After putting it off for so long, I finally got around to binging all five seasons of the Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles CG series and overall I really enjoyed it.
It’s important to clarify that I never outright resisted this show, nor did I hate on it. In fact I maintain that I always liked the designs as well as the toys (which is why I bought them, albeit second hand and cheap). I made attempts early on to watch random episodes when they popped up on TV but it never quite clicked with me (I’ll get to why later). Similar thing happened with the early 2000’s anime-inspired series, which admittedly was more to do with nostalgia but has since become my favourite of all the incarnations.
But with the Nickelodeon series… season 1 is terrible. Even grading on the sliding scale of “kids show” + “all season 1’s take time to find their feet”, it’s a complete write-off. While I admire the attempt to do something different in principle, it veers way too far into “it’s just for kids”, which led to a lot of poor choices.
I like the Kraang as villains but their speech patterns… the joke got tired very quickly (even addressed by the show much later). Donnie pining over April as much as he did was a little too over-the-top and problematic (season 3 did a decent job addressing this) and instead of young and naïve, Mikey was beyond stupid and it was just obnoxious (same with The Pulveriser). These things (among others) became irritating and pretty much set the tone for that first season.
(comparatively, season 1 of the early 2000’s series works well because it’s operating off of the blueprints of the original comics with plenty of fine-tuning of what worked and didn’t work then).
Season 2 is where it should have started. Not only does it work best at (re)introducing the premise but also establishing the characters and tone of the show even if it continues develop over the season. Although I must admit, it’s opening episode introduces the theme of how badly the Turtles can stuff things up because of impulsiveness and inexperience and that did mar that episode somewhat. It took too long to properly define the difference between “failure” and “making things worse”.
Through binging, I had realised that those original random episodes I had been watching were from seasons 1 and 2. The season 2 episodes were enough to keep me from outright disliking the show but the season 1 episodes were enough to prevent me from making more of an effort.
Season 3 was good but a mixed bag, leaning hard into references and callbacks but also taking a step back into old habits that didn’t work (like the “mutant of the week”). It’s also the first time it gets dark in its storytelling (which gets cranked up in the next season).
Like the 2003 series it continues to finesse and filter out some of the plot holes of previous versions (like the motivation behind the Triceratons invading Earth) and again taking familiar pieces and going its own direction with it (David Tennant as the Fugitoid is basically Doctor Who with the Turtles as companions for half a season).
This series worked best when it focused on the Foot Clan and Shredder’s vendetta. As a villain, Shredder is delusional and absolutely unhinged over the course of the series, which for me makes him the scariest of all the incarnations.
So the season 4 finale should have been the series end but there was a “season 5” or Tales of the TMNT, which unfortunately ends up feeling like leftover scripts or an attempt to sell toys that were already in the pipeline. With the only highlight being the Usagi Yojimbo three-parter that would make any Kurasowa fan take interest.
Made up mostly of three-parters, they undermine a lot of the previous story and just end up being dull… The Fury Road parody ‘Mutant Apocalypse’ makes all their effort seem for nought and the crossover with their 80’s counterparts spends most of the running time (rightly or wrongly) criticising the 1987 cartoon more so than Turtles Forever did.
Once the characters were established they worked well for the most part with only a few instances of inconsistent writing, which made things somewhat jarring. As mentioned before Donatello pining for April did get creepy with specific stalkerish moments and Michelangelo’s stupidity was perhaps brought on by the need to advance plot points and would reoccur once or twice later on. But eventually these things levelled out and of course the smart one and the fun one held their own.
Leonardo had a few ups and downs, mostly being the hesitant leader unsure of himself but they would sometimes give him Raphael’s impulsiveness. This is odd because usually hesitancy and over-thinking are Leo’s biggest flaws. Raphael spends most of the time being sarcastic. That and his desire to hide the more “fun and childish” side of himself works well. Unfortunately, when they focus on his temper it doesn’t feel as natural as it should. Feels more like a “oh wait, that’s a thing” in how it’s reintroduced.
I’ve never been a fan of Splinter being a mutated form of Hamato Yoshi but I tolerate that here because it works with the feud between him and Oroku Saki. His sense of humour is also one of the character traits that works so well in this version.
I didn’t have a problem with a younger April O’Neil. Being the same age as the Turtles enhances the sense of siblings and family. Her origins and powers remind me a little too much of Venus de Milo and is often a trope I would hate in more mature stories but it was offset by seeing her develop into a more active part of the team and that I really appreciated (think the 2007 CG film).
Casey Jones… take him or leave him. He eventually came into his own but that was a long trek to do so.
Even as a massive Ninja Turtles fan, I don’t think there’s a “perfect” version of the story out there. There are certainly versions that are better than others, incarnations that we prefer or consider “prefect for us”. Hell, my favourite version has two whole seasons I find kinda meh (“Ninja Tribunal” and “Fast Forward”) and even the original comics had their flaws, mainly due to its origins of being a one-time joke that no one could predict would explode the way it did.
The 2012 series reminds me of Beast Wars back in the 90’s: it began with intentions of being a kids show and aimed a far too low but very quickly course corrected by looking back to what worked before as well as being creative enough to combine it with a fresh perspective and ideas.
Enjoyable, high energy, eventually compelling, and it grows up with its audience over the course of five seasons making it a worthy successor of the TMNT name.
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