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Shows ostensibly made for teens will more often than not feature characters that sound nothing like teens. When Dawson Leery asked his father how to kiss a girl, for example, there is never a doubt that an adult wrote that scene. A well-meaning adult, sure, but an adult who was too far removed from teenage experience to really understand how teenagers talked anymore. Clone High makes merciless fun of the melodramatic tropes that are so precious to a Dawson’s Creek, but it also demonstrates an intrinsic understanding of just how confusing and weird it is to be a teenager in a way that Dawson’s Creek never did. The clones’ lives are messy, overwrought, and just dumb in a very realistic, teenage kind of way. So at the same time that Clone High is a hyperbolic parody of teen shows, it can also be one of the most secretly accurate teen shows out there.

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That instinct to subvert while revealing truth is the same one that led Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to success with 21 Jump Street. That movie - a remake - could have taken the premise of going undercover at a high school to retread the same tired stereotypes we’ve seen a thousand times before. Instead, it flipped them to reveal much more interesting (and hilarious) aspects of what high school actually might look like beyond Hollywood’s established image of it, like the scene in which Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill realize they have no idea what high school even means anymore:

This scene’s great not just because Channing Tatum’s greatest strength as a comic actor is pure confusion, but because the new cliques are ridiculous while simultaneously tapping into the real world. As Lord and Miller’s first stab at subverting high school culture, Clone High does much the same — even as it’s predicated on what Scudworth accurately identifies as “such a cute concept!” Lord and Miller have even admitted that the pitch for Clone High was the easiest they’ve ever had: “You know Abraham Lincoln? Now imagine him as a high schooler.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they had just submitted the theme song, which not only sums up the show so well, but is an earworm to boot. (Shoutout to Abandoned Pools, which gets a cameo as the finale’s prom band.)

All this talk of realism is not to diminish Clone High’s power as a parody. It consistently found different ways to take on topics of Very Special importance like drugs or sex and lampoon the way they’re typically depicted with unrelenting glee. While there are dozens of examples throughout the series abbreviated run, “Makeover Makeover Makeover: The Makeover Episode” is one of the cleaner ones. The makeover montage is less a teen television staple as it is a teen movie staple, but potato potataoh; this shit is funny. (In my professional opinion.) The first smash cut to that simpering “makeover, makeover” song lands thanks to the final product, in which Abe has turned Joan into a cliché of an adolescent male fantasy. I’m talking, of course, about the hybrid sexy robot-nurse:

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Truly horrifying; truly accurate.

The reason why “Makeover Makeover” works, though, is because it not only keeps returning to that smash cut, but because every subsequent montage is ridiculous in its own unique way. JFK gives Gandhi a full Kennedy makeover, including a My Fair Lady-esque session on the elusive Newport accent, gauging the exact right height of hair, and refusing multiple khaki and striped-shirt combos for no discernible reason. Toots tries to help his foster daughter Joan after the robot-nurse incident only to end up making everything worse, especially for their poor family pet. Scudworth and Butlertron continue to prance around in their own diabolical world with nary a care in the world (except John Stamos). Finally, Cleo’s makeover montage eschews every appearance of actually giving Joan a new image in favor of a screwball Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy situation, i.e. ladies stealing everything and looking good doing it:

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Truly inspiring; truly perfect.

But for all its mile-a-minute jokes and deliberate spoofs, Clone High wouldn’t have become a cult hit or struck the chord it did had it not taken its characters’ sturm und drang at least a little seriously. “Makeover Makeover” is persistently chaotic, and yet it still manages to eke out a “too real” moment when a dejected Joan tries to explain to Abe why she hates her makeover so much. “I used to feel good about myself,” she cries, “and then you.” It’s a cliché but it’s true; sometimes crushes can crush you under the weight of frustrated expectations. I’ve given the show grief for always sticking Joan with storylines about Abe, but I can’t get mad when it nails moments like this one. Here we have Joan dressed as a sexy cyborg-nurse, and yet this moment — and all the later moments in which Joan sobs through someone else’s vision of how she should look — ring so true to an actual adolescent experience.

