If all Americans were as diligent about recycling as Saturday-morning TV producers, pollution would be a minor problem and "acid rain" would merely be a possible title for the next Prince album. Every new program this season is a revival, a retread, a spin-off or a clone of something else.
When the artists manage to find a fresh approach to a familiar premise, the result can be surprisingly entertaining. When they don't, it's pretty dismal: Flogging a dead horse has yet to attain the status of spectator sport. The 1988-89 lineup ranks as the most uneven since the Saturday-morning cartoon ghetto was created in 1966.
As most kidvid shows aren't written under WGA contracts, the new programs rolled out on schedule the past two weekends. Here, in no special order, is an overview of the new Saturday-morning season on the three major networks.
"Beany and Cecil." Bob Clampett's "Beany and Cecil" remains one of the best-loved shows of the baby-boom era, first as a puppet show (1949-58) and then as a cartoon (1962-67). This new version strives to maintain the familiar characters, but lacks the unbounded imagination and insouciant glee that distinguished the original. What's missing is the master's touch: Not even the most respectful creative team can replace Clampett's unique vision.
"The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" from Disney/TMS is not only the classiest new show of the season, but also one of the best-looking series ever animated for television. Although no one will mistake the program for Disney theatrical animation, the artists preserve the personalities of A. A. Milne's beloved characters. Gentle without being maudlin or patronizing, the scripts are refreshingly free of the standard kidvid chases, crashes and shouts of "Yiii!" As "Pooh" airs at 7:30 a.m., parents may want to tape it and watch it with their children at a more reasonable hour.
"Slimer." The messy green spook joins the spectre-fighting crew in a half-hour adventure grafted onto "The Real Ghostbusters." About every 10 minutes, Slimer kisses somebody and leaves them covered with sticky green glop. Apparently someone thinks this is funny.
"A Pup Named Scooby-Doo." The cowardly Great Dane has been one of Hanna-Barbera's most popular characters since "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?" premiered in 1969. In keeping with the trend of using younger characters in kids' shows, Velma, Freddy, Daphne and Shaggy have been turned into adolescents and Scooby into a maladroit puppy. The change works, and the new series is more fun than the original. The extreme, Tex Avery-style takes--eyes bulging to the size of hula hoops and characters literally flying to pieces when they're scared--give the show an appealing vitality that's rare on Saturday morning.
"The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Andy." Johnny Gruelle's doll characters have already been animated three times, and all three versions were more interesting than this series. Not that the new show is terrible, it's just wearily familiar. Any child who's watched Saturday-morning TV will have seen similar characters make similar movements and will have heard similar voices speak similar lines in similar stories.
"Superman." The Man of Steel has been updated and redesigned to look like Christopher Reeve, with blue eyes and a curling forelock. Despite a plethora of computer-generated special effects, these adventures lack excitement, and Clark Kent's alter-ego seems more ordinary than super.
"Garfield and Friends." Further adventures of America's most merchandised cat. The "friends" come from cartoonist Jim Davis' crashingly unfunny barnyard strip, "U.S. Acres," and they're no more amusing on screen than they are in print. The show's biggest weakness can also be traced to Davis' strips: Garfield has lost all his feline qualities and become a crabby little man in a cat suit. With more than 3,500 "Garfield" products on the market, does anyone really need to see more of the character?
"Hey, Vern, It's Ernest!" stars Jim Varney's thick-witted bumpkin character in a shoddy live-action imitation of "Pee-wee's Playhouse." But "Playhouse" has a manic energy and a freewheeling originality that are obvious, even to viewers who dislike Paul Reubens' fey man-boy persona. Lacking both the energy and the imagination of its model, "Ernest" is merely a stultifying vehicle for the dubious comic talents of Varney, who displays the range of an on/off switch. However, it's easy to imagine the show becoming a part of American family life: "If you don't clean your room, you'll have to watch 'Ernest' on Saturday!"
The live video magazine "Flip" tries to be a Mad magazine of the '80s--the purveyor of an irreverent humor that kids enjoy because their parents disapprove of it. But everyone involved works so hard at being hip and sassy, the result is like watching a beaver try to dam a flooded stream--the effort is more apparent than the result. All but the youngest children will tire of "Flip's" cliched, MTV-style editing, amateurish camera work and threadbare gags long before their parents get around to complaining about it.
Based on Martin Short's "SCTV" character, "The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley" slugs it out with "Ernest" for the title of the season's worst new children's series. Like Bill Griffith's "Zippy the Pinhead," Ed Grimley represents that curious phenomenon of '80s hip--the geek who's so far out of it, he's in. But Grimley lacks Zippy's tongue-in-cheek delight in the excesses of American pop culture, and Short's limp underplaying feels as stiff and uninteresting as the very limited animation.
Given the speed at which Saturday morning producers are recycling trends in mainstream film, TV and merchandising, it doesn't take a crystal ball to predict that the 1989-90 season will include at least two live action/animation combinations trying to cash in on the success of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." As Dan Rather would say, "Courage, kids."