they have started to make a reboot of it, it is on the website here
    i really hope they can continue the show with its original feel. i want it back.