Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left to right: Clone High (Screenshot: MTV), Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (Image: Sony Pictures Animation), Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (Image: Sony Pictures Animation), The Lego Movie (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Clone High saw Phil Lord and Chris Miller define their own coming-of-age story

From left to right: Clone High (Screenshot: MTV), Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (Image: Sony Pictures Animation), Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (Image: Sony Pictures Animation), The Lego Movie (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)
Graphic: Alison Corr

After becoming a cultural force in the ’90s with shows like Beavis & Butthead, Daria, Æon Flux, and even the claymation gorefest Celebrity Deathmatch, MTV’s animation department was running on empty once the year 2000 hit. Reality shows were dominating programming blocks across networks, and given that MTV was early to embrace that format with The Real World and Road Rules, it was an easy pivot for the network.

But while this relatively cheap programming was becoming all the rage, MTV wasn’t content to give up on animated shows just yet. Instead of investing in their own originals, MTV effectively used Canada’s Teletoon as their farm system, co-producing Clone High and Undergrads, while also just re-airing episodes of Spy Groove in open time slots throughout the week. While each of these shows appeared on paper to be spiritual cousins of their predecessors—shows about the emotions of high school and college-age protagonists—there was something decidedly different here. Where Daria was a stand-in for the disaffected Gen Xer, the emerging millennial demographic was more openly ‘earnest. And that was reflected most overtly in Clone High. Despite its outsized premise, the series wasn’t shy about wearing its heart on its sleeve.

Its characters were rooted in the past, but at its core, Clone High was a modern coming-of-age tale. By taking a slate of historical figures—Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Cleopatra, John F. Kennedy—and putting genetically modified versions of them into a high school setting, Clone High used shorthand knowledge of cultural archetypes to riff on the awkwardness inherent in being a teenager. More importantly, it was the debut project of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative duo who’ve made a career out of addressing the concerns of the millennial generation. As their body of work has expanded, it’s become apparent that Clone High embodied the emotional message of almost every Lord and Miller production: Growing up doesn’t mean changing who you are.

Whether as writers, directors, or producers, the common theme running throughout the collected works of Lord and Miller is present right there in Clone High’s first season. There’s an open appreciation of the emotional messiness and slow, painful growth of our teenage years. Even though they exhumed their characters from textbooks, Lord and Miller treated the teens populating Clone High like real people with real concerns, instead of endlessly malleable archetypes. The characters had distinct fashions and pop-culture interests—Abe was an of-the-moment emo kid, Joan Of Arc was appropriately goth, and Gandhi was probably a massive Michael Bay fan—and those things often informed the way that characters behaved inside their environments. But that doesn’t mean that Clone High was impervious to the issues that so many animated shows have had. In mining world history for its characters, the series whitewashed both Gandhi and Cleopatra by having them voiced by white actors (Michael McDonald and Christa Miller, respectively). It created a glaring flaw at the show’s center and in the wider animation industry, one that only recently has begun to be addressed by actors, showrunners, and producers.

Throughout the 13-episode season, the main characters in Clone High are often found butting up against the standard teen show dramas. But Lord and Miller put their own spin on them by drawing them out, focusing on subtle evolutions within the protagonists in order to make them relatable. Though Abe is fixated on winning the heart of Cleopatra, the undercurrent of him trying to live up to his historical forefather that leads him astray time and again. He’s literally a clone, but he has a personality all his own, and he’s grappling with what it means to design his life in a way that would honor his ancestor, but, ideally, build to a very different ending. This internalizes the classic struggle between parent and child, and cunningly deviates from the forms that emotional and humorous beats can slip into Abe’s story arcs. The same is true for Gandhi, as the episode “A.D.D.: The Last ‘D’ Is For Disorder” focuses on him trying to tamp down his manic tendencies by gulping down something resembling Ritalin to fit in with his classmates. Eventually, Gandhi kicks the pills and reverts back to himself, because who cares what those other clones think anyway?

Despite all the time that’s passed since it originally aired, Clone High’s emotional core remains solidly intact in the present day. That’s not to say that it falls outside of standard coming-of-age tales, but the show’s subtle subversion of them feels like a course correction for the give-the-ugly-kid-a-makeover trope that populated ’90s teen comedies—a cliché openly mocked in the episode “Makeover, Makeover, Makeover: The Makeover Episode.” As Lord and Miller grew their resumé, it became difficult to see them as anything other than the millennial generation’s John Hughes, only with a penchant for using the outsized premises of Weird Science to find the emotional resonance of The Breakfast Club.

