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The Best Extended Universe Shows Actually Embrace Their Saturday Morning TV Roots

These not-so-lowly cartoon spin-offs show greater imagination than big-budget fare like Secret Invasion.
  • Clockwise: Back to the Future, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, Skull Island, and The Real Ghostbusters (Images: Everett Collection/Netflix/Max; Primetimer graphic)
    Clockwise: Back to the Future, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, Skull Island, and The Real Ghostbusters (Images: Everett Collection/Netflix/Max; Primetimer graphic)

    In the aftermath of the streaming gold rush, it’s not necessarily unusual to learn that a TV show you’ve never seen nor maybe even heard of has debuted, run for somewhere between one and three seasons, and sunk back into a morass of disorganized #content (or maybe, the way things have been going lately, purged from the swamp entirely, for tax write-off purposes).

    But it’s still a bit surprising to remember that after literally decades of speculation about a third Gremlins movie, Max released an entire Gremlins prequel series earlier this summer, to seemingly little fanfare. Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai debuted back in May and is probably the closest we’ll get to an in-continuity Gremlins 3 for quite some time, possibly ever. It currently has all of 20 professional reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. (All fresh, for what it’s worth.)

    Beyond general streaming fatigue and the vagaries of release dates and marketing campaign, the reason for this muted reception seems pretty clear: The Gremlins series is animated, and aimed at kids. In the era of Star Wars and Marvel producing multiple live-action series each year, not just tangentially related to the films but featuring marquee characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Nick Fury, Boba Fett, and She-Hulk, an animated spin-off like Secrets of the Mogwai or the recent Skull Island series on Netflix feels minor and retrograde. These aren’t television events; they’re more akin to the kinds of supplemental Saturday morning cartoons used to sell toys in absence of big-ticket movies. And that, as it turns out, is exactly what makes these shows so satisfying.

    To be clear, this is not a tribute to the secret power of the Saturday morning cartoon spin-off; there are fans who swear by the lore of the various Ghostbusters animated series, wishing that any sequels or remakes would simply adapt that material for the big screen, and those people are, respectfully, out of their damn minds.

    The Saturday morning cartoons inspired by Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Beetlejuice, Men in Black, Little Shop of Horrors, or, uh, the general persona of John Candy (Camp Candy), among many others, might have sometimes produced stories that went beyond the boundaries of two-hour feature films and helped to spur kids’ imaginative play (preferably with an assist from the officially licensed action-figure line, of course). But mining them for story material would usually be a mistake. They were, first and foremost, chintzily animated brand extensions to keep young fans on the hook until the next commercial break.

    The Gremlins and Skull Island shows keep that what-the-hell sense of imagination at play, and ditch the rest. While Secrets of the Mogwai appears to be intended as part of whatever Gremlins universe may or may not exist beyond the heads of its most ardent fans, its place as a secret history of Gizmo’s pre-Gremlins life is unabashedly silly, contriving reasons he was always called Gizmo (even though that’s what he was named by the family who adopted him in the first film), inventing a mogwai homeland, and bringing specific tributes to certain events from Gremlins 2, itself a continuity-breaking and fourth-wall-demolishing Looney Tunes-style comedy, despite being set 70 years earlier.

    The show understands that while grown-up fans may convince themselves they crave lore, what Gremlins specifically needs is a sense of mischief (hence the series eventually setting sail with a gremlin-infested-and-steered ship) and some gross-out gore that’s cartoony enough for kids to find it funny, rather than strictly terrifying. If the show leans hard on Gizmo’s cuteness, well, so does the anarchic Gremlins 2.

