This is where I come in.
I’ve said that before, but that’s because there’s more than one point where it’s true. But for whatever reason, I didn’t watch Batman: The Animated Series on Fox, or if I did I don’t remember it; all of my memories of it are of reruns on Kids’ WB!, which became my go-to Saturday morning fare in high school, at least until sleeping in became more interesting than watching cartoons. (Which, as signifiers of American adolescence go, really ought to be up there with zits and making out in cars.)
But I was definitely watching Kids WB! before it inherited BTAS and STAS, most likely from very nearly its beginning, given the prominent place watching Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Earthworm Jim, and Freakazoid! (in approximately that order each week) occupies in my media memories.
Kids’ WB! was the children’s programming block of the WB, a network launched in January 1995 in an attempt to replicate the success of Fox. In many ways, the WB (along with Paramount’s similar effort, UPN, which launched five days later) was a last stand of sorts against the ongoing sea change in American television. Local, independent TV stations were dying, their economic viability undermined by the rising popularity and availability of cable. Many independent stations tried to sustain themselves with first-run syndicated programs, some of which–like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Baywatch–rivaled major network shows in popularity, but this merely served to homogenize their content, rendering them still less relevant.
In 1993, Warner Bros. and Chris-Craft Entertainment launched the Prime Time Action Network in an effort to replicate Fox’s success in becoming a new network. Like Fox, PTEN originally only aired a couple of hours of programming a couple of nights a week, sold as a block to local stations in much the same way that syndicated programming was. Where Fox attempted to make its mark with edgy, transgressive content (by 1980s standards, anyway) like Married… with Children, The Tracey Ullman Show, and 21 Jump Street, PTEN went after the cult audience that had made shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files into hits, filling its block with science fiction and action programming like Babylon 5, Time Trax, and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.
While PTEN was commercially successful, many of the stations which ran it were already Fox affiliates, making it difficult to expand into a full network lineup. Instead, Warner Bros. allowed PTEN to more or less peter out–it aired its last programming in 1997–while building up the WB instead. Once the initial January launch proved successful, the WB began expanding its programming, adding Kids’ WB! in September.
From my pubescent perspective, there was a clear transition in which the Disney Afternoon–Disney’s syndicated block which contained such shows as Ducktales, Rescue Rangers, Talespin, and Darkwing Duck went into a steep decline after Ducktales was dropped from the lineup in 1992, and became simply unwatchable when the last of its original shows, Talespin, was dropped in 1994, to the arrival of Kids’ WB! and the funnier, more transgressive, more entertaining shows it presented, like Animaniacs, its spinoff Pinky and the Brain, and most importantly for our purposes, Freakazoid!
Freakazoid was, quite simply, nonsense. Ostensibly a superhero show about a boy who gained superpowers from the Internet, it was mostly a vehicle for absurd, Animaniacs-style adventures poking fun at pop culture or just generally being wacky. The third Amblin-Warner Bros. coproduction (the first two having been, as already discussed, Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs), Freakazoid! was the brainchild of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, two names which should be quite familiar by now; it is, in essence, a sister series of sort to the DCAU. However, the original concept was more of a serious action series with comedic undertones–Timm later compared it to the original Spider-Man comics in that respect–but as development continued and it became clear that the series was going to be a comedy series with an aesthetic closer to Animaniacs than BTAS, Timm dropped out.
Nonetheless, his influence remained on the series’ visuals: several key character designs (particularly Freakazoid himself, who looks like a combination of later DCAU villains Livewire and the Creeper) show clear influence from Timm’s signature style, as do virtually all of the young women depicted in the show, presaging that style’s emergence as the defining look of the DCAU in Superman: The Animated Series. Further, its general color palette is clearly inherited from Animaniacs and passed on to STAS: far lighter than BTAS’ dark palette, but (with the exception of the hero’s costume) less saturated than the bold, primary colors that traditionally typify superhero comics.
After the end, this is where the DCAU will be born.
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