Pilot Program Subject Six: Bubsy (1993)
The Pilot Program is a look at various merchandise-centric cartoons that were released as specials in the 80s & 90s; while they were clearly set up to go to series, they never did. Every entry will look at a new show, who made it, what it was selling, and whether it would’ve made a good series.
SUMMARY: Bubsy is a great hero – just ask him, and he’ll tell you at length. After inviting his twin niece & nephew over for their birthday gift of tormenting his designated sidekick Arnold the Armadillo, he sees a news story interviewing a scientist who invented a virtual reality helmet that can wish anything its wearer wants into existence. He wants to test it because the call goes out for someone brave/crazy to try it, but a woman named Allie Cassandra wants the helmet to wish herself up some more swag. She sends her minions Buzz & Sid to steal the helmet and kidnap the twins as a snack for themselves. After much wackiness, including the twins wishing up a roller coaster to ride and Sid being tricked into eating an exploding corn dog, the villains get the helmet & the twins. Bubsy leads the crew in a rescue that involves posing as a caterer, and then there’s a wish-off with everyone wearing the helmet & pushing it to its limits. Using the last bit of power, Bubsy wishes up the truck that haunts Arnold’s nightmares (complete with armadillo corpses wedged in the grill) to run down the villains and save the day before the helmet explodes.
MISCELLANEOUS: This is where I note various things I observed while watching, usually in bullet format.
- Bubsy’s main catchphrase, which doubles as the title of this pilot, is “What can possibly go wrong?” It’s used at least ten times and is immediately followed by everything going wrong. His sub-catchphrase is telling the villains that he’ll be “forced to humble” them unless they surrender, which is just creepy. His theme song consists of people shouting “Bubsy!” over and over with guitar riffs & keyboards playing underneath.
- Arnold the Armadillo comes off less as Bubsy’s friend as his captive, and he spends roughly 95% of the special in a state of panic over being hit by a truck like so many armadillos before him.
- The twins are named Terry & Terri, and the reason they’re tagging along with Bubsy is that it’s their birthday. For some reason, the lower parts of their faces are shaded gray, which makes both of them look like they have five o’clock shadow.
- The villains in this piece are not in any of the games. Allie Cassandra is coded as evil largely because she’s posh & (horror of horrors) fat, and as such is the butt of numerous unfunny fat jokes. Her minion is the equally posh Buzz Buzzard, and he has an idiotic sidekick named Sid the Vicious Shrew. I hope someone got sued for that last one.
- The lab staff are named (so help me) Virgil Reality and his assistant Oblivia. At one point, Oblivia uses the helmet to try & stage a wedding to Bubsy because... she’s female? And rendered as conventionally attractive?
- The series is supposedly set in Las Vegas, which explains why everything is set in a desert and why there are so many Southwestern influenced patterns in garish 90s colors.
- The font of the title screen should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a New Age themed gift shop at some point in their lives.
- Whenever Bubsy launches into a monologue about how brave & heroic he is, there are cutaways to random bits of stock footage to punctuate his point. It’s telling that live action stock footage is the highlight of this animated pilot.
- There are eyecatches for three commercial breaks in this one. Two of them are Bubsy’s pseudo-funny bragging and one is Arnold having another panic attack.
PRODUCTION COMPANY: If you wanted an idea of how fly-by-night this was, look no further than the involvement of Calico Creations. At first, my research credited them for the enviro-toon Widget the World Watcher, but it turns out that was actually made by Zodiac Entertainment & that Calico only handled the actual animation production for a handful of episodes. The closest thing to an actual production Calico did was to partner with a French company called World Events Productions (probably best known for bringing Voltron to the West) and create the wholly forgettable Denver the Last Dinosaur. It wasn’t too long after this special that Calico Creations vanished. Frankly, after watching this, I can’t feel much pity for their apparent failure.
VOICE ACTING SPOTLIGHT: Rob Paulsen is a trooper. This and a failed Spongebob clone are the only shows he openly wishes he never did, but he’ll still own up to having done them at all. He tries as Bubsy, trying to give him moments when he sounds sincerely worried about the twins or determined, but the poor writing & manic animation constantly undermine those moments. And that’s ignoring all the moments he does what’s demanded of him by acting like an arrogant jerk. That he’s willing to acknowledge he did it at all is a show of professionalism this show isn’t due.
The voice actors in this show are all solid professionals (Jim Cummings, Neil Ross, & Tress MacNeille among others), which makes the actual performances all the more depressing. Nearly every character is voiced by either being raspy, being shrill, shouting all the time, or doing all three at once. The worst offender might be lab assistant Oblivia, who talks like a really bad Harley Quinn impersonation, while the best might be Buzz Buzzard, who is a straight-up impersonation of Jim Bacchus as Thurston Howell III & thus the least shouty. This whole pilot is a somber reminder that voice actors still have to pay mortgages just like the rest of us and that means doing crap like this to make money.
THE MERCH: Made by Accolade to be their entry in the mid-Nineties sassy mascot platformer contest, the Bubsy games were released on several platforms (including one unique to the Jaguar of all consoles) and are now generally regarded as mediocre at best, which lines up with contemporary reviews at the time. Then their attempt to shift into polygons came with Bubsy 3D, and the series’ legacy as one of the worst was pretty much sealed. My family & I played the first Bubsy game on our Genesis, and even though the controls & jump physics were messy and the difficulty spike was ridiculous, we liked it enough to buy a used copy from FuncoLand. I don’t think we ever got past the carnival level, though. We rented the second one and found it to have been nearly unplayable. After that, we knew enough to avoid the Bubster.
Once again, Hardcore Gaming 101 has the definitive and pretty hilarious overview of the Bubsy series.
COMMENTS: God, this one. I knew it was going to be bad, but... I was not ready for this. This is not just the worst entry in the Pilot Program, it’s one of the worst TV shows of any medium or genre I’ve ever seen. And I’ve watched the Power Pack pilot.
Okay, where to start? Let’s start with the characters. Bubsy is somehow less likable than he was as a leering, smirky sprite. Every line of dialogue is either a failed insult or a super obnoxious brag, and his main interaction with his “sidekick” Arnold is either mocking his PTSD-esque truck flashbacks or mocking his fear of spending time with the twins. Arnold may be the most sympathetic, but he too spends the entire special in a semi-shrieking state of constant fear, as if trapped in a never ending panic attack. Speaking of the little vermin, the twins are an attempt to make a character who is somehow more irritating than Bubsy, multiply it by two, and have its non-humor broadcast in stereo. Literally every scene they’re in, they’re either tormenting someone else or arguing loudly. Virgil is every bad nerd stereotype in one package, and Oblivia is a failure as his droll, sensible sidekick by virtue of her awful, awful voice. The villains are mostly... how to put this... less intolerable since they’re just generic snobs, but Sid blathers to himself constantly about being hungry & occasionally lapses into a random Rain Man impersonation. No one here is someone you’d want to revisit week after week.
There is an unmistakable Nineties-ness to this show that actually hurts. I say this as someone who liked TRAJQ – virtual reality stories are universally awful. And then this one uses this as an excuse to basically warp reality. You’re a video game tie-in – have your characters trapped in a video game! Have Bubsy & his crew pulled into a VR game themed around the aliens from the game (which could be based on a B-movie in universe), and tie it in to the products you’re actually promoting! Accolade’s executive fingerprints are all over this – the expressions used for Bubsy, the “funny” quips, even the use of a very ad-ready tagline where Bubsy describes himself as “The Prince of Purrsonality” – so why not just make it a blatant tie-in? At least Battletoads worked in some stuff from its source material.
And while we’re here, since we’ve come out of stuff that was either female centric or had surprisingly solid female characters (even if one of the last ones was a villain), let’s talk about how this show treats its female characters. As a woman who will never be thin, I really am so sick of characters – and especially female characters – being given a heavy build as shorthand for them being evil like Allie is here; one of the sight “gags” is her seeing her reflection in a mirror where she’s skinny & her minions goggling in disbelief at how ridiculous she is. She is bested by Oblivia in the slapstick fight scenes not because they’re counterparts in any way but because Oblivia is cuter & more conventionally attractive in design. (There is a sea change in people starting to fight against this kind of stuff, both in gaming and in comics, but it'll be a while until it's finally gone.) Speaking of Oblivia, her random pairing with Bubsy & wish to marry him instead of, say, having her own lab & not working for a schmucky inventor is head-bangingly awful. The only female character who doesn’t feel like a bad Fifties stereotype is Terri, and that’s just because she’s part of a set of obnoxious loudspeakers with her brother.
The animation in this pilot is technically fluid, but that’s really all it has going for it. The color choices are garish, and there’s a tendency to have the characters “lean into” the screen for emphasis on the attempts at jokes. About the only memorable part is when a roller coaster the twins conjured up briefly rides through what looks like a Winamp visualizer effect. The music is unnoticeable, mostly because it’s being drowned out by the constant sound effects or shouted dialogue. In fact, one of the major non-writing reasons this pilot is unwatchable is because it is so frenetic. The animation is always doing something at high speeds in the background, always jumping around location (even in the same scene), and the only time there is a lull is when the cutaways to live action stock footage pop up; the characters are always arguing, bragging, and/or shouting, and when there are sound effects, they seem to have had the volume amped up to drown out the cacophony surrounding them. And that’s before we get to the sheer amount of random screaming electrocution “jokes”, including the one we close the show out on, that last at least 30 seconds apiece. Watching this can easily give you a headache even if you aren’t following the awful, awful story.
Like I said, I knew what I was getting into with this. And yet, it was somehow so much worse than I expected. There was something at least redeemable in each subject prior to this point, but this has nothing. Nothing.
WOULD IT WORK AS A SERIES: Under. No. Circumstances. I shouldn’t even have to elaborate. This is a work so awful I had trouble focusing enough to explain in a professional and profanity-free way why it was so awful.
And with that brown note, the Pilot Program has ended. Tune in next post for a collection of apocrypha, including some fortuitously-timed supplemental material.
(Side note: this is my 100th post here at DotM. Yay?)