CatDog: Nickelodeon’s Frankenstein

catdog

If you’ve been following this blog so far, it’s pretty clear to you that I was a huge fan of Nickelodeon in the 1990s (I’ll write about cartoons on other channels too, I promise!).  The NickToons off that time were among my absolute favorite cartoons to watch and I watched them religiously.  Among all of the others that were on at the time, I particularly watched a lot of CatDog.  I’ve written glowing posts about Doug and Rugrats so far, but I never felt the same way about CatDog.  I’ve always had strong feelings about CatDog, but they were strongly ambivalent feelings.  There were things I liked about CatDog but there were also things that always really bothered me about and I didn’t understand why until very recently.

So why did I watch CatDog so much if I admit that things about it bothered me?  You can ask a Game of Thrones fan the same question.  But seriously, I admit that there were times when CatDog made me laugh a lot.  I found Cat to be really funny at times, especially for a character that’s supposed to be “the straight man” in this Odd Couple dynamic.  I thought Jim Cummings’ portrayal of Cat was hilarious.  Even imagining Cat screaming “MY BODY, MY BODY, MY BODYYYYY!!!!” right now is making me laugh a little bit.

I don’t have much else to say about what I liked about CatDog, but I have a lot to say about what I didn’t like about it.  When I sit back and reflect on what I remember about the show, I think the core problem with it is that it didn’t know what kind of show it wanted to be.  Yeah, I know it was clearly a screwball slapstick comedy, but it didn’t know what it wanted its theme to be.  I get a feeling that the top three creative heads of the show all had different ideas of what they wanted to say with CatDog.  On one end, CatDog wanted to be as wacky and screwball as possible by throwing their characters in wacky, improbably situations.  Might as well go balls to the wall with a show that has such a weird concept as a cat and a dog attached at the waist, right?  Another angle that CatDog was trying to aim for was a brotherhood theme.  Particularly early on in the show’s run, they tried really hard to hammer home that despite Cat’s and Dog’s clashing interests and personalities, these are two brothers that love each other.  This was supposed to be bolstered by their last theme.  The show established that CatDog was the only one of its kind and did not know who or where their parents were.  So it then attempted to explore the trials and tribulations that someone that is the only known of its kind faces in the society they live in.  That’s quite a few things this show is trying to juggle here.  WIth a deft hand and a keen mind, I suppose someone could make it work.  Rocko’s Modern Life masterfully peppered its wacky slapstick cartoon world of animals with sly social commentary about life in the early years of adulthood.  Spongebob Squarepants did this too, to a lesser extent.  Actually, Rocko’s Modern Life is a good reference to bring up because it had some pretty obvious influence on CatDog.

The most direct illusion to Rocko’s Modern Life is the social commentary of CatDog, which focuses on the fact that CatDog is the only catdog that it knows in existence.  Other people in their community often look at CatDog funny or call them “freaks”.  They’re picked on and frequently beaten up by the Greasers for being a catdog.  CatDog often tries to assimilate in order to fit in with society (by either Cat or Dog disguising himself as the other’s backside).  The world that CatDog lives in is depressingly hostile and unaccommodating to them.  That’s not far off from Rocko’s Modern Life’s jaded and put-upon perspective of the world.  However, Rocko’s Modern Life understood the weight of the assertions they suggested, while I don’t think CatDog did.  This is exemplified in the show’s treatment of the Greasers.  Cliff, Shriek, and Lube are the most prominent characters in the show after CatDog and they are the primary antagonists.  The Greasers are framed as stereotypical schoolyard bullies, which doesn’t make any sense because all the characters are adults.  What the Greasers do is NOT bullying in this context, it’s harassment and assault and battery.  It’s also worth noting that the Greasers are more violent than the average cartoon bullies too.  Your Roger Klotzes, Wolfgangs, Miranda Killgallens, Francises, Spergs, Boyds, the Red Guys, and whoever else did not physically assault their respective protagonists as frequently as the Greasers did.  As cruel as Angelica Pickles often was, it wasn’t common that she caused bloodshed or broken bones.  This wanton abuse is even worse when compounded with the theme about CatDog being the only one of its kind.  Did the writers of the show realize these beatings are hate crimes and these characters are like the Nearburg chapter of the Klan?  It just adds an incredibly uncomfortable dimension to the thing.  Especially because these beatings are played for laughs.  Rocko’s Modern Life often played up Rocko’s abuse for laughs too but 1) it did not carry an uncomfortable prejudicial angle to it and 2) his abuse eventually led to a cathartic moment where Rocko can snatch his “win”, however minor.  In “Sand in Your Navel”, Rocko had the worst time ever at the beach, but it couldn’t rip him away from his precious dog Spunky.  In “Carnival Knowledge”, Rocko may have gotten ripped off by a crooked carnival, but at least he improbably won a rigged carnival game.  In CatDog, most of the titular characters’ encountered with the Greasers (comically) wrap up the episode with a beating.  That’s such a cynical and ugly outlook that CatDog is expressing here.  Rocko’s Modern Life was often cynical too, but it never lost its sympathy with the little guy (Rocko).  CatDog is downright mean-spirited.  It doesn’t sympathize with its protagonists here; it simply invites the audience to laugh at their subjugation.  It’s sad because CatDog actually does this theme justice in its episodes where they try to disguise themselves as either 100% cat or dog.  Their tragically futile attempts as assimilation draw parallels to, as an example, anyone in the LGBT+ community struggling with coming to terms with who they are and trying to pass of as straight in the meantime.  Unfortunately, this is undermined by the Greaser stuff that you can’t help but wonder if the show actually sympathizes or laughs at CatDog’s failed attempts to assimilate.

