Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: The Dick Tracy Show

With my fondness for older movies and the sheer amount of anime in our Instant Queue, it was only a matter of time before Netflix began suggesting the only logical combination of the two: 1960s cartoon shows based on comic strips. Now I've been reunited with a show I'm pretty sure I either loved as a kid or had no idea existed: The Dick Tracy Show.

Just imagine an announcer boldly proclaiming, "THE DICK TRACY SHOW!!!" I love this show already.

My initial reaction was, "Whoa! I didn't know they made this!", but after watching a few episodes, the show began to feel familiar. Perhaps I actually had flipped through it a few times growing up, or perhaps it was just the strong similarities to The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, which I can confirm I watched as a youngster.

I needed to do a brief bit of research to determine whether Dick Tracy was supposed to remind me of Rocky & Bullwinkle. It seems Chester Gould's famous detective stories went from looking like this...

...to this:

Now, I've never been a Dick Tracy fan, but that's only due to lack of exposure—I've got a brick of a book on my shelf that collects all the earliest Dick Tracy stories, but I have yet to read it; my wife owns the 1990 Dick Tracy film starring Warren Beatty on VHS, but I haven't watched it. Still, I'm fairly certain that Go Go Gomez, Joe Jitsu, Hemlock Holmes, and Heap O'Calorie were never a part of Gould's original hero pantheon.

The Dick Tracy Show also hails from a time when racial insensitivity on national television was more easily accepted (or tolerated, at least) by the general public. For a modern audience (and indeed for portions of the audience at the time), the heroes are potentially offensive parodies and stereotypes.

Go Go Gomez is a blend of Looney Tunes' controvery-sparking Speedy Gonzales and his cousin Slowpoke Rodriguez; Joe Jitsu are hardry poriticarry collect; and Heap O'Calorie is named Heap O'Calorie, for cryin' out loud. Though, a quick Internet search reveals that no one in particular cares if we perpetuate Heap's "fat people are inherently funny" stereotype. Hemlock Holmes is another "safe" character, because apparently Americans won their right to make fun of the Brits in the war for independence. Heap and Hemlock are bumbling fools and also obvious stereotypes, yet Gomez and Jitsu get all the flack for being cultural caricatures; never mind the fact that Gomez and Jitsu are the most hardworking and effective detectives in Tracy's squad.

It's completely understandable to be offended by something; however, I feel there's been a historical trend of overcensorship in American entertainment. The segments with Gomez and Jitsu have been entirely cut out of certain airings of the show. Funny how we can target a few traits of an individual, blast the individual for misrepresenting an entire group of people, and ignore the fact that we're making assumptions about an entire group of people based on the selected traits of one individual.

I'd like us as a culture to get to a point where we either are more aware of what might inadvertently offend our audience (and adjust the content accordingly), or are willing to address whatever is offending us by raising our children to know how to deal with it, simply shutting off the television when we don't like what we see, and channeling our reactions into meaningful discourse with the people responsible when possible. At least in the entertainment realm, outright censorship hurts our freedom of expression and blinds us to the fact that these issues really exist.

Once again, this goes back to my maxim that it's not so much what you do as how and why you do it; the purpose of The Dick Tracy Show is not to offend or propagate racial stereotypes (though it may end up doing that anyhow), but to entertain kids with a cast of colorful characters, all the while making a buck or two.

You have to give credit to the people responsible for crafting a formula that is both cost-effective and appealing to youngsters who don't know any better. Pick just about any of the 100+ four-minute episodes, and your show will proceed as follows (with no or minimal deviation):

- Dick Tracy finishes a call at his desk from the commissioner.

- Dick Tracy calls on [pick one: Go Go Gomez / Joe Jitsu / Hemlock Holmes / Heap O'Calorie] to arrest [pick one: Pruneface and Itchy / Flattop and B-B Eyes / The Brow and Oodles / The Mole and Sketch Paree / Mumbles and Stooge Viller / Cheater Gunsmoke]

- The selected hero springs into action from their [pick one: hammock, fancy car, police station, neighborhood produce stand]

- Dick Tracy proceeds to do nothing until the last 30 seconds of the episode.

