By now everyone knows that Will & Grace, That '70s Show, Malcolm In The Middle, and The West Wing are going off the air. All shows that had exhausted their appeal a few seasons back (although I heard good things about recent West Wing developments), I doubt they'll be much missed next year. Their departure has gotten a fair amount of coverage, much more than the finale of Cartoon Network's Justice League Unlimited, the DC Comics' all-stars cartoon that winds up a five-year run tomorrow night. (For exceptions see: The Seattle Post Intelligencer and Scott Tipton's always informative column at comics101.com.)
Anyone automatically averse to taking a superhero cartoon show seriously can click back to reading Savage Love or something now. Some folks' tastes don't work that way. I won't hold it against you. But suffice it to say that if you missed Justice League you missed out on the most sophisticated series involving people in capes and tights punching one another ever aired. Or one of them anyway. Justice League Unlimited, formerly just Justice League, was the latest, and possibly last, series in what came to be known as the DC Animated Universe, a project that stretches back to 1992 with the Eric Radmoski and Bruce Timm-produced Batman: The Animated Series. Batman's look was immediately striking. Timm designed the characters in a clean-line style, defining the series' players in as few strokes as needed to get the job done. The look became the spirit of the show, which used Batman and his friends and foes to enact dramatically simple, emotionally complex morality plays that hearkened back to the golden age of radio drama. This was pulp fiction done right: Larger-than-life characters playing out contemporary anxieties on an oversized stage. A top writing staff and voice cast rose to the occasion. There are projects when everyone seems to know they're involved with something special.
More series followed, all worthwhile: Superman, a second pass at Batman, the next-generation Batman Beyond and finally Justice League. After an awkward start, Justice League developed into the best of the run, first bringing in familiar comic book heroes like The Flash, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern then seemingly everyone else in the DC Universe and finding stories big enough to accommodate the expanded cast. Last season's overarching story–largely courtesy of Timm and ace writer Dwayne McDuffie–touched on everything from government paranoia to the changing definition of heroism to the burdens of leadership to the problems of workplace romances–all done with a deft touch and, it must be said, some pretty awesome fight scenes. It captured what Timm's shows have always done best: Using the materials of 12-year-olds' fantasies to construct stories sophisticated enough for grown-ups to enjoy without losing sight of their kid appeal. (Someone has to buy all those bedsheets and action figures, after all.)
Saturday might be the end of it all. Timm's reportedly working on a top-secret new project that may have nothing to do with the DCAU (or maybe it does). In some ways it would be a shame for it to end now after 14 years of usually excellent work. But, hey 14 years is a pretty good run for what began as a dark little after-school that snuck in everyone's expectations to create a world unto itself.