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And therein lies the real connection between “Makeover Makeover” and “Changes; The Big Prom; The Sex Romp; The Season Finale.” It’s a two-parter based around The Big Dance, but the real star of both these episodes is the overwhelming teenage angst. More surprising still is the fact that the show seamlessly trades in some of its usual detached distance in favor of some real pathos. Even though I had been noticing Clone High‘s beating heart throughout this entire re-watch, I was still surprised at how much of “Season Finale” plays it straight. Yes, the prom’s in a meat locker. Yes, Gandhi embarks on a disgusting quest to dry hump Clone High’s entire female population, and sure, the prom proposals are literal three-ring circuses. For the most part, though, the focus of “Season Finale” is on the teenagers and their capital f Feelings. Abe can’t concentrate on having sex with Cleo because Joan’s off somewhere with JFK while looking like Joan Jett collided with Lisa Frank — sorry, I meant “an angel.”

Now, the love quadrangle is a soap opera staple that can be exhausting just by virtue of its very existence, but Clone High‘s version in “Season Finale” is far more fun than it has any right to be. It’s not because of Abe, though Will Forte does his best with his most expository material to date. It’s not even because of Joan, though Nicole Sullivan’s manic take on Joan’s attempts to make Abe jealous are as good as anything else she’s done. No, the Clone High love quadrangle works in this “Season Finale” because it builds on the season’s development of Cleo and JFK. Abe and Joan’s storylines could have happened even just a couple episodes into this season, but Cleo’s frustration and JFK’s laissez-faire brand of chivalry grew out of a season trying to figure out their characters. Watching characters evolve past their initial intent is far more interesting than the inevitable, like Abe realizing his feelings for Joan. It’s also why that scene with JFK and a dressed-down Joan works so well.

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We’ve known from the beginning that Joan is stubborn yet insecure, but we had to discover JFK’s personality outside of “and by [word] I mean [sex].” Over time, we learned that JFK has some actual feelings behind his incessant innuendos. This scene is also the perfect follow-up to “Makeover Makeover.” After getting pushed into a spiral of self-doubt and shitty blowouts, of course Joan would fall for the guy who tells her she didn’t need Cleo’s makeover to catch his attention. After all Abe’s neglect - which “Season Finale” helpfully refreshes us on with a scathing montage from the rest of the season - there’s just no question why Joan would go with the guy who tells her with at least some semblance of sincerity that she’s babely enough just the way she is (“ring a ding ding”). And again, there’s very little irony here. It’s just a sweet, quiet scene between two unlikely friends that builds on a season’s worth of development in a completely satisfying way.

Even aside from the clones’ tangled love lives, though, the ending of “Season Finale” is a heartbreaker. Then again, I’ve never seen this finale without already knowing that the show would not go on, so maybe Scudworth freezing everyone mid-epiphanies didn’t seem quite so cruel when they first wrote it. But it’s undeniable that there’s something achingly sad about watching it now with the knowledge that the clones may never thaw out to “laugh and shiver and cry,” or more likely trip and grope and snark, or whatever it is they wanted to do after the most important night of their lives (TM Abe). Watching “Season Finale” in retrospect means knowing that in the clones will likely be frozen in time forever—just like the weird little show that gave them life, however brief.

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Stray observations:

  • Sometimes when I was writing these reviews I forgot that I was writing about a goddamn teenage clone cartoon (see: all my Joan/JFK feelings). But I stand by it: this is one of the best shows about being a teenager out there. Thanks for watching and reading along with me.
  • And now, one last High School Commiseration Corner: I had a lovely prom dress. It was shorter with a bow, like something Grace Kelly would wear, but a bright red that kept it from being too prissy. It was at least different. But since I grew up in New Jersey, I went to a prom dress outlet with my friends and got a floor length royal blue Cinderella atrocity instead, because I was at heart a very boring teen who made deeply uncool decisions. But it worked itself out just fine, since I’m obviously super cool now.
  • Hey, it’s 2002!: Not sure if John Stamos counts (though Scudworth passing on his best to the former Mrs. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos definitely does), but I still wanted to mention him because oh man. The gratuitous violence on this show can be a bit much, but Scudworth grabbing the crown only to stab Stamos in the eye with it makes me laugh every time.
  • Looking back, I wish the female clones outside of Joan and Cleo got storylines that didn’t just have JFK and Gandhi hitting on them. Even George Washington Carver got a buddy cop movie!!
  • Speaking of “too real” moments, Scudworth’s meltdown felt very familiar to me: “I’m so disorganized! I start to dial, but I never call anyone back! You should see my car! It’s a mess. I’m a mess! I go to the submarine sandwich restaurant and I leave my submarine sandwich restaurant value card at home,every time! All I want is a free sandwich. STAMOS!”
  • Cleo and Joan, on if they’re thinking what each other’s thinking: “Makeover!” “Suicide!”

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