Wednesday, March 4, 2009

25 Years of Animation, Part 1: Exo Squad

The marvels of modern technology seldom surprise us. Here in The Middle Room, we've devices the world is not yet prepared to face, machines designed to tear open the fabric of space and time, allowing us to perceive the world in myriad ways the non-geek has never dreamed of.

We state this not to boast, but rather to offer context: we are not impressed by simple engineering. No, to gain our interest, more must be offered. The internet, to win our approval, must improve our lives.

And so it has. Hulu, a simple web-based television service, has apparently secured the rights to Exo Squad, one of the most underrated television programs of the past thousand years. While many of us remembered the show from when it was originally aired, we'd not seen it in some time. Since there was little guarantee that it would remain available for all eternity, we felt it prudent to view the second season in its entirety now, rather than have to rely on time travel later.

Having done so, we felt it important to share some reflections.

We begin, as we must, with a description for the uninformed. Exo Squad was an animated science fiction series running for two seasons in the 90's. While the animation was conventional, the writing was not: this is easily the best military science fiction we have ever seen broadcast on American television.

As is widely reported, Exo Squad is largely inspired by Japanese animation. Recent marketing has even dubbed it the "American Anime," and there is a kernel of truth to this claim. However, we find such analysis incomplete: there are many influences that shaped this program, and not all are Japanese.

Echoes of science fiction from the 1950s and before permeate this show, as do questions of morality and identity. But where the show truly shines is in its portrayal of war.

Imagine GI Joe, if not every shot missed. Imagine marines being dropped in pods from a space ship, with enemies vaporizing them before they hit the ground.

And imagine the deaths being acknowledged. This is what makes Exo Squad unique among American animation or, for that matter, almost any kind of American television.

In Star Trek, for instance, when a character appears for a single episode, wearing (more often than not) a red shirt, and dies, the tragedy elicits an initial response - usually anger - which is forgotten as quickly as their name.

In the first season of Exo Squad, a character appears for a single episode. In fact, she does not survive a scene. She has been newly assigned to the squad, and, due to a combination of equipment failure and inexperience, she dies trying to enter Earth's atmosphere.

The team takes a second to mourn her, reflecting on the fact they never even learned her name. The lieutenant, who's never lost a soldier in his command before, is traumatized. He tells them her name, then continues with the mission.

But he can't forget her. He places a picture of her in his E-Frame. It stays there through the entire series.

This leaves an impression of war that most shows never touch. Rather than glaze over the horrors of battle, Exo Squad showcases loss. Most shows, live action and animated alike, would rather portray war as something glamorous, paying nothing more than lip service to lost friends and family. This is something different, something serious.

And it was all in the interest of selling toys.

Herein lies the fascinating juxtaposition of Exo Squad. In a show with phenomenal writing and storytelling, with developed characters and plot lines, you can actually see how the toys are intended to function.

The missiles extend beyond the guns, allowing them to mirror perfectly the action figures they're meant to represent. One can look at the designs and imagine the spring just out of view.

Just as Transformers used to introduce new characters for the purpose of selling new toys, Exo Squad introduces new genetic monstrosities - many with laughably absurd designs - in hopes of marketing action figures.

But the explanations for these additions are always well thought out; the episodes themselves are often brilliant. The stories are developed with such care, you will find a giant blue man with bee wings terrifying.

If you've some time to kill, the series is currently available on Hulu. A DVD set containing the first season will also be released next month, but, for now at least, this content is available free of charge.


Sam said...

The ending of this show still has probably my favorite ever cliffhanger.

Erin Snyder said...

The last episode is really a pilot for a third season that never got picked up. Honestly, the ending of the war was handled so well, I'm kind of glad the series didn't linger. Still, I'm curious where it was headed. I know there was a comic series, but I'm not sure if it lasted longer than the cartoon.

MonkeyMetal said...

I know I watched Exo Squad as a kid, I remember the theme song and the "And now, back to Exo Squad" return from the commercials.

I don't remember any of the plot so as I was watching it over the last few months it was new.

What I would love to see is a live action version.

Erin Snyder said...

I'm not sure a live action movie is really necessary. Movies tend to translate the look of a television show while stripping out the substance. This isn't a critique: there are many, many properties where the look is key. Transformers, for instance, was a great choice for a live action translation.

But Exo Squad was about story and character: the animation and design, honestly, were kind of bland.

I'd rather see some movies based on some of the sources of Exo Squad. That said, if an live action Exo Squad does somehow get made, you'd probably see me there opening day.

Delta Assault said...

Great article on ExoSquad there. I wrote down some of my own feelings on the show here:

Brian said...

I agree that the show's overall plot and it's acceptance of death were truly something to behold. However, the actually writing for the show was nothing more than cliche after cliche with just as cliched plot devices within a single episode.

Still I really did enjoy the show and can see where Shakespeare was not necessary for what was intended as a kids cartoon show.