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“Film Fest: Tears of a Clone”

It must have been a toss-up between the film festival and the science fair when Clone High was deciding which Very Special episode it should cross off its high school show bingo card next. There’s something irresistible to shows about delving into these events, which are ostensibly to show off the smarts and creativity of the student body, but which always devolve into Darwinian fights to the death on television. Clone High’s film festival, though, goes in a more emotional direction.

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Again, Joan has a crush on Abe. Again, Abe is oblivious. But in “Film Fest,” he gives her a shred of hope that he just might feel the same way, and so Joan puts everything she has into her film (starring Genghis Khan as “Gabe Lincone” in a tiny top hat). As could have been expected, though, Abe doesn’t insist on Joan making a film because he wants her to express her love for him; he thinks she needs an outlet because she’s probably suicidal. Writer Erica Rivinoja (Up All Night, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2) ramps up Abe’s oblivious earnestness to ridiculous effect. He loses track of her in the diner, panics (“JOOOOOOOOAN!”), and gallops a full ten feet to find her at a neighboring booth. “What are you doing here? It’s not safe!” he gasps. “This table’s not even bussed yet!” Later, he crushes Joan’s hopes in about sixty different ways, like he looked in a thesaurus for the most devastating string of synonyms for “friend.” To be frank, there’s very little reason for us to understand why Joan has such a crush on this guy—which is just about perfect for parodying a typical teen drama. The clueless lead dude is never the most interesting character. (Show me someone who would have picked Dawson over Pacey and I’ll show you someone with very little imagination.)

Then there’s the film festival itself. Some things, like the student riot over a cross-country victory, are clear exaggerations or subversions of what’s expected of high school. By contrast, Clone High’s film fest doesn’t feel that far off what an actual high school film fest might look like. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t to say that the student films are boring. It’s just that they’re all exactly what real high school students would have done (give or take an overblown budget).

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Abe, Cleo, Joan, and Gandhi’s films could all be answers on a “Which Kind of High School Kid Were You?” Buzzfeed quiz. “Would your dream movie include:

a) black and white stop motion animation of a pie melting into maggots,

b) an anthropomorphic peanut with a machine gun,

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c) aliens abducting a football hero giraffe,

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or d) none of the above because all it needs is you, the best of the best (of the best of the best)?

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Okay, so the films aren’t that straightforward. But they do continue to prove that Clone High is just as good at expressing true teenage feelings as it was making rapid-fire jokes. These premises are only barely exaggerated from what a real teenager would imagine. (And I haven’t even mentioned secret option (e), in which you don’t make it to the film festival at all because you’re too busy with a steady rotation of regulation hotties backstage.) Gandhi’s fantasy of being a badass cop, Abe’s boyhood fantasies come to life, and Joan’s heavy-handed metaphors are all exemplary of teenage mindsets. This is also a decent showcase for some of Clone High’s fringe clones, like Phil Lord’s blank Genghis Khan and Donald Faison’s humorless George Washington Carver (say what?!).

Outside the teenagers, though, Scudworth and the Shadowy Figures begin their mission creep of becoming the surprise standouts in this show. I was so much less interested in their diabolical machinations when I first watched Clone High that I barely paid attention when they were onscreen. This rewatch, however, has me looking at them in a different way. It doesn’t even matter that it’s impossible to figure out the particulars of their diabolical plans. Scudworth’s manic glee is a treat, especially when set against the Shadowy Figures’ aggressive stoicism. In fact, their entire relationship can be summed up with their initial interaction in this episode. When the Shadowy Figurehead says, “we’ve all done things we’re not proud of after a cross-country meet, but that was unacceptable,” Scudworth is mystified. “Unacceptable?!” he shrieks, spiky fingers held to the sky in protest. “Did you see the pool? They flipped the bitch!” Scudworth may not care about his clones as anything more than an experiment, but he can still be proud when they follow his nihilistic lead.

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Sleep of Faith: A Rue D’Awakening

First and foremost, let’s have a moment to appreciate this episode title.

Now that we’ve done that, let’s talk about why this episode feels like a less-formed prelude to “Raisin The Stakes.”

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The Very Special “you have a problem” episode is a teen show staple. No—it’s teen show catnip. There’s just no resisting the idea of a teen getting in over his or her head with something no one on the show had ever even acknowledged could be a problem, like when Shawn had a beer and become an instant alcoholic on Boy Meets World. “You have a problem” is a shortcut to higher stakes and a neat moral to the story.

