Thursday, March 17, 2011

Oh Come On, You'd Have Ended On The Exact Same Crap Pun If You'd Thought Of It (The Flintstones: The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy, The Flintstones 2: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak!)

Well if you lot are willing to defend Felix the Cat, I suppose a claim about the inherent worthlessness of the Flintstones is going to be a tough sell. Which is a pity, as I've long considered them a cartoon franchise better suited to cereal and vitamins than actual narrative.

I recognize that there is some cleverness in the central joke of The Flintstones, even if it's not particularly a joke I enjoy. Mostly, I find the idea of paleolithic civilizations interesting in terms of a pseudo-Lovecraftian fascination with ur-culture. The joke that ur-culture is really just like modern culture only with humorous de-inventions of modern technology is... not, to my mind, quite enough to build a massive consumer franchise on. When modern fails to be meaningfully updated since about 1970, the joke... does not improve, oddly.

But The Flintstones, seemingly through force of dogged marketing and the fact that it's bland enough that nobody is going to have a violent reaction against it, are ubiquitous. The vitamins are perhaps the most inspired, in that they render the Flintstones a kind of inexorable part of childhood identity. But not an entirely pleasant sort.

What's funny is that if you jump to the 1960s, you get an entirely different sort of show. From 1960-1962, The Flintstones had Winston Cigarettes as their major sponsor, with Fred and Barney smoking like Mad Men. That only stopped when Winston dropped their sponsorship because Wilma got pregnant. Giving us the stunning spectacle of a cigarette company trying to be moralistic about which children's television shows it sponsors.

Through all of this, there's a repeated theme of The Flintstones being not quite out of step with their times, but... unsettled. Children's entertainment and cigarettes, sexual ethics, the cartoon most associated with annoying things your parents make you take... which perhaps explains why the first Flintstones game, The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy, post-dated the SNES, and the second managed the stunningly odd decision of being a rental-only game exclusive to Blockbuster and released in 1994 as one of the last four NES games ever.

The Flintstones, in other words, go sailing gamely over the cultural moment, landing with a dull thud in the 16-Bit Era and looking, frankly, terrible even for that. These games barely clear the bar to avoid being contenders for worst-of-system lists. I'd criticize them in depth, but that requires some sort of a starting point. The entire games are just banal smears of sub-mediocrity. There is nothing good about them, and nothing egregiously bad. The jump mechanics suck, but not memorably so. The fight mechanics suck, but not memorably so. The level design is tedious, but not memorably so. The difficulty settings are completely fucked, but not memorably so. Basically, playing these games has just sort of introduced a one hour black hole into my experience of the universe.

And yet somewhere, logic dictates, there is someone with genuine love of the Flintstones. Of the entire Hanna-Barbera catalog, no doubt, even though it has always struck me as the boring end of cartoons that you watch when nobody is bothering to show something good. Honestly, watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons always struck me as the sort of thing one did when stuck at an elderly relative's for a weekend. It's the sort of thing you do only when all actually fun avenues of entertainment are exhausted and the only alternative is... actually, usually at the elderly relative's house there isn't an alternative. Those visits are flagrantly about the social niceties of older generations, and the fact of the matter is that the nine-year-old is more or less wholly left out of any planning.

As a kid, I was perfectly capable of making my own fun. That wasn't a problem. But there were tools for this sort of thing. One didn't just pull fun out of the aether. It was a properly occult process. One had a sanctum, or at least, a playroom full of tools for fun manufacturing. The tools were often not fun in and of themselves. Among the things I had the most fun with as a child were a laundry basket, a three-foot long orange plastic tube about an inch wide, the sheath to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles branded plastic katana (which outlasted the actual sword by years), and Omagles. (Not to be confused with Omegle. They are completely different ways of having fun.)

The point was that they were fetishes. In the traditional mystical sense, not the kinky sex sense. These objects could be wielded to produce fun, pulling it from the void of the mind and materializing it. But there was a process. It was something that could be created and manipulated, but only out of symbols and tools that one invested one's self in. This was the real dread of the Elderly Relative's. This is why it was a boring place. Not that there was nobody to talk to, but that one was far from one's place of power. Even if one lucked out and the relative, for some bewildering reason, had an NES, it was somehow never actually as good as one's own NES. (See some earlier post or another about the odd connectedness of the NES to the physical space of the living room. Bugger if I remember which one.)

That is what the Flintstones are. Entertainment that is never actually as good as what one actually likes. The second choice, and not in that vaguely redeemable "secretly the second choice is better than the obvious choice" fairy tale way. Just in the sense of not being as good.

It's difficult to express the degree to which I find active horror in this sphere of things. A childhood of mild social isolation and less-mild geekery made me quite invested in the magical tools of the playroom, and to this day the stultifying boringness of various elderly relatives (Not you, of course, if you're reading this. Some other elderly relative) instills a visceral reaction. Even after I've grown up and learned the human nature of my family instead of the oddly demiurgical nature they had in my childhood, the fact of the matter is, there are living rooms that I could step into today and shudder at the sense that the fell beasts that were Dino and Hoppy were approaching.

So this is how we celebrate the 100th Nintendo Project entry. Not with a bang but a Bam-Bam.

4 comments:

  1. Honestly, I think Flintstones was more for adults than children. The childrens entertainment aspect of it was there, but it's along the lines of a bar show that a guy will watch after he gets off work with a beer or two.

    It's about a couple of guys, who drink, and bowl, and do normal every day working class stiff stuff, their nagging, but sometimes sweet wives, and their[ problematic but lovable children. It's something dad can tolerate for half an hour while sitting with the kids before he goes insane.

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  2. First of all, this blog is amazing. You post regularly, and everything you post is gold. I mean, you just pulled me into reading an article on something I really don't care about. That's good writing. And now I care about it.

    Thanks for existing, and keep writing! :)

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  3. I'll cop to disagreeing with you about Felix (although that's still at least 90% nostalgia), but you hit this one right on the nose. I watched hundreds of hours of the Flintstones after school in the care of, you guessed it, an elderly relative. More than simply "second choice," I think it was defined by being just barely better than nothing at all.

    I think that Drackar (Noir?) is half right: The Flintstones was a very early example of televison that was essentially targeted at both everyone and no one. There was no substance to speak of, so anyone could tolerate it for a while if it helped to drown out the sound of boredom. It was the Two and a Half Men of its time.

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  4. Are you paying more than $5 per pack of cigarettes? I buy my cigarettes over at Duty Free Depot and I'm saving over 50% from cigarettes.

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