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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Static Thoughts - Extreme Ghostbusters

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Edited by Robert Beach 

In 1984, Columbia Pictures produced Ghostbusters, a horror comedy starring a quartet of hilarious comedians and a ton of great genre elements.  The film was initially intended for an older audience, which is why most of the humor in the film is about sex and adult situations with the special FX action sequences packaged around the dialogue heavy gags and comedy.  However, much to Columbia’s surprise, the film proved a massive hit with kids whose parents took one look at the trailer featuring a cartoon ghost logo and claymation monsters getting zapped with lasers and decided to bring their children off to see it.  

Now with a merchandising juggernaut dropped into their laps Columbia needed to maintain interest from their audience while the sequel was in development.  Their solution was The Real Ghostbusters, a top notch ‘80s animated series premiering in 1986 and lasting till 1991.  Then, six years later in 1997; they made a sequel show called Extreme Ghostbusters.

Extreme Ghostbusters is one of the more bizarre attempts to revive the Ghostbusters franchise for a ton of reasons.  Sure, the new movie doesn’t look like the greatest thing ever but at least I understand the thought process by which it was produced: nostalgic franchise in an age of reboots/remakes, unique visual aesthetic, tons of funny comedic talent, it all makes sense.  But Extreme Ghostbusters is an animated sequel to a ‘80s TV show tied to a film series whose last installment came out eight years before Extreme hit the airwaves. 

What’s more, Extreme Ghostbusters also fancied itself a more serious take on the material, with a lot of stories grounded in horror, action, and high stakes with the comedy sprinkled in very lightly.  Compare this to Extreme Ghostbusters where the emphasis was much more on fusing classic horror tropes with comedy slapstick and occasionally peppering in more terrifying or serious monsters like Samhain or the Boogieman. 

The only thing about Extreme Ghostbusters that makes sense is the timing.  The late ‘90s was the heyday of Adelaide Productions, an animation studio that specialized in adapting films into series.  From 1996-2001 they produced animated adaptations of Men In Black, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, and Jumanji so it makes sense that Columbia would use them to try and leverage the Ghostbusters brand back into the TV arena.  

What’s more, the success of Men In Black was probably a good indicator to the executives that were that Ghostbusters was primed for a comeback as they’re both genre comedies that follow a lot of similar elements.  However, that one element aside the show’s existence does feel like the universe just shrugged and conjured the show from the ether…and it was awesome. 

Yeah, curve ball there, I’ve been a big fan of Extreme Ghostbusters since I was a kid and grew up watching it.  Believe it or not, Extreme Ghostbusters was my introduction to the very concept of Ghostbusting, and they’re still the team I most consider to be “my” Ghostbusters.  

To be clear, though, that doesn’t mean I think this short lived 1997 animated series is superior to the film or that it isn’t riddled with problems of its own.  Even with the benefit of nostalgia goggles, I’m aware that part of why I liked this show was that I was a kid, and I didn’t have any taste. Despite its flaws, there’s still a lot to like here, with a lot of elements I think to hold together well. 

As I said, the show is a sequel to the 1986 Real Ghostbusters show, and I mean that both in continuity as well as this being a follow-up series.  So, it’s 20 years later, and a decade-long lull in spectral activity has driven the Ghostbusters off to other pursuits as ‘Busting was no longer financially viable.  Of the original four only Egon remained for this show, still voiced by the incredible Maurice LaMarche.  

Egon had to remain at the GB’s firehouse to maintain the ghost containment grid and so became a teacher to the pay bills while there.  However, when a new wave of spectral activity rocks New York he’s forced to pull together a new team of Ghostbusters from the students of his class. 

That’s a pretty solid set-up, even if the show never really elaborated on a lot of its best ideas.  I’m not a huge fan of the “and there were no more ghosts for 20 years” set-up as it’s just a big way to shrug off enacting any world change in the wake of everyone learning ghosts exist but at the same time that would’ve made this a very different kind of show.  No, the big missed opportunity with the show’s premise is the character stuff you could do with the new Ghostbusters being college kids taking on someone else’s job. 

The idea of trying to balance school and ‘Busting is pretty solid fodder for story points and the fact that most members of the new team never planned or wanted to be doing this is shockingly pertinent in this day and age.  Unfortunately, the show never dove into this stuff, but that was also the nature of a lot of kid’s shows at the time.  

We tend to remember the ‘90s with a bit of a rose-colored glasses when it comes to animation (because we had a lot more shows based on stories and characters like Batman and The X-Men). There were still plenty of shows at the time that indulged in the more static styles of the ‘80s, and Extreme Ghostbusters was one of them. 

However, where the show was shown was in the new characters.  The breakout character of the show was Kylie Griffin, voiced by Tara Strong.  She usually served as the spectral brains of the crew, knowing the most about the kind of creatures they’d be going up against owing to her gothy nature.  

That’s a big part of why I think she’s as popular as she is, her unique blend of goth aesthetics with a snarky and sarcastic, biting edge that’s just really fun.  Of all the Extreme crew (they’re also called The Extreme Ghostbusters in-universe for whatever reason) she’s the only one to return in subsequent media, specifically the IDW Ghostbusters comic books.  She was always my second favorite character after Garret Miller, voiced by Jason Marsden.

Garret is easily my favorite Ghostbuster across the franchise history as well as one of the coolest disabled characters in genre fiction.  See, in most genre stuff disabled characters usually end up with their situation fully negated thanks to hand waving in the plot.  Folks like Geordi LaForge, Daredevil, or Dr. Midnight are all examples of characters whose struggle with disability ends up completely washed away by them just getting super powers to overcome their problem.  Garret is one of the few cases where that isn’t the situation and, what’s more, he feels like a fully realized character beyond just being in a wheelchair, in fact, he was often cited in focus groups as the most popular member of the new team.

That’s because he was the wild card of the group, a fearless member keen to rush into the fray and bust with the best of them.  Despite his courageous, macho exterior he had a softer side as he was studying to be a physical therapist and we saw, on occasion, that his deepest personal dream was to be an NBA player.  He reminds me a lot of Oracle from Batman in that his struggle informs the character he grew into without defining him as a character. 

The other two members were Eduardo Rivera and Roland Jackson and while I’m glad that they were both additional steps for the diversity they are lesser entries in the roster.  Eduardo was an alright character in his cynical, sarcastic guy nature but he never really rose to being too cool for his situation.  Meanwhile, Roland never really had any character, he was just the fourth one of the group.  It was a real missed opportunity but still, it’s pretty notable that this was a shockingly major stab towards diversity, especially if you consider Egon asexual like he clearly was. 

As for the content of the show, like I said it was mainly focused on a blend of scary monsters and heavy action though things could get a bit repetitive.  The monsters on hand were always imaginative and cool and often would reference shockingly adult horror movies like Hellraiser but they always ended up taken down by the same basic method, and the show relied pretty heavily on its episode formula.  That was one of the central problems with the crossover episode with The Real Ghostbusters when the classic team returned for a 2-part story.  It’s a solid episode but the stakes are fairly standard, and it features a less-than-stellar antagonist. 

Still, this was the comic that set the foundation for how future Ghostbusting adventures would work and exist.  The idea of each new installment introducing a new team started here and, what’s more, the mature nature of the monsters featured on the show did push the envelope for children’s programming at the time.  

If you go into it with an open mind and expectations limited to the nature of the time (as you should go into anything from a previous era), there’s a lot to like here and the show more than balances out its weaker elements with exceptional monster design and stand out characters. 

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