Can a children's cartoon adequately and appropriately address the hyper-sensitive issue of HIV? I think you already know the answer to this one...
In the early 1990s, there were a lot of really preachy, liberal-tinged properties aimed towards younger audiences: "Dinosaurs!," "Zen: The Intergalactic Ninja," and "Toxic Crusaders," among them. Of course, the most brazen of them all was Ted Turner's brainchild "Captain Planet and the Planeteers," which was more or less Sierra Club public policy in animated form.
While pretty much every episode of the program dealt with some kind of environmental issue -- deforestation, shark hunting, nuclear power, etc. -- every now and then the program switched things up a little and hit kids with a pressing social issue instead. For example, one episode had to do with inner city violence, while another dealt with drug abuse, while yet another dealt with overpopulation. In hindsight, a lot of people wonder if this 22 minute cartoon could do an adequate job summarizing and presenting such frank and unsettling real world issues to the kiddos. Needless to say, "Captain Planet" was a show that had a tendency to bite off WAY more than it could chew, so much so that "Diff'rent Strokes" was rumored to have once remarked to it, "ya'll over ya'lls heads, nigga."
And no episode demonstrated the show's inability to skillfully explore hard-hitting topics quite like the season three episode "A Formula for Hate." Originally aired in 1992, the cartoon decided to zero in on what was undoubtedly one of the era's touchiest matters -- the AIDS virus.
Yes, that AIDS virus. In an animated cartoon, aimed squarely at grade school children.
The episode begins with Verminious Skumm -- a humanoid rat dude -- and one of his henchrats snooping through medical records at a doctor's office. While the Planeteers and Gaia use their NSA-like spying super-powers to remotely observe them, the villains snap several photographs before scurrying off into the darkness.
From there, we travel to a high school basketball game, where the rat villains are hanging out in the crowd, incognito. Basketball hero Todd Andrews scores a buzzer beater to send his school to the state finals, while an announcer who suspiciously resembles Barack Obama with a thicker coif creams his britches in excitement.
As Todd is literally carried out of the gymnasium on the shoulders of his teammates, Skumm grabs him, and ominously states "You're riding high, hero. Hope you don't fall."
After the game, Todd talks to his adoring little brother Chipper, makes out with his girlfriend Lisa, says some shit to his mama (who has a thick country accent provided by, of all people, Elizabeth Taylor) before high-fiving his Asian(?) buddy Jeff and making out with Lisa some more.
The next day, Todd gets some bad news from his doctor; apparently, he's HIV positive. The good doc tells him how the disease is transmitted -- needle drugs and unprotected sex. IN A CHILDREN'S CARTOON, HE'S TALKING ABOUT UNPROTECTED SEX. Considering the target audience a year earlier was still watching the Roadrunner and trying to figure out why their bellybutton smelled like their butthole, that is some wildly age-inappropriate thematic material, for sure.
Even better, the doctor reminds us that we can easily catch AIDS ourselves from blood transfusions, which as a kid, absolutely mortified me. Come to think of it, it still does, seeing as how I almost passed out while watching "Dallas Buyers Club" last Oscar season.
Understandably upset, Todd responds to the news by slamming the door, running out of the building and declaring that the entire situation, and I quote, "stinks."
Meanwhile, Skumm is hanging out in the sewer, producing a shit ton of flyers with Todd's face on it with the term "AIDS!" printed underneath it in big, scary Fox News lettering. According to Skumm, AIDS is the best thing since the Black Plague for evil humanoid rat mega-polluters, because it allows ignorance and hate to flow freely. Also, their apparent plot for world domination is to make everyone naive about HIV, so the entire planet can catch AIDS and they can subsequently take over all of humanity. Needless to say, you probably wouldn't have seen Pinky and the Brain hatching the same global takeover scheme on Fox Kids.
Todd tries to relieve the pressure of having an incurable, terminal illness by shooting hoops alone in the gym. His coach waltzes in and tells him he'll be playing in the championship game anyway, god damn it, and it'll probably be a a really long time before the Kaposi sarcoma eats him alive and he dies from the common cold. The two then agree to work on their "crossover dribble," which for all we know, very well could be some kind of "bug chaser" slang.
After that, Todd breaks up with Lisa. Angrily, she storms off in tears after tossing her ring at him. The Planeteers go into a sewer and find Skumm's subterranean lair; they all get shot with his rivet launching entrapment machine (it's hard to explain, but it just fucking captures them, if you need the gist of it) and then, the rising sewer water DOTH start accumulating. Considering the general theme of the episode, I was hoping for something a bit more creative than the watery grave death trap chestnut. Like, why didn't Skumm just give all of the Planeteers AIDS like that one D.C. comic villain from the same timeframe?
Of course, Wheeler is able to use his fire powers to blow a hole through a wall and save everybody; meanwhile, Skumm LITERALLY hangs out in lockers at the high school and physically passes AIDS rumors from student to student. At one point, a Bobby Hill looking jock tells Jeff his best pal has AIDS, and even implies the two are GAY TOGETHER. Once again, all of this shit, in a children's cartoon, folks.
Todd enters the scene and tries to use the water fountain. He's accosted by some ruffians, and he admits he has AIDS...at which point his good buddy Jeff tells him he no longer wants him to "touch" him.
Skumm's posters are all over school now, and a whole bunch of angry parents don't want their kids playing basketball beside somebody with HIV. It just now dawns on me how much this Skumm character sounds like Beetlejuice.
|Boy, is this is a highly misleading screenshot!|
So, Lisa sees the AIDS poster, and realizes THAT'S why Todd broke up with her. Todd returns home, and he finds his little brother with a black eye; apparently, some of the kids at school roughed him up because his older sibling had HIV.