OR

- Dick Tracy proceeds to help with the case by immediately getting incapacitated, doing nothing until the last 30 seconds of the episode

- Shenanigans between the hero du jour and the villain(s) du jour

- Dick Tracy arrives in the last 30 seconds to punk the hero's arrest

- Fade to black

After a few seasons of watching the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine run through the exact same cave on dozens of different planets, I've developed an eye for reused sets, and that translates into an eye for stock footage as well. The Dick Tracy Show successfully manages to recycle at least 25% of the animation in each episode, and the abundance of catch-phrases reduces the work of the scriptwriters (and possibly the voice actors, when old sound clips can be reused) by about 5-10%. These aren't scientifically collected numbers, mind you, but I'd be surprised if they weren't close to being accurate.

There's a certain charm when repetition is used skillfully. The Dick Tracy Show doesn't always demonstrate this, but I usually looked forward to the inevitable moment when the hero held up his hand, shouting, "Hold everything!" and stopping time long enough to contact Dick Tracy with a status update on his current preposterous predicament.

Other instances of repetition, such as Hemlock Holmes' frequent quip about "popping a copper's topper" whenever his hat got shot and deflated, were funny the first time and a bit grating all subsequent times. Another catch phrase, Go Go Gomez's sentence endcap of, "I theenk" actually went from being obnoxious to being rather amusing after my wife started to make announcements like, "I'm going to go get some ice cream, I theenk." I'm convinced that The Dick Tracy Show is more fun to have watched than it is to actually watch it, I theenk.

As best as I can tell, Netflix had the complete series available, though I didn't get to see it all—whether due to contract expiration or other reasons, the show disappeared on March 1. Discovering this a few days in advance (which, of course, was only a few days after I discovered the show existed at all), I made it a point to watch at least two or three of the larger "episodes" (which each contained about five of the regular four-minute episodes) every night until the deadline. While this approach works fine for many other television shows, The Dick Tracy Show loses some of its appeal when marathonned—and I'm not sure whether that was because all the repetition started to get to me, or whether the episodes simply declined in quality over time.

The first few larger "episodes" were wonderfully entertaining. I'm a sucker for clever puns, creative slapstick, and wacky character designs, and there was an element of surprise about which hero would take the case and which villains they'd be chasing that helped to build anticipation for each new story. Then there came a point where I'd sigh when Hemlock Holmes was recruited for the fifth case in a row, or when Stooge and Mumbles became the only villains the writers remembered they could use. The jokes started falling flat, and it felt more and more like the people behind the show weren't expecting the show to run for more than a handful of episodes—too much filler, and too little in the way of novelty. Maybe I'm asking too much for a kids' show.

The day before the show disappeared from Netflix, I skipped ahead to the last two "episodes," having previously been watching in chronological order. Aside from this completionist's wrenching gut reaction to watching things out of sequence, I found there to be absolutely nothing different other than the addition of Heap O'Calorie somewhere along the line. That, and the stories were, for the most part, relatively interesting again. I noted a different assortment of writers, something I've learned to pay more attention to over the years.

In addition to anything I've already mentioned, what really struck me about the show was the focus on gathering evidence. It is repeatedly stressed that the heroes need to have proper evidence to arrest the criminals. I'm not sure whether that's a feature of the original comic or something specific to the show, but it was almost surreal for a children's show to frequently let villains be on friendly or teasing terms with the good guys until they had anything tangible to peg them as crooks.

Also, the villains are amusing to me. They're not real adversaries with devious master plans; they're just regular people with bizarre deformities, awkward habits, and aspirations of stealing all the pennies from the penny arcade.

Overall, even when I wasn't as enthusiastic about the show, I enjoyed the chance to get caught up on a little slice of American animation that's faded into obscurity. The voice acting was generally very good, and I appreciated the clever moments (like two villains getting scooped up by the re-racking machine in a bowling alley, shouting, "We've been framed!") as well as the variety of characters and capers.

