It’s heavy-handed, weirdly paced, and features an Oscar-winning actress giving a terrible performance, but “A Formula For Hate” is still one of the most significant cartoons of the ’90s. The Season 3 episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers premiered 30 years ago this week, making the TBS series one of the first children’s shows to directly address HIV and AIDS.
Both culturally and politically, this was probably the first moment when the episode could’ve been made, given the panic that surrounded AIDS in the ‘80s. By 1992, however, the nation was slightly less frenzied, thanks in part to public figures like Magic Johnson revealing they were HIV positive, and TV movies like The Ryan White Story putting human faces on those with the disease. Many were still terrified, but there was an emerging precedent for how to discuss the facts with a large audience.
And if any animated series was going to tackle the subject, it was Captain Planet, an action-adventure show about five kids battling dastardly villains that was also an unapologetic piece of climate activism. Almost every episode was about an ecological disaster that was averted when the kids summoned the titular hero, an eco-conscious hunk with a seafoam-green mullet. Given this undisguised do-gooderism, it wasn’t a stretch to tell a story about the ignorance that threatened those with HIV.
It wasn’t hard to get fancy guest stars either. From the beginning, the series’s good intentions and impressive pedigree (it was created by media mogul Ted Turner and activist Barbara Pyle) lured high-profile talent. LeVar Burton starred as Kwame, one of the teens. Whoopi Goldberg played Gaia, the spirit of the earth. Jeff Goldblum, Meg Ryan, and Sting voiced the rotating cast of baddies.
When it was time to make “A Formula for Hate,” the show landed Neil Patrick Harris, still starring in Doogie Howser, M.D., to play Todd Andrews, a high school basketball star who contracts HIV from a blood transfusion. Repping another teen-focused hit, Danica McKellar from The Wonder Years played his girlfriend. And in the biggest coup, Elizabeth Taylor voiced Todd’s mother. (She was a prominent AIDS activist, which surely sealed the deal.)
Of course, noble intentions and famous actors don’t guarantee good TV. Captain Planet was always too earnest to be much fun, and “A Formula for Hate” is stiffer than usual. Since there’s nothing funny about a teenager being shunned by his community, Captain Planet never even makes one of his signature “eco-puns.” Instead, he lectures a gym full of students about how it’s safe to hug a person with HIV. Watching is literally like being in school.
At least Elizabeth Taylor makes it camp. She inexplicably gives Todd’s mother a thick Southern accent, though nobody else on the show has the slightest drawl. It sounds like Mrs. Andrews has escaped from a Tennessee Williams play, or more likely, that nobody had the moxie to give an Oscar-winning legend any notes. With 30 years of hindsight, this unhinged performance is the most memorable thing about the show. Drag queens should memorize her speech during Todd’s nightmare.
About that nightmare, though: It’s a stark evocation of Todd’s fear. And when a mutant rat named Verminous Skumm campaigns to make Todd’s neighbors turn on him, he’s brutally specific about the reasons they should be afraid. The evil of ignorance really does seem evil.
It’s also worth noting that 10 years later, when the South African version of Sesame Street introduced an HIV-positive muppet, American senators threatened to remove public funding if a similar character appeared in the U.S. That makes it more impressive that Captain Planet aired its message at all. Awkwardly or not, it said something that plenty of people needed to hear.
Captain Planet is available for purchase on Prime Video.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.