And much like Hughes, Lord and Miller know a thing or two about collaborating with like-minded allies, both on and off screen. They co-created Clone High along with Bill Lawrence, the architect of Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Ted Lasso. Together, the three creative heads gave the show the genre-twisting energy of Lawrence’s sitcom projects, as he was able to take live-action fare and give it the elasticity of a cartoon; his eye for the absurd feels right at home in the halls of Clone High. Clone High was also the first of seven projects that Lord and Miller have worked on with Will Forte, who voiced Abe, effectively making him their John Candy.

Lord and Miller have worked to build honest representations of modern teenage life, giving their characters rich interior lives that authentically amplify the situations in which they find themselves, in everything from Clone High to Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. In their first feature film, 2009’s Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, this takes the form of a bonding moment between the film’s main characters, Flint Lockwood and Sam Sparks, when Sam reveals to Flint that when she was bullied for being her true self, she opted to hide behind a facsimile of herself for the sake of assimilating to the world around her. Moments like these aren’t particularly novel in the course of a children’s movie, but this exchange becomes central to the film’s plot, treating the idea of the self as something to be championed and embraced, not tamped down for the sake of others. Seeing Sam express her vulnerability and fear, only to have it be met with an empathetic embrace from Flint, makes good on the promise Clone High tried to make with its audience: No matter how absurd things get, you should care about these people because they care about each other.

Even in a big budget feature like 2014’s The Lego Movie, Lord and Miller were able to retain a semblance of heart (and meta-commentary), proving they rarely make a play for the obvious. They look at things that judgmental adults would call “kid shit” and try to drill into the root of those fascinations. It’s why The Lego Movie builds to a moment where the Lego characters realize there is both a “real world” and a “Lego World,” subtly suggesting to viewers that while you may always be in one, it’s not so bad to go down to the basement and spend some time in the other.

As Lord and Miller moved into the producer role, those same moments continued to come to the surface. In Brigsby Bear, a 2017 film produced by The Lonely Island and executive produced by Lord and Miller, we watch as James Mitchum (Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the script) is held captive by his parents in a bubble boy-style scenario. His only form of entertainment is the show Brigsby Bear, which his father produces and stars in. After James is rescued by police, he’s forced to adapt to a world that he’d long been taught to fear. The film treats James with genuine affection, and so do the characters around him, as they take a genuine interest in the show he loves and even help him attempt to make a movie based on his script. There’s no push for James to grow out of the homemade TV show that defined him as a kid. Instead, the film allows him to use that as his emotional North Star for navigating the world on his own.

And of course, there’s Into The Spider-Verse, one of the few truly authentic and moving superhero films in recent memory. The film sidestepped the rote Peter Parker origin story and instead focused on Miles Morales and his journey of self-discovery by helping displaced Spider-People from other universes find their paths home, all while finding his own in the process. Much like Lord and Miller initially discovered their character-building strengths through telling the stories of a bunch of teenage clones, they made their masterwork by taking a bunch of broken Spider-People and making each one of them whole.

Despite all its charms, it’s important to address why Clone High wasn’t renewed for a second season—well, until recently, that is. As Lord and Miller told it in a 2014 Grantland interview, they were in talks with Viacom for a second season, but in the middle of that, a hunger strike took place in India in protest of the unflattering depiction of Gandhi, the anti-colonial activist who was instrumental in bringing about India’s independence from the British. Miller said, “150 politicians and Gandhi’s grandson sat in a hunger strike at the MTV India offices, right when the head of Viacom, Tom Freston, was visiting, and he was trapped in the building. And they basically threatened that they’d revoke MTV’s broadcasting license in India if they didn’t take the show off the air.” Clone High had plenty of turn-of-the-millennium raunchiness that, in the present, feels more than a little antiquated. Pair this with the whitewashing of both Gandhi and Cleo, and it makes sense why, in 2020, these things can make the show either feel dated or indefensible. But, much like the teens in their stories, Lord and Miller have evolved, notably centering people of color on- and offscreen in Into The Spider-Verse.

With Clone High set to be rebooted, Lord and Miller, along with Lawrence, don’t just have a second chance to make a show they love; they also have the opportunity to correct the mistakes that have been frozen in amber since the show was cancelled. Though there are no firm announcements about what the new version of Clone High will look like, what’s all but a given is that the creative unit that first brought it to life won’t settle for simple fan service. Lord and Miller have proven that, no matter what story they’re telling, or what absurd situation they dream up, their characters will always remain believable and earnest. Together, they tell humanist stories in fun, vibrant ways, allowing them to dive across stylistic boundaries while retaining the same madcap, creative spirit that they’ve had since day one.

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