Now I'm more curious than ever about, shall we say, a more canonical Dick Tracy—anything that wouldn't be better titled as The Gomez-Jitsu-Holmes-O'Calorie and Oh Also Probably Dick Tracy Show.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think it is interesting to look at Dick Tracy, himself, as a caricature of American culture, and at his relationships with the other characters as a metaphor for international relations: He bosses others around without having a clear perspective on the situation, he lets someone else do all the hard/dirty work and then swoops in as the "hero," he assigns value to his subordinates based on personal opinions and ethnocentrism rather than on merit and performance, and he relies on his charisma and privilege to get him out of tight situations. Isn't this the classic American stereotype - pushy, arrogant, elitist, opinionated, conceited, biased, and brash?

I think when you really look at it, the personality traits depicted by this caricature are almost as offensive as any of the other racial stereotypes perpetrated by the show. However, the difference, and the main reason why Americans aren't up in arms over his depiction, is that Tracy still holds all of the power, all of the good looks, and remains the titular star despite any of his failings. He can do no wrong, and is free to do as much or as little as he wants, to praise or condemn on a whim, because he is the one in charge. His power enables his poor behavior.

It is another case of "Green Hornet Syndrome." The hard-working ethnic minority is supposed to feel satisfied at secretly knowing they are the true brains, brawn, and backbone of the story; while the white, male, American hero revels in money, control, public applause, and his name on the marquee. Whether this formula was written to be offensive or not, it still speaks to our values as a culture, and it does not speak kindly.

Neko-chan

Anonymous said...

Also, why is Hemlock the only anthropomorphic character?

Neko-chan

John L Mendez said...

Seriously? You think The Dick Tracy Show hails from a time when racial insensitivity on national television was more easily accepted/tolerated by the general public? Instead of looking at the speck in another's eye, take care of the log in your own eye! These are cartoons! Where do you get that the heroes are potentially offensive parodies and stereotypes? If anything your attack on a harmless animated series reflects your misguided opinion of the American stereotype - pushy, arrogant, elitist, opinionated, conceited, biased, and brash? Where's the intolerance you claim to have?

Flashman85 said...

John: Perhaps a better phrasing would be to say that Dick Tracy hails from a time when racial insensitivity was more prevalent, rather than more publicly accepted.

I did include a couple hyperlinks in the text to examples of how other people have perceived these characters to be offensive; I get the impression that you either didn't read the post very carefully, or else your perception of potentially offensive stereotypes is very different from mine—"lazy Mexican" and "Engrish-speaking Asian," though I may not have explicitly stated them as such, should be self-explanatory.

You appear to be broadly misinterpreting my fairly objective observations about stereotypes as an attack on the show. If anything, I attacked the viewers for their reactions to the stereotypes on shows like Dick Tracy. And I specifically pointed out that Dick Tracy is just a cartoon, as you say--but as I think both I and Neko-chan pointed out, being a cartoon doesn't excuse it from propagating stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously.

I would also recommend taking another look at what you're referencing when you write such a heated reply—you seem to be responding to my post and Neko-chan's separate comment as though they were both written by the same person, which they were not. I think Neko-chan brings up an interesting point about Dick Tracy being as much of a cultural caricature as the other characters; a bit harsh, perhaps, but not necessarily inaccurate—how would you describe an American stereotype?

Incidentally, neither of us ever claimed to possess any kind of intolerance, though I'm fairly certain you meant "tolerance," which significantly changes the meaning here.

Dennis said...

FYI, there were a couple of other animated adaptations of DICK TRACY that were more faithful to Chester Gould's original comic strip, both of the produced by Filmation. Each was part of a package that adapted a number of different newspaper comic strips.

ARCHIE'S TV FUNNIES (1971)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archie%27s_TV_Funnies

FABULOUS FUNNIES (1978)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fabulous_Funnies

Selected episodes of the latter show were released decades ago on VHS tape, while the former received a single-disc DVD release of random episodes a number of years back (along other single-disc samplers of various incarnations of Filmation's Archie animated series) and is now out of print. I haven't searched YouTube or elsewhere on the internet, but someone may well have posted episodes (or at least individual segments) of these series somewhere out there.

Flashman85 said...

Dennis: Interesting! The names sound familiar, but I don't know if I've ever seen those shows. Though, knowing the Internet, there's a very good possibility that at least a few clips are floating around out there somewhere...

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