    Skull Island meanwhile, returns to the site of the 2017 MonsterVerse film Kong: Skull Island. (The show has received 17 Tomatometered reviews for its trouble, about a quarter as many as the most recent direct-to-streaming Nic Cage thriller.) The live-action MonsterVerse series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is due on Apple TV+ soon, promising big-ticket appearances from movie stars like Kurt Russell and Godzilla, presumably rendered in movie-ready visual effects; the anime-inspired Skull Island has the more economical advantage of drawing whatever creatures it wants to throw against Kong, or the humans who find themselves stuck on his Hollow Earth-fed isle of terror. It may have even more of a Saturday morning set-up than the Gremlins series: A bunch of heretofore unmentioned characters, many of them more youthful than the ones from the movies, cracking jokes during their side adventures featuring a new batch of giant creatures.

    Yet the show also manages to create a number of engaging human characters — a notably weak element of the MonsterVerse movies — while staying true to the ethos that giant monsters should always be made to fight each other, preferably with gnarly results, while humans panic through the crossfire. With Annie (Mae Whitman), a teenage girl who has spent many of her formative years fending for herself among the monsters, the show specifically taps into the untamable spirit of a young monster enthusiast, equal parts unabashedly feral and awkwardly lonely. It’s a mix that would be difficult to pull off in live-action, not least because Annie spends a considerable amount of time astride a beastly makeshift steed.

    Skull Island and Secrets of the Mogwai aren’t exactly rich texts that pop-culture scholars will be poring over for generations. They’re essentially just solid genre shows that monster-inclined kids of various ages will probably enjoy. But in an entertainment solar system populated by so many ever-expanding IP worlds, it’s not exactly a small matter, either. It’s far less arduous to mainline a season of Skull Island than it is to trudge through the pretend-adult motions of, say, Secret Invasion, the latest MCU TV series. Secret Invasion isn’t necessarily the worst Marvel show – it’s not duller than The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and it’s not made with quite the same fascinating blindness to its own genre as She-Hulk – but it is the one that feels the most like it has nothing on its mind beyond its general ideas of grown-up respectability.

    This is especially galling when a show like Secret Invasion purports to contain far-reaching, universe-altering storylines, retconning certain MCU characters while laying groundwork for Nick Fury’s return in The Marvels in just a few months. On some level, it’s supposed to be must-see viewing for MCU fans — and wears that designation like a boulder on its back, preventing the show from freely moving about the universe it inhabits (while still clumsily knocking into plenty of established continuity as it lumbers around). These universe-expanding “event series” appear equally terrified of appearing either meddlesome to the status quo or inessential to the mega-narrative, completely missing the freedom that comes with inessentiality. Say what you will about cheesy Saturday morning cartoons: They were not afraid to admit they were TV shows.

    In fact, looking closer at the more successful parts of the Marvel and Star Wars TV universes reveals older TV forms and structures, if not always those with an active cereal tie-in. The Mandalorian found early success by throwing back to older-fashioned episodic TV like The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk; the best way to appreciate The Book of Boba Fett might be to think of it as an unashamedly silly Saturday morning spin-off. The way that Ms. Marvel cheerfully inhabits the teen-show junior leagues of the MCU gives the Kamala Khan character and her family more space to feel like real people. Hell, isn’t the most beloved Star Wars TV show still The Clone Wars, which arguably helped set the Elevated Saturday Morning template for the similarly serialized and stylized Secrets of the Mogwai and Skull Island?

    In creating engaging and sometimes weird animated offshoots that aren’t necessarily immediately appealing to casual fans, these shows are also finding a novel way of delivering the nostalgia hit that so many extended universes are sweatily anxious to provide. Without getting too moony about their source material, Mogwai and Skull belatedly fulfill the childhood promise of Saturday morning TV. They provide the thrill of getting more adventures within an enticing world, minus the inevitable comedown of realizing that the “real” Ghostbusters won’t actually sound much like their live-action counterparts, or that the California Raisins TV show will not actually be produced in Claymation.

    It used to be that a Saturday morning spin-off could, in whatever small super-capitalist way, cheapen and demystify the beloved original films and characters that inspired them. Now that the job has been handed off to bigger, more elaborate productions, the lowly cartoon spin-off is left to inspire some actual imagination.

    Jesse Hassenger is another writer/editor/critic in Brooklyn.

    TOPICS: Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai