Television reviews: ‘T.U.F.F. Puppy’ and ‘Planet Sheen’
It has been many years since I bothered to get up on a Saturday morning just to turn on a television. But believe me, I put in that time in my time, back when all TV was broadcast TV, and when for a few hours each week the few networks there were all belonged to We the Children.
Television has since changed, of course; there are multiple cable networks devoted to supplying the small fry with cartoons and what else they crave, if not quite around the clock, through as many hours as they are likely to be watching. But Saturday morning remains Saturday morning, gateway to the weekend, a parent-free protected space with its own history, practice (pajamas worn until 11) and cuisine (cold cereal, sugared; milk optional).
Nickelodeon, one of the networks that built the new model of children’s programming — and in the process helped preserve, promote and advance the art of animation — has two fine new cartoon series premiering Saturday. “T.U.F.F. Puppy,” from Butch Hartman (“The Fairly OddParents”), is a talking-animal spy story in the line of “Secret Squirrel” and “Danger Mouse,” but more slapstick. “Planet Sheen” spins off from the “The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” with Jimmy’s jabbering pal Sheen Estevez crash-landed on a faraway planet, where he is, advantageously, regarded not as strange but as alien.
If I have a superpower, it is that I have perpetual access to the mind of my 12-year-old self, and, although “T.U.F.F. Puppy” will not insult the intelligence of any nominal adults conscripted or inclined to watch, there are pleasures to be had from the show that go not only straight to what it means to be 12, but to have been 12 when I was 12 and undercover acronyms ruled the world. (T.U.F.F. stands for Turbo Undercover Fighting Force, but the show is mostly cleverer than that.) To be sure, we are back to all that now; secret agents are being revived everywhere for your entertainment. In look and soundtrack, “T.U.F.F. Puppy” is intently retro but made for the more sophisticated modern tot — the animation’s better, and there are dog’s-bottom jokes.
Puppy (voice of Jerry Trainor, in human form the older brother on “iCarly”) is the perfect mutt, combining “the fleet feet of a greyhound, the sensitive nose of a bloodhound with the bravery of a German shepherd.” He is also helpless to resist a chew toy, tennis ball or his own unrecognized tail. Drafted to fight the animal supercriminals of Petropolis, he is partnered with feline superspy Kitty Katswell (Grey DeLisle) who in the odd, unsettling way of cartoons, also functions as an attractive female. They get on like a cat and a dog.
Of the two shows, I am possibly a hair happier on “Planet Sheen,” for the comparative subtlety of its satire (“My palace is your palace,” the emperor of planet Zeenu tells his people, “I only keep you locked out so that it will stay nice”) and for Jeff Garcia’s lively central performance. Sheen gets a sidekick of his own here, an errant-talking NASA chimpanzee (Bob Joles), by far the smarter partner.
“I’m an ape, not a monkey,” he says when Sheen calls him a monkey. “Apes have no tails.”
“Uh-uh, Mr. Monkey,” Sheen corrects him. “Dead men have no tales.”
The ape who is not a monkey is named Nesmith, after Mike, the Monkee who was not a monkey. There are also an Avatar-blue yodeling warrior girl ( Soleil Moon Frye, yes, it’s Punky Brewster); a giant princess with two faces; a four-eyed gastropodous double for “Jimmy Neutron’s” Carl Weezer; and a full-time foe in the sepulchral green person of — tee-hee — Dorkus, whom Sheen replaces as the emperor’s advisor. It’s the Coyote-Roadrunner relationship, with the schemer hoisted repeatedly on his own petard — another Saturday morning tradition.