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Gandhi, Cleopatra, Lincoln, Joan of Arc and JFK from Clone HighClone High USA
MTV
Mondays 10:30 p.m. / 9:30 p.m. Central

The speedy cancellation of fresh and intellectually challenging, or at least non-lobotomizing, television fare and its replacement with safe retreads of past winners has occurred since television's inception. Season after season, risk-averse network executives fall back on old and proven themes: sex, celebrities, teen sex — and lately, public humiliation — while viewers mutely follow along. The current television season has been particularly, soul-crushingly uncreative, but MTV's new animated series "Clone High USA" is proof that all hope is not lost.

The world of "Clone High," in which teenaged clones of famous historical figures attend high school together, is a fascinating cross-pollination of the History Channel and "Saved By The Bell." Abe Lincoln roams the hallways pining for Cleopatra, a horny JFK can't keep his hands off all the hotties, Genghis Khan sports a "Screw Tibet" T-shirt and Gandhi and George Washington Carver partner up to make a student film called "Black and Tan." (Carver's animate peanut sidekick assists.) Watching teen versions of historical figures grapple with love, lust, alcohol, disease and other "after school special" issues is a comforting and surprisingly hilarious approach to teen angst. If Abe Lincoln was a hopeless sack in high school and Joan of Arc was a clueless romantic, you can't feel too badly about never getting past second base until your senior year. And by "you," I mean me.

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The angst factor is boosted by each character's knowledge of their former selves. Every high school student suffers from feelings of inadequacy; knowing you are an exact genetic replica of JFK or Abe Lincoln as you wage an unsuccessful campaign for student council president significantly ups the ante. Expectations weigh heavily on most teens, but when your DNA is presidential, the weight can be crushing. The show slyly acknowledges this dilemma, allowing its characters to diverge from the paths their former selves took while avoiding all philosophical debate. This is a wise move comedically, because self-consciously "heavy" philosophical debate can kill the funny about as quickly as the words "dead mother" or "ground zero." Some of the show's funniest moments are history jokes, like when, sitting in his flashy convertible at the starting line for his drag race against Abe Lincoln, JFK yelled "Nothing bad ever happens to the Kennedys!" (A split second later, the race starts and his car inexplicably and immediately flips over.)

While the students of Clone High closely approximate real-life high schoolers, they pale in comparison to the weirdly uncanny authenticity of the school's administrators. Clone High is inefficiently run by Principal Cinnamon J. Scudworth, a character painstakingly modeled after fascist, egomaniacal, and out-of-touch principals the world over. Scudworth's inability to communicate with his students is outpaced only by his inability to understand what motivates them. Authority figures have long been portrayed as malicious and cruel bad guys, but few have so effectively combined those traits with such frightening ineptitude and misguided priorities. He is always evilly plotting against his students, but when an athletic event with a rival school erupts into an intensely destructive and chaotic riot, Scudworth's pride is unequivocal. When the rioting hordes of students actually pull an in-ground pool out of the ground, turn it upside-down, and throw it, Scudworth is about to burst with excitement. "Did you see the pool?" he breathlessly asks his companion. "They flipped the bitch!"

Every bad guy needs a sidekick and/or a robot, and Principal Scudworth has both in his Butler/ Vice Principal/ Moral Conscience, Mr. Butlertron, who is more affectionately known as Mr. B. Again mirroring high school reality, Mr. Butlertron is the physical embodiment of the stereotypical vice principal's robotic administrative style. Additionally, Mr. B happens to be a robotic clone of Mr. Belvedere, from his jaunty red cardigan to his tendency to call everyone Wesley. Like Mr. Belvedere, Mr. B can be a bit of an ass, but he's the one the kids go to for advice and guidance when they have something on their mind.

At first glance, "Clone High" appears little different than other purposefully edgy post-"Simpsons" cartoons. Sure, it's clones saying funny, dirty things this time instead of third graders, but that doesn't seem to be enough novelty to carry an entire show. The standard shocking one-liners, screwball story lines and pubescent potty humor that you have come to expect appear just like you thought they would. What sets "Clone High" above other superficially similar shows is that it knows it is ripping off its television forebears — both animated and live action — and it knows that you know too. Every storyline has been done to death, so "Clone High" appropriates these well-worn, over-done topics with a wink and a nod and then proceeds to mercilessly shred them. The end result is subversive, not formulaic.

Every episode of "Clone High" begins with a serious-voiced narrator saying "Tonight, on a very special 'Clone High'...." And indeed, most episodes rip on those "very special" episodes of shows like "Dawson's Creek," in which a teen grapples with homosexuality, or an eating disorder, or sex, or a deadly disease and everyone ends up learning a valuable lesson. A recent episode of "Clone High" hilariously mocked the very special AIDS episode that many shows have attempted to pull off. By changing the dread disease from AIDS to ADD and giving it to Gandhi, while keeping intact the air of gravity and other characters' requisite horror and fear and valuable-lesson-learning, "Clone High" essentially squeezed comic water from an aged television stone, while the show's eye for detail keeps it from being snide. This particular episode included a hilarious meeting of concerned parents at the school straight out of the "The Ryan White Story" that was a subtly brilliant addition.

Clone High has also garnered its first protest, a badge of honor in the world of cartoon comedies. Hindu groups apparently took offense to the show's portrayal of Gandhi as a hard partying, flashdancing, ADD sufferer who shares a "Best Dudes Forever" locket with Abe Lincoln. Wearing tights and taking Ritalin might not be the first things that spring to mind when the name Gandhi is mentioned, but that's the point. This ain't exactly Gandhi.

The unsurprised absurdity of a Gandhi clone spastically and joyously rebelling against everything his former self stood for is exactly what makes this show work and what makes it so funny. Clone High succeeds for a simple reason: it is smarter and funnier than all the other drivel television currently offers. Slyly poking fun at all of TV's sacrosanct cliches while appearing to embrace them wholeheartedly, "Clone High" is an animated wolf in sheep's clothing. More of a satire than a sitcom, "Clone High" is original, quirky and worthwhile television, head and shoulders above the endlessly replicating reality show rabble.

Dakota Loomis (dakotaloomis@hotmail.com)

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Flak: Samurai Jack
Flak: Home Movies

 
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