Friday brings to the world The Lego Movie, a film with a concept, cast, and marketing push that usually exists only in the fever dreams of advertising executives.
Writer/directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord have crafted an animated world full of famous figures riffing on established personas. A well-worn plot that deftly skewers its conventions. Lowbrow and highbrow jokes standing side by side. And characters moving from pose-to-pose rather than in any fluid motion.
If critical consensus is any indication, millions will go home and say great things about it.
At the same time, a few thousand of them, probably at the point they realize Abraham Lincoln is being voiced by Will Forte, will smile and think about a cult animated show from 11 years ago best known in Canada.
Clone High was created in 2002 by Lord, Miller, and Spin City/Cougartown creator Bill Lawrence, but the show was primarily written (and in some scenes voiced) by the Lego duo.
It was high-concept but fairly straightforward: Create a parody of 90210, Boy Meets World, and other adolescent coming-of-age shows. Replace the students with teenage clones of historical figures. Race through 3-4 plots in 20 minutes.
And so you get a universe where Abraham Lincoln is an awkward, oblivious everyman, Joan of Arc is a goth teen not-so secretly in love with Abe, Cleopatra is a busty Queen Bee, Gandhi is an underachieving prankster with attention deficit disorder, and JFK is a womanizing party boy with a athletic background (OK, some things don’t need fictionalizing).
There was an overarching plot in which the Secret Board of Shadowy Figures (their actual name), which runs the school, is in conflict with its camp principal Cinnamon J. Scudworth, who secretly wants to use the clones for his own purposes.
But each episode was mainly an opportunity for Lord and Miller to take a teenage soap trope, merge it “Very Special Episode” life lessons, use Hanna-Barbera style animation for comedic ends, and let a cast laden with SNL and Mad TV performers (including Fote, who voiced Lincoln) stretch the dialogue to delirious ends.
Let’s take episode two, “Election Blu-Galoo”. It starts as your basic student president campaign* between Lincoln and Kennedy (who are both trying to impress Cleopatra), but becomes a satire on political authenticity when the corporation X-Stream Blu sponsors Abe and makes him do all sorts of literal stunts. The type with skateboards and pools of sharks.
When Gandhi becomes sickly, fat, and blue from having too much of X-Stream Blu, it morphs into a PSA on proper dieting, complete with a G-rated song by Special Guest Star Marilyn Manson that extols the virtues of the food pyramid.
*The episode ends with a stray puppy becoming President, by virtue of the Applause-O-Meter.
In its 13-episode first season, it whipped through drug use, sleep deprivation, film festivals, makeovers, homecoming basketball games, holiday specials, and just about everything else. Up to and including a rock opera where everyone gets high on raisins thanks to a pusher voiced by Jack Black.
The finale, which naturally took place at prom, saw a sudden twist in the dual love triangles the show had been playing with all season, followed by virtually all of the main characters frozen inside a meat locker.
They hoped it would be a cliffhanger (the final frame was black with the phrase “TO BE CONTINUED…?!”), but it served as a final meta joke about TV series unable to resolve plots before they end.
While the show was a decent hit in Canada on Teletoon, it couldn’t find any audience on MTV (they and Canadian-based Nelvana teamed up on production), and the show was pulled in the U.S. halfway through the episode order. Compounding problems were protests in India over how Gandhi was portrayed. The chances for a quick rebirth on a different channel were impossible.
All this happened in 2003, and while its demise was utterly predictable at the time, the changes to television distribution since have made its quick cancellation sadder.
Put the show in the middle of the aughts, and there’s potential for Clone High finding an online audience while it aired, not after. Put it near the end of the decade, when digital streaming and pop-culture sites were plenty evolved, and odds are some executive would see the benefits of producing 5-15 yearly episodes until production costs got too expensive or Lord/Miller got bored.
Today, it could conceivably have Children’s Hospital or Archer levels of fame, a fun side project for everyone involved that pays for itself and gives the public 50+ episodes of meta-teen soap parody to enjoy.
Of course, none of that happened, and the show quickly entered the realm of cult one-hit wonder. Family Guy and Futurama were also cancelled for the first time in 2003, but they had the benefit of multiple years airing on Fox in primetime. Clone High had eight episodes on MTV.
It’s been a while since a clip, so let’s change that.
Of course, the shown has grown to the point where it inevitably shows far and wide on listicles about shows cancelled too quickly. Lord and Miller expressed some disappointment about Clone High’s quick demise, but haven’t expressed a real desire to return to it. They don’t need to.
Two years after Clone High they became executive producers on How I Met Your Mother, a few years after that they wrote and directed the $240 million-grossing Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and they also have a nice little franchise going with 21 Jump Street (to be followed this summer by 22 Jump Street).
And then there’s the Lego Movie, which has the kind of marketing push reserved for over-saturated blockbusters, the demographic reach of over-saturated blockbusters, but looks to be a critical darling as well. Rotten Tomatoes had it at 98% the day before it opened, and critics are praising the surprisingly edgy satire, inspired riff on the “quest” genre, and myriad pop culture homages.
In other words, it’s straight from the DNA of Clone High, and it’s also going to be a giant smash. One that should allow Lord and Miller to do whatever projects they like for years to come. And they’re still both under 40.
So yeah, the characters in Clone High will stay frozen forever. But the genius inside the show is going to be spread across the world. It’ll just be shared under a different name.
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