So this week on Clone High, Abe is the one with a problem: he refuses to sleep. The impetus as always is the potential to have sex with Cleo, that Holy Grail of high school hookups. The PXJT standardized test is upon them, and so Abe becomes Cleo’s study buddy without benefits. Joan watches in horror as Abe becomes twitchier and twitchier, his already spindly fingers becoming curly with exhaustion and enthusiastic denial.

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The unfair thing is that in retrospect, “Raisin The Stakes” does much of the same with more energy and creativity. “Sleep Of Faith” contains some clever moments, like how every cut to commercial is a dramatic sound effect over a somber black title card, or how dramatically Joan tries to get a zombie-like Abe to stop the shopping cart that’s inching out of his grasp (“it’s going really slowly, Abe, just reach out and grab it!”). Christa Miller also gets her best voiceover moment to date when Joan cries that they’ve got to help Abe, and Cleo just looks down in total disgust and mimics her in that deliciously mean way that might as well be trademarked to Christa Miller. But the actual back and forth of Abe’s sleeping issues loses steam about halfway through the episode. “Sleep!” “No!” just isn’t the most fruitful interaction to drive an A-plot. It’s a problem that “Raisin The Stakes” fixes by playing around with the show’s format—but we’ll get to that later. “Sleep Of Faith” is shaky enough so that by the time Abe ends up drag-racing JFK, I was just as exhausted as him.

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At the very least, though, we do get one of JFK’s best-timed moments in the history of the series (and, tellingly, the only line I remembered from this episode). The second Abe pulls over to take a nap, JFK speeds by, cackling, “Haha! Nothing bad ever happens to the Kennedy’s!”

Cue immediate car flip. This kind of hard, off-color joke is exactly the kind of gag Clone High does best. In fact, looking back at the series has made me appreciate just how good Clone High is about making these hard jokes land with such strict edits. (See: “say what?!”) It reminds me of the piece A.V. Club’s dearly departed Todd VanDerWerff wrote last year about how New Girl’s editors are crucial to helping the comedy land. “The secret to comedy,” he wrote, “particularly when there’s no laugh track or live studio audience, is pacing.” It’s true for New Girl, and I would argue that it holds doubly true for cartoons. There’s very little room for error on a cartoon, which is drawn and edited within an inch of its life, and the pacing can make or break it. Clone High drew on the influences of its contemporaries—Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory immediately springs to mind—but its comic timing is more precise than many of the frantic cartoons that were on television. Today, that torch has been taken up by FX’s Archer, which is edited within an inch of its life to make those cuts and sight gags land.

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In a recurring pattern for this week, though, I found myself laughing more at the misadventures of Scudworth and Butlertron. (If Clone High had continued, there’s no question that someone would have pitched “The Misadventures of Scudworth and Butlertron” as a spinoff.) I can take or leave “Scangrade” (co-writer Judah Miller), the nightmarish PXJT-grader that thrives on number two pencil lead, but the venom he brings out in Butlertron is special. After four episodes with this strange little creature as Mr. Belvedere via R2D2, he sees Scangrade and becomes a foul-mouthed misanthrope. It’s just enough time to have become accustomed to his manners, his pristine (magical) sweater vest, and unfailing kindness, so that it’s all the more fun when he flips the switch.

Stray observations:

  • High School Commiseration Corner: The first time I can remember thinking about film critically was when my English teacher showed us Edward Scissorhands and had us write and storyboard a new scene. Mine was nothing fancy—just Edward spying on Winona Ryder through the bushes like a creeper— but my teacher loved it. He did not love the storyboard, though, because it turns out that I can’t actually draw. But now that I think about it, he was definitely setting us up for failure, because he’s the guy that argue that told us to draw a man with scissors for hands. That is some advanced shit, you guys.
  • Hey, it’s 2002!: Cleo’s film is set to Smashmouth and that’s sold as a plus. Also, Joan’s regrettable dolphin tattoo is saying, “Wazzzuppp?!”
  • “Sleep Of Faith” also attempts to give Gandhi another story to tie into the standardized testing thing, but it’s thin. I also don’t think John C. McGinley ever has another voice on the show besides for Gandhi’s prep course trucker, which is a shame.
  • My favorite part of Joan’s terrible film is her slapping a watermelon and triumphantly crowing, “PAELLA!” Duh.
  • JFK, with a giant wink that says, “I know this is a terrible joke but I am making it anyway”: “Do you mind? Some of us are nailing Catherine the Great here! Or should I say Catherine the So-So?”
  • Scudworth, taking late-night sides: “You pencil pusher. Literally! Remind me to send that one to Leno.”
  • Butlerton, making this Smith College grad very happy: “That Scangrade is such a motherfucking showboat. He’s been that way ever since Amherst.”

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