Back in September of 2012, Nickelodeon unveiled the newest incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a one-hour season premiere. On August 8th, 2013, the first season came to a close with a one-hour season finale. The symmetrical first season had its ups and downs, but no one can deny it was a smashing success from a commercial standpoint as Nickelodeon has already commissioned a second and third season. Once again, the Turtles franchise has proven that it’s harder to squish than a cock roach as it rolls on into its fourth decade of cultural relevance. Such was likely never predicted of the franchise back when it burst onto the scene in the late 1980’s. I would be willing to bet most adults viewed it as the latest flavor of the month they had to endure to keep their kids happy as toys and various other merchandise was consumed by the millions. Perhaps more importantly to fans, the first season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was not only a commercial success, but a creative one as well as it successfully melded the various depictions of the Turtles over the years into an all new show.
I watched and wrote about the season premiere when it first aired and described my reaction as tempered enthusiasm towards the show. That would eventually be replaced with full-on enthusiasm as I set my DVR to record each new episode (which became a challenge to keep track of as the broadcast schedule was all over the place) to watch at my leisure. The show got better as the weeks rolled by and the writers seemed to become more comfortable with the characters. A lot of the humor early on missed the mark but eventually the show found its groove in that department and routinely was able to bring a smile to my face. The show also introduced a major plot thread that was woven through the entire first season revolving around the alien race known as the Kraang which helped make the show feel more significant for regular viewers. I’ve always been a big fan of this approach for television over stand-alone episodes.
That’s not to say the show didn’t have stand-alone episodes here and there. And quite frankly, that was when the show was its most uninteresting. There was a period in the early part of the season where each episode felt like The Villain of the Week where some poor soul would be mutated into a monster the Turtles had to stop. There was still humor to be found in these episodes and some nice action, but there was little lasting appeal. Some of these monsters were also severely lacking in the personality department, both in a behavioral sense and visually speaking. That is definitely one area where the old cartoon still reigns supreme as the villains often had a pretty interesting and fun look to them. That was probably due to Playmates wanting a fun toy to market, but it worked. The show did get better as the season went along, with one of my favorite looks for a villain popping up towards the end in the form of a newt with a Punisher-like pattern to his spots.
Overall, when compared with the old cartoon, the show was less reliant on guest spots and was content to rely primarily on a core group of characters. The Shredder, obviously, was a big part of the first season even if he was secondary to the Kraang threat. The writers wisely kept him out of action though, which made the episodes where he took up arms against the Turtles extra special. He’s also a total bad ass when in combat, a far cry from the bumbling Shredder of the 80’s or even the original comic book Shredder who is famously decapitated by Leonardo at the end of the series’ first book. This Shredder still retains his old look but with more black and bigger blades. He’s also far more scarred than any other as his face has been badly burned and he appears to be blind in one eye. Like the old Shredder, this one also has two mutant henchmen: Dogpound and Fishface. While these two are not as stupid as Bebop and Rocksteady, they’re not any more successful and are often beaten back by the Turtles. Baxter Stockman also falls in with the Shredder during season one and provides him with some heightened technology. Karai, Shredder’s daughter, is also introduced as a bit of tweener villain in that she has a bit of a friendship with Leonardo which serves as the backbone for a series of episodes during the middle part of the first season. Other characters familiar to longtime fans also show up, such as Leatherhead and the Rat King, sporting new designs and new personalities. I particularly enjoyed the new design for the Rat King and thought he was among the best of the villains shown off. I hope to see more of him in the future.
On the Turtle front, the cast basically stayed the same throughout the first season. A lot of old favorites were brought back though such as a new take on the Turtle Van which is now a subway car. The Turtles retain their signature personality traits but they feel more honest this time around. Raphael, for example, doