Have you ever used A1 steak sauce? Powerful stuff. It doesn't so much enhance as overwhelm what you pour it on. Pour it on a steak, it tastes like A1. Pour it on a shoe, it tastes like A1. Nostalgia can be a kind of mental A1 sauce, covering our memories with its pleasant tang until we can't taste the real thing anymore. That is, until we go back 20-30 years later for some leftovers, only to find the bottle is empty. That first fork-full can be rather unpleasant, and it usually doesn't get any better. I make this culinary comparison to illustrate just how blind-sided I was by Pole Position. While it never occupied the upper strata of my childhood favorites, I had (and will always have) very fond memories of watching it on Saturday mornings while eating a big bowl of Fruity Pebbles. I knew it would never live up to the promise of excitement and adventure made by its undeniably awesome theme song, but I also never dreamed it would be this awful.
What was I expecting? I don't know, but it sure wasn't Scooby Doo meets Knight Rider. After a few episodes, Noel and I both agreed that it probably would've been better had they set the series in the world of actual automobile racing. Not only would it have had better synergy with the arcade game that was its namesake, it also would've naturally given us a cast of recurring characters, including villains. And for all of its many, many, many, many, many, many - *deep breath* - many, many, many, many, many, many faults, I believe that's what the show was missing most of all: a colorful villain with plans for world domination. He-Man had Skeletor. G.I. Joe had Cobra. The Pole Position team? They had a rotating lineup of bumbling goons training animals to steal treasure (twice!), people trying to steal gold from a mine in a small town (twice!), and a bitter beauty queen and her unhinged son. Don't get me wrong, there are advantages to the stunt show front and a new baddie each week. Unfortunately, not only were the villains absurd, but as Noel mentioned in our final review block, the writers all but abandoned the whole stunt show thing during the last half dozen or so episodes. The fact that the Pole Position organization was never really explained in the first place doesn't help, either. Maybe it was founded in an effort to stop morons from stealing Native American artifacts. If so, my apologies, because it's working brilliantly. But if, as the theme song suggests, its mission was to fight crime, God help us all.
On a purely technical level, the show actually worked fairly well. The character designs tended to be lazy and repetitive, but in general, the animation had a Westernized Anime look that was appealing, and the stunt show action was interesting and dynamic. I also really loved the music. Not just the theme, which we've already established kicks ass, but the score as well. It actually has an 8-bit era Nintendo vibe to it, putting it somewhat ahead of the curve, considering the NES wouldn't hit these shores until the following year.
Alas, that's a small drop in the bucket. This show is beyond bad, by far the worst we've reviewed in the two years Noel and I have been doing the Super Saturday Short-Lived Showcase. I also feel a bit guilty here, because Pole Position was my suggestion. I know they can't all be winners, but this was an especially painful experience. So bad, in fact, that we decided to alter our format just so we could get the whole thing over with. I hope that we still managed to inform and entertain... well, at least entertain.
Favorite Episode - “The Trouble with Kuma”. For what it's worth, the show goes out on its highest note. With the combination of mystery and cliff-hanger adventure, this installment almost reaches the level of a very mediocre Jonny Quest episode.
Least Favorite Episode - “To Clutch a Thief”. Just when I thought this show had reached rock bottom, it pulled out a diamond bit drill and started digging. Every single problem that plagued this series is on display here.
Okay, Showcasers, if you'll excuse me, I need to get this show out of my mind. Hmm, maybe I'll watch a little Masters of the Universe. Now where'd I put that A1 sauce...
Let the record show that Tony and myself went into this series with high hopes. I had no clue what the actual premise was, but there were names on the creative staff that made me beam (Michael Reaves! Shinji Aramaki! Yes, even Chuck Lorre!), Tony's nostalgia sang it praises, and it had a kickass theme song. Well, it turns out that the premise is complete crap, either the creative staff I loved didn't have as much to do with this show as they should have or just plain didn't bring their A-game, Tony's nostalgia bit him in the ass and beat him with a fly swatter until he sobbed man tears, and even the once awesome theme song now sounds shrill and out of key. And the lyrics are stupid and lazy. And its mother smells funny.
The premise is the biggest flaw, as there's very little this show could have done to stand on such a rotten foundation. The property they licensed is a racing game, with a Formula-1 race car on tracks in international locales going up against other cars and weaving around turns and obstacles. You'd think they could do something with that, no? Have your lead racer or racers (even keep the sibling vibe), with his/her pit crew, manager, and impish mascot in either (but never or) the form of a cute animal or a little kid. As we go from country to country, track to track, we meet other racers, some friends, some rivals, as well as their pit crews and managers. You can have races, politics, the butting of heads and shaking of hands. You can even go into the stands or the area around the arenas for plots that still somehow anchor on the big race at the heart of each story. You can either play it realistic or go crazy, with souped up cars and wild obstacle courses on the roads. Maybe you can even give the cars their own artificial intelligences, but never, I repeat never, let the car be able to drive on its own as that just takes away the purpose and skill of the lead.
Is this the show we got? Nope.
Knight Rider was popular at the time, so lets have our hero instead be part of a secret branch of the government who goes around solving crimes. Are they big, Earth-shattering plots against global dominating threats? Nope, usually just some middle aged dude smuggling a microchip or stolen Native American artifact. Does our male hero have a love interest? Nope, he's stuck with his sister, who's so kickass and capable that she brings out all our male hero's narcissistic flaws (also, she wrestled a giant barracuda). Can we do it without a cutesy sidekick? Nope. You get both a little girl and a mischievous animal. Because why have one when you can double down on annoyance. Is the racing element still there? Kinda, but it's now a stunt show and they don't race against opposition because competitiveness is a bad message and teamwork is good (is racing at high speeds through populated areas good, too, as long as it's done through teamwork?), and we still need a safe place to show off what the cars can do now and then. But do the cars at least not drive themselves? Nope, they can totally drive themselves.
To be fair, there are ways in which the storyline can work. If you dropped the orphans aspect, and the idea that our heroes' parents were former Pole Position operatives, you'd cut an entire element of backstory that we never once get to explore the mystery behind. Seriously, their parents are dead and we never hear how they died or how it related to their former jobs. Instead, just make Dan and Tess unrelated agents paired up and often at odds. Maybe add a little flirt to their banter, but we all know Dan would be a real step down for Tess, so we always cheer when she brushes him off with a oneliner. And get rid of Daisy. If you really insist on keeping Kuma around, okay, but make use of his dexterity and ability to understand and manipulate tools by having him be able to get into areas the humans can't. I'll let you keep Wheels and Roadie, but don't you ever let them drive unless it's a Street Hawk style "hyperthrust" or something.
And for the love of all that's good and animated, please get some creative villains. I was aghast at how forgettable each and every one of the bad guys was in this series. They were paunchy and balding and often wearing tweed suits or cardigan sweaters, and looked more like they'd just walked out of a Walgreens with a bag full of Tums and dencher paste than they did people fleeing while in possession of top secret government info. The only standout from the crowd was Zoltan the Magnificent, and that's just due to the sheer randomness of his appearance. Once you get beneath the stage effects, he's no better than the rest of the bums.
Also, why did they restrain themselves by focusing entirely on Hitchcock inspired mysteries, to the point of every episode title being based on a Hitchcock film, every plot revolving around a disposable MacGuffin, and over half the episodes ending with someone taking a minute to explain what the hell it was that we'd just watched, with everyone going "Ah ha!" before ending on the freeze frame laugh line so many shows back then ended on. I've said it before and I'll say it again: these stories don't fit animation. At least not of the era and the market in which this show existed. I quite enjoyed a few of the mysteries we were given, but they felt entirely out of place in this medium. Animated cartoons tying into a video game with the hopes of possibly putting a few toys on the shelves need something to catch eyes and attention. Here, you have the two cars, but nothing else. Everyone else looks like an actor on the backlot, and most of the situations they find themselves in could easily play out through the sets or location stunt driving available back in the day. Hell, Automan occasionally pulled off even wilder visuals in the limitations of the times.
There's no zing to any of this. No wham, no wowwie, no pop.
Even if they had made it a racing show, in the hands of the people involved, it still might have fallen just as flatly on its face as it did here. And that's a painful admission to make, given some of the people involved. But not only do we have a show so poorly executed that it nearly killed this blog and forced us to change our entirely layout just to keep from giving up, but the very premise it's working on is so stupid and poorly thought out and pointless that I can't even give it points for trying because even the mere intention is depressingly flawed.
Why was this show cancelled? Because it's crap. You can argue nostalgia and the kickass theme song all you want, but I'll just respond by shoving your nose into the stinky smears the DVDs left on the inside of the case.
It's poo with the initials Peepee. End of story.
Favorite Episode - "Strangers on the Ice". The winter setting makes for some great setpieces. There's no "last minute" mystery to the MacGuffin. The triple identity of the guest star made for some great cat-n-mouse games of "who's who", with a fun - if not unexpected - final revelation. The cars are taken out of the picture for the most of it, forcing our heroes to use their brains and ingenuity. And Tess is fantastic.
Least Favorite Episode - so many to choose from, but I'm going with "The Chicken Who Knew Too Much", which is THE episode that broke us and forced us to change tactics just three episodes in. Go back and read the string of questions I wrote in the stupor following my viewing of the episode. It's hands down one of the most mind-numbingly stupid things I've ever seen.
We'll be back next Saturday with a One & Done look at the pilot for Computer Warriors.