The other problem with the Greasers is that the show tried to add some depth to them as it went on.  This isn’t a problem at all in itself.  The audience should get a good idea why the antagonists act the way they do.  In this case, the show draws comparison to Helga Pataki in Hey Arnold!.  This show thoroughly explored the depths into why Helga was so angry, vicious, and picked on Arnold in particular so much.  We learned that Helga is a unbridled poetic spirit who isn’t acknowledged by her family.  We learned that she had to develop a tough exterior in pre-school to keep the other kids from walking all over her.  We learn that Arnold is the first person in her life to appreciate her simply for existing.  We learn that her abuse towards him is a defense mechanism for her fear that her love for him might be unrequited.  CatDog explores the stories behind Cliff and Shriek as well (not so much Lube, all I remember learning about him is that his real name is Ignatius).  Cliff has a background in ballet and I think his toughness might be overcompensation for his own troubles with bullies in his childhood (I don’t remember exactly).  Shriek comes from an extremely wealthy background and she is rebelling against her rich, snooty parents for not accepting her for who she is.  This paints a humanizing view of the Greasers…except they never explained why any of these characters are so fixated with beating up CatDog.  These characters are simply bigots for God-knows-why, and I don’t appreciate being asked to sympathize with bigoted characters with no explanation behind that.  Does anybody else find it unsavory that CatDog is more sympathetic to their oppressors than their oppressed?

The other major problem with CatDog is that its not even consistent with its oppressive theme either.  Most of the time, the world set up here is not so much oppressive to CatDog as it is to Cat alone.  For some reason that’s never explained in the show, Dog is generally shown more deference while Cat constantly gets the short end of the stick.  Presumably, the show treats Dog nicer because he’s happy-go-lucky and laid-back while Cat is uptight and sometimes materialistic.  The show attempting to create the same dichotomy as with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck or Dexter and Dee Dee in Dexter’s Lab.  The reason that Daffy and Dexter always get the raw deal is because they bring it upon themselves.  Daffy and Dexter are unfriendly and clouded by their own hubris.  In fact, they are the instigators of the conflicts with their comic foils.  Cat, most of the time, does not instigate conflict; people just generally treat him like crap for not particular reason.  Cat is not a saintly character, but his foibles are not enough to justify the poor treatment he gets (played for laughs, of course).  A show that came after CatDog that did this dynamic correctly was Spongebob Squarepants.  Spongebob is friendly and happy-go-lucky and Squidward is mean and pretentious, so there’s a reason that Squidward keeps getting poor treatment (although this dynamic devolved into Spongebob becoming a downright sadist in later seasons).

Cat’s poor treatment in comparison to Dog brings up another major problem I always had with the show.  A strong and well-done brotherhood theme might have been able to cover for the mean-spirited social commentary at least a little bit.  CatDog doesn’t hit the mark here either.  The tension between Cat and Dog draws some parallels to the constant bickering of brothers Daggett and Norbert in The Angry Beavers.  The latter emphasizes a brotherly relationship though constant fighting, but I thought it was believable.  There’s a lot of fighting between Cat and Dog too, and to be fair, it’s fairly believable too.  I think it falls apart outside of the fighting.  A lot of the time, Cat and Dog are astonishingly apathetic towards each other much of the time.  In episodes that emphasize Cat’s materialism, he shows very little regard for Dog in his pursuit of money.  Even worse, Dog can’t seem to be bothered to respond to or even acknowledge the constant abuse Cat endures from others.  You can use a lot of words to describe the contentious relationship between Daggett and Norbert, but “apathetic” isn’t one of them.  Cat and Dog are downright jerks to each other.

However, I think the perfect encapsulation of everything wrong with CatDog is the character Winslow.  What was the point of this thoroughly unpleasant character?  As if CatDog (especially Cat) didn’t endure enough abuse outside the house, why is there a need for this brat inside the house?  HAVE WE FORGOTTEN THAT THEY GET BEATEN UP BY BIGOTS ON A DAILY BASIS?!?  There was no need to pile on more abuse.  Cat’s and Dog’s contrasting personalities are enough to trigger conflict in the house, we didn’t need Winslow as an instigator!!!  And of course, he’s particularly meaner to Cat than to Dog for no reason besides following the cliche about cats vs. mice.  I can’t say enough how unnecessary this awful character was.

I don’t think CatDog intended to come off this way.  I think it wanted to have the brotherly relationship of The Angry Beavers and the sly social commentary of Rocko’s Modern Life, and the screwball cartoony mayhem of both.  Unfortunately, due to a lack of cohesion in its follow-through, CatDog shaped up as a show lacking in brotherly love and heartless social commentary, which both sullied the context that the cartoony mayhem existed in.  Sorry Randolph, I can’t bring myself to love it.  It tried to be so many other NickToons, it never found what it truly wanted to be, except in one case…*

*Despite my evisceration of CatDog above, their TV movie The Great Parent Mystery was quite good.  It had one solid theme that it followed through with, it actually sympathized with CatDog, it treated the Greasers like they antagonists they were, and they made CatDog (and their parents) feel like a loving family.  The movie is everything the show should have been. 

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CatDog: Nickelodeon’s Frankenstein

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