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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Static Thoughts - The Pinky Protocol

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Edited by Robert Beach

As we enter the last few months of the 2016 American Presidential election, a strange trend has emerged out of the political discourse. While both this and the 2012 election have been colored by taking place after the explosion of Internet use from 2007-2010, this particular election has delved head first into web culture.  

From Hillary Clinton name-dropping Pokemon Go to Donald Trump sliding into the role of alt-right meme to Jill Stein tweeting about Harambe, this is very much the election the net built. The latest iteration of this idea, or rather a persistent example that’s picking up steam, is the Internet’s infatuation with conspiracy theories. 

Conspiracy theories have always circulated any given political election, but this is the first time we’ve heard major candidates like Trump talking about political conspiracies directed at them in an attempt to preemptively invalidate their opponent’s victory.  

That particular strategy, forming an elaborate conspiracy to cast oneself as the victim of persecution and frame your megalomania and totalitarian ambitions as courageous freedom fighting is hardly new. In fact, I first encountered it two decades ago in an episode of Pinky and the Brain. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Pinky and the Brain was an animated comedy about a pair of genetically altered lab mice attempting to take over the world. There was the Brain, the thinker and planner of the group, and Pinky, his whacky sidekick.  

It was one of several shows that popped up in the ‘90s produced by Stephen Spielberg and is by far the odd man out of the bunch.  While all of Spielberg’s shows at the time attempt to be for both kids and adults, Pinky and the Brain took the oddest approach to the idea. 

Unlike the superhero comedy Freakazoid (all about genre satire amid the cartoon humor) or Animaniacs (Looney Tunes-esque in its blend of adult jokes and zaniness), Pinky and the Brain focused heavily on referential humor of the time.  

This made the show something of a time capsule as nearly every episode is a bizarre blend of cartoon slapstick and lunacy with adult-oriented pop cultural references that are now 20 years out of date. 

I bring that up because the episode I’m talking about, entitled "The Pinky Protocol," is heavy on the referential humor and all the stranger for it. The episode revolves around a pretty blatant Oliver Stone stand-in named Gulliver Sloane directing a movie about Pinky and the Brain and how they’re responsible for any number of conspiracies. 

Like I said, it’s a very odd basic premise made even stranger by the collection of jokes and references assembled for it. This is probably one of the only animated kids’ show you’ll see with overt references to things like Watergate, the Kennedy Assassination, and Eisenhower’s warning against the military industrial complex. 

And that’s not even getting into the eve of more bizarre dated references in the episode. For instance, a major plot point of the episode is a reoccurring joke about actor Joyce Dewitt, and there’s also an extended parody of Oliver Stone’s forgotten 1995 film Nixon for seemingly no reason. And those are just the references and parodies that were named. Honestly, with how much news broadcasting has changed in the wake of YouTube, blogging, 24/7 cable news, and comedy news, the whole thing feels like a gazing into the past, save for the Larry King parody, which will always be topical. 

In any event, Sloane’s conspiracy-based film gives Brain the inspiration for a new plan: use the media frenzy surrounding him to concoct and promote a conspiracy theory that the shadowy powers that be have come together to keep him from taking his place as rightful ruler of the world. This is the part of the episode that always stuck out in my mind after seeing it as a kid. Now, viewing it in the light of current events, feels very prescient. 

Brain’s rigged system conspiracy feels spot on with a lot of current political rhetoric.  Specifically, a big part of his ruse is the idea that his personal history is so full of bold and courageous acts of heroism, standing up for the little guy, the only way he wouldn’t end up running things is if there was a rigged system. It just stands to reason. Also, the whole conspiracy thing has some Clinton-bashing thrown in for good measure, making it predictive of our current political discourse. 

The strangest part of the episode that works has to be an extended slapstick sequence at the halfway point. See, Brain’s entire conspiracy plan hinges on a secret document, the titular Pinky Protocol. Brain drafted the Pinky Protocol and now needs to get signed by a former President before sneaking it into the national archives.  

To accomplish this, he heads to the golf course and engages in a whole routine with former President Gerald Ford as the world’s clumsiest golfer. Ford was always a favorite physical comedy slapstick, but seeing him transformed into a literal cartoon character here is deeply surreal. Still, this is probably the best blend of Pinky and the Brain’s cartoon kid humor and its adult-oriented referential gags. 

Speaking of weirdness, dated references, and a bizarre structure, the entire third act of the episode is a bizarre descent into failed comedy when Pinky and the Brain are kidnapped by a deranged Brain-Truther, for lack of a better term. As we’ve seen Brain’s conspiracy play out in the media, the show would occasionally cut back to some random doofus scarfing down spam and taking in Brain’s conspiracy. 

He seems like a throwaway joke at first, but he pops up in the third act to “rescue” (read: kidnap) Brain and Pinky from the authorities. The whole thing turns into an elaborate hostage situation that seems circuitous and out of nowhere. What’s more, the whole thing is filled with weird references to stuff so obscure that Google had no idea what I was talking about.

Overall, I wouldn’t call the "Pinky Protocol" one of Pinky and the Brain’s better episodes, though I do think it’s a bit more emblematic of the show overall than a lot of fans probably like to believe. The truth of the matter is that Pinky and the Brain was a fun show, but it was a flawed one. The fact that it’s never been released on a major streaming service means that it’s never been reintroduced into the pop cultural diet for reappraisal. 

As such, it exists now only through the rose-colored glasses of childhood nostalgia, which we remember the slapstick as fun and the references as weird non-sequiturs we found amusing. As for the episode's shockingly predictive conspiracy elements, it is pretty disheartening that a ludicrous kids show from the ‘90s is now a spot-on satire of modern politics. If it makes you feel any better, Brain’s plan ultimately backfires and ends up giving the US its first woman President. Here’s hoping for the same in real life. 

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