By the way, you know what would make a really fun drinking game? If you did a shot every time somebody said "AIDS" or "HIV" during the episode. By this point, you'd have halfway drank yourself into the sepulcher.
Skumm then leads an angry mob, who attack Todd's mom's vegetable stand (I suppose a fruit stand would have been way too Freudian here.) Then Todd shows up, and the townfolks start chunking tomatoes at him. Linka uses her wind powers to disrupt the crowd (which I take it is a felony under U.S. Code), while Skumm tries to run over the Geo Cruiser (to the uninformed, the Planeteer's eco-friendly jet plane thingy) with a semi-truck. At that point, the po-po show up, and everybody scrams.
Not to be too topical or anything, but do you think if this show was still on the air today, the Planeteers would probably be visiting Ferguson, Mo. and shit?
After that, the Planeteers just fucking walk into Todd's House and start monologuing, having never even formally introduced themselves to his mom. Todd responds by traveling into the swamp in a gondola, where he decides to rest for a bit in a waterside hut.
Cue a dream sequence in which Skumm shows up and says he's Todd's worst nightmare -- ignorance, hate, and fear. Huh. Seems to me his worst nightmare would be, you know, having AIDS and everything.
He runs into his brother, Jeff, his mom and Lisa, before his coach admonishes him for being a quitter. Then, he wakes up ... but strangely enough, he actually WAS sleeping in a fucking swampside encampment he just wandered into, though.
The day of the big game, Todd is nowhere to be found. Ma-Ti uses his "heart powers" to remotely stalk him; his mom says "hey, that's the old fishing camp, but it's all the way downriver and he'd never be able to make it back in time for the game.
This, of course, leads to Captain Planet being summoned. He flies on over to the swamp, where Todd is attempting to make a raft, Tom Sawyer-style. Interestingly enough, he has no qualms whatsoever about letting a translucent blue dude with a green mullet whisk him away to where the hell ever.
Captain Planet literally flies Todd into the gym, where nobody acknowledges that he arrived while being lifted in the air by a water-colored God-being. The other team's slovenly white coach (who has a deep black voice) says he doesn't want Todd giving his players the AIDS. And as with everyone else in the crowd, he completely ignores the azure-hued Jesus standing at mid court.
Captain Planet and Todd's coach then give a lecture on AIDS. Through painfully up-close facial shots, the good Captain tells us to "deal with the real" and that the power to combat HIV is ours, collectively. And with his syllable-long spiel, literally the entire crowd's worldviews have completely flip-flopped. Huh, maybe in addition to all of those geological powers, maybe the dude has mind control abilities, too?
|"Listen people, if you'd just hear what Dr. Manhattan's hippie brother is trying to say about sex diseases..."|
The crowd roars, Todd is told to suit up for the game, and Planet apprehends Skumm, who is then arrested by local police for...uh, something? The posters, or the truck incident from earlier in the episode, perhaps? Hell, maybe it's not the real police that showed up, you know...
And with a slam dunk that puts Ed Norton's in "American History X" to shame, Todd wins the state championship. He and Lisa then hug in the reflection of the championship trophy.
In the first of two post-show "Planeteer Alerts," Gaia (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) tells viewers at homes they can't get AIDS from hugging or eating at the same cafeteria, and encourages kids to talk to their parents and teachers about the disease.
I'm not sure if I ever asked my mom about AIDS following Gaia's request, but if it did, I'm pretty sure the conversation would've gone a little something like this:
Eight-year-old me: "Mom, what do I need to know about AIDS?"
My Casually Racist Mom: "Stay away from black people and homos and you don't need to know nothing."
Eight-year-old me: *cries a little on the inside*
In the second PSA, the Planeteers do a bunch of track and field stuff, saying you need to be physically active and brave and shit to save the planet. Then, a dude who looks like Freddy Mercury shows up and throws a shot put ball at Captain Planet, which then turns into a globe.
You know, there's probably a tactful way to discuss deadly, sexually-transmitted diseases with children, but I sure as hell wouldn't let the writers of the episode go anywhere near that little assignment.
For one thing, the AIDS victim in the show was a heterosexual white male .... statistically, the wrong categorizations all the way around. I suppose you could give the show props for letting a gay actor, Doogie Howser himself, voice the AIDS-infected main character, though.
On top of that, they really didn't seem to make HIV look like a disease at all; the guy didn't lose weight or develop lesions or get sick to any real extent. And man, did they ever drop the ball on AIDS prevention, with the show bringing up -- but never really celebrating -- safe sex or abstinence from needle drugs. And to me, the whole "he got AIDS from a transfusion" subplot was a million times freakier than it should have been -- wouldn't that make kids more afraid of going to the doctor or receiving transfusions themselves?
And considering the heavy celeb involvement with the show in general (this, being the same show that once featured Meg Ryan, Winnie Cooper AND Brundlefly), was I the only person expecting a Magic Johnson cameo? I mean, it's an episode about AIDS, basketball and erasing stigma; you'd think his appearance would be a no-brainer here.
However, I didn't think the show was really as bad I was expecting. Yeah, it was awkward as all hell for the most part, and the cartoony elements REALLY felt out of place with the way-too-realistic-for-most-viewers theme, but it wasn't that embarrassing. Granted, it was an attempt that never really should have gotten off the ground, but as far as animated train wrecks go, I don't think this one would really even bear mentioning as a disaster.
Still, I have to wonder what could've been, had other contemporary kids shows followed their lead on this one. An "Eek the Cat" special on Chlamydia? How about an episode of "Bobby's World" where Uncle Ted gets busted for molestation? Or maybe even A "Dog City" finale, touching upon the issue of euthanasia?
What a Pandora's box you could've opened, Mr. Planet. What a box, indeed...