Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 01 Feb 2017, and is filled under Uncategorised.

My shameful love for SpongeBob SquarePants

I hate that I’m writing this, just as I want to hate the cartoon that it’s about. And yet I can’t. I think it’s as close to genius as popular, mainstream entertainment ever gets, as anarchic and joyous a display of inspired insanity as we ever see, a bright, primary coloured riot of bizarre characters, implausible situations and actions that defy the laws of physics with a breathtaking regularity and at a hectic pace. The level of invention is staggering, the ingenuity in each episode is unbelievable and the dialogue is often arch. Yes, ladies and gents, I’m addicted to SpongeBob SquarePants.

The gateway was Netflix, which my partner’s subscription gives me access to and, after watching the first episode of season six, I was hooked. I wanted to hate it, wanted to say something snide and clever about it, but I can’t. The reason for this is that not only is it horrifically silly and wholly lacking in anything that might pass for sophistication, for all that it is brilliantly worked out, making my inner child rejoice as he did the first time he read the comic ‘Oink,’ but the titular sponge, a gap-toothed weirdo with giant eyes and seemingly detachable limbs is by way of being – often at the same time – the most irritating and most likeable character I’ve ever seen.

SpongeBob’s boundless love of everyone he comes into contact with, even those who want to thwart him, and starry eyed idealism, feel as though they may just be the universe trying to teach me a lesson. You see, SpongeBob works on the grill at his local restaurant, the Krusty Krab, serving up Krabby Patties, which are glorified hamburgers containing a mysterious ingredient, making them unusually delicious. Over the road is the Chum Bucket, a failing restaurant which serves, well, chum, often on a stick, and is run by Plankton, a small, green, single celled life-form with one giant eye and whose sole aim in life is to steal the formula and make himself a success. SpongeBob loves him without even needing to think twice and treats his nefarious schemes as being hugely fun. Such is the heart of the show and the axis about which is turns.

His best friend is an idiot by the name of Patrick Star, some kind of starfish in Bermuda shorts with the brains of a twig, who shares SpongeBob’s insane optimism, boundless love of anyone he comes into contact with and who, very occasionally, sulks and reacts much as you’d expect an outraged toddler to when thwarted. Between them, they get into all manner of hilarious scrapes and japes, invariably caused by Patrick arsing things up. Patrick, for reasons best known to himself, lives under a rock while SpongeBob lives in a pineapple. And yes, I do know that none of this makes sense.

Apart from Mr Krabs, who owns the Krusty Krab and who loves money above all else, the other main character is Squidward Tentacles, a cephalopod who fancies himself as a sophisticate and who hates SpongeBob with all his heart, largely because of his naive embrace of everyone and everything, and because he remains cheerfully impervious to Squidward’s frequent mockery and attempts to kill or injure him. Like Plankton, he attempts to thwart SpongeBob, albeit more directly, attempts which generally end in abject failure on his part and more displays of undiminished affection on SpongeBob’s.

Such is a whistelstop tour of SpongeBob’s world. It seldom changes in any great way, which is a true delight in itself, and means that one episode can end in seeming disaster while the next carries on regardless. Characters are injured, lose eyes, have their skin blown off revealing sinew beneath, and lose limbs. In the next frame, they’re fine. Insane situations arrive because the creators are utterly heedless of anything that might look like gravity and exaggeration rules. All add to its delight. But the real source of fascination for me is SpongeBob himself. He loves. And he loves with an amazing level of consistency and intensity even when there is no reward beyond the act of love itself. He is easily moved to tears when other people experience misfortune that he can’t put right, such is the depth of this love, and wears his heart emphatically on his sleeve.

The most revealing episode comes early in the seventh series, when SpongeBob and Patrick’s favourite place, Jellyfish Fields, is targeted for development by Plankton. The two go there to catch jellyfish in a net, rejoice in how lovely they are and then sent them free, which is so heartbreakingly sweet that I almost can’t bear it. Plankton aims to drive a road through Jellyfish Fields and over the Krusty Krab, thereby wiping out his competition but also removing the source of so much of SpongeBob’s innocent pleasure. The development goes through anyway, with the population of the town voting for it and then violently suppressing protest with eerily hare-brained glee, and a huge parade forms up behind Plankton’s steamroller, mowing SpongeBob into the earth and driving away all the jellyfish. You suddenly realise, despite the slapstick elements, that this isn’t very funny. It’s sad, and feels true, as though it has wider echoes in Trump and Brexit, and what was once purely for your entertainment has become, in an unnoticed way, slightly disconcerting.

Change finally comes when the massed ranks of jellyfish return, bent on revenge, and then something rather wonderful happens. The townspeople realise they were wrong and, when SpongeBob and Patrick are unable to tear up the road, unite, and use their massed power to rip it up and restore Jellyfish Fields to its former glory. You knew, of course, that this was going to happen, as the unwritten rule seems to be that the SpongeBob universe returns to the way it was before, but the manner of it happening and the way that jokes are suddenly secondary to plot again feels like the universe is trying to tell me something. This is the longest we see SpongeBob dejected, even distraught, and the final scenes, in which a sponge whose only real vice is that he loves too much and is too idealistic, emerges triumphant at the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, end up being more moving than a cartoon has any right to be.

There’s something hideous about so-called public intellectuals investing elements of popular culture with deeper meaning, and that’s what I’m trying, and probably failing, at not doing. I like the cartoon because it’s immensely silly and done with a brio and a joy that makes it irresistible. That overrides politics altogether and places it in the category of escapism, but it doesn’t stop some elements of it, like the Jellyfish Fields episode or SpongeBob’s remorseless love, don’t strike a chord with me, because I know that I don’t love enough and my belief in collective action has never, ever been weaker. Art, on whatever level, is sometimes about unintended consequences, and the consequence for me is that I’m thinking about how much I let myself love, without reciprocity, and how much I desperately want to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that concerted action can still make the world a better place. And that’s no small achievement for a cartoon.

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