Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Spongebob Hits Rock Bottom

Courtesy of Santi Slade
Spongebob deserves better. In this Age of Taking Television Seriously, no one has a problem writing thesis-length encomiums on The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood, etc., etc. I’m one of those — just yesterday I threw 1100-plus words at Breaking Bad’s finale, like everyone else. But where’s the love for Spongebob Squarepants? I know it’s a show you probably watched before your brain, like, worked, but creator Stephen Hillenburg is due for a retrospective or two. Worthy of the singular, self-contained TV episode pantheon that includes Bad’s “Fly,” The Sopranos’ “College” and Lost's “The Constant” is the Nickelodeon cartoon’s finest 12 minutes: “Rock Bottom.” Here is a cartoon that explores existentialism, race, quantum theory and linguistics — seriously.

For a show so rife with irreverent joy, I recall the dread that befell me watching this episode as a kid. When Patrick sees the sign, “You Are Now Leaving Bikini Bottom” he asks, as more than a few of us would, “Spongebob, where is ‘Leaving Bikini Bottom?’” For me, drifting away from home, without a plan or supervision, was a terrifying prospect. Patrick does not even register what the sign means, instead thinking it’s another part of his hometown. When they do hit Rock Bottom, a benthic community populated by anglerfish and eels with funny accents, they remark how different everything seems. Even the sand is different — it says so itself! I don’t think I’m stretching things when I say that, in “Rock Bottom,” Spongebob and Patrick leave the suburbs and find themselves in the ghetto.

And for a little sponge and a clueless starfish, the ghetto is a scary place. With their dinky, prophylactic-looking glove hats (what you discover watching cartoons when you’re older …), Spongebob and Patrick stay close to the bus stop where they arrived yet still fall victim to crippling disorientation, culture shock and fear. Spongebob, at least, tries to keep things together as Patrick’s mental state rapidly deteriorates. You should credit the episode’s disciplined writers Paul Tibbitt, Ennio Torresan and David Fain, then, for throwing in a deus ex machina and getting Patrick out of there, on a bus that materializes the second Spongebob leaves his side.

It’s almost as if the world conspires to screw over poor Spongebob, altering the very fabric of time and space to do so. One of the episode’s classic set pieces illustrates an absurdist, catch-22 scenario where Spongebob, hungry after waiting what seems like hours for the bus, discovers, across the road, a “Kandy” machine. Just a single vending machine, hovering there like a mirage or a tempting Siren. After looking down both stretches of the desolate, far-reaching road, he bolts over, checking the road every step, to buy a “kelp nougat crunch” bar. The second he reaches the machine, however, the bus pulls up, stops for a millisecond and leaves.  Spongebob discovers the impossibility of boarding when he reaches into the machine’s tray for a candy bar the moment a new bus arrives, only to pull his hand back out of the tray and watch the bus go backwards. In, out, in, out, forward, backward, forward, backward, like a DJ scratching a record. Spongebob reaches in to tap the candy bar and the bus’s engine purrs. It’s either the candy bar or the bus — or, in actuality, neither. What other children’s cartoon bases its sight gags on the paradoxes of the observer effect and Schrödinger’s cat?

Fed up with his no-win situation, Spongebob thinks a trip to the bus station will somehow solve his problems. He comes in huffing and puffing, yelling, “I’m first in line, and no one’s going to tell me otherwise!” Except the fish he cuts is a giant, moaning pufferfish. Naturally, he limps his way to spot 329. He can’t even hold on to that number for long once the fish in front of him lays an egg from which three clothed babies pop out, also apparently in need of assistance. When he finally reaches the counter, he modifies his accent, adding the requisite “pbbt” sound in between syllables when asking for the next bus. “The next bus leaves in *pbbt* five seconds,” the attendant deadpans. Tired and emasculated, Spongebob cannot find his way home even when conforming to this strange language.

Spongebob’s display of bravado does not hold up when the lights go out, plunging him into what he calls “advanced darkness.” His plan to stick out the night in the bus station is obliterated when that colloquial sound (it sounds like farting) echoes through the hall. He walks, runs and finally sprints away before crashing into a wall, when the anglerfish he met earlier greets him with the glove balloon he lost. The angler ends up giving Spongebob his ticket out, tying the balloon to his wrist, blowing some air into it and sending the confused sponge attached to it floating back to Bikini Bottom. Spongebob thanks the good Samaritan, “Thank *pbbt* you!” “You’re welcome,” a remarkably boring, accent-less voice replies. After all that uncertainty with language and fear of the dark (make of that word what you wish), Spongebob relies on the kindness of strangers to find his way back. The episode ends on a note of optimism and integration, not irrational terror at “the others” of the world.

Well, sort of. Spongebob does make his way back home, but the moment he arrives, his glove balloon pops. Speeding by in a bus, unable to see him, Patrick hollers, “Don’t worry, Spongebob, I’m coming back for ya!” The unbroken cycle of the Absurd commences once again, and this time without a balloon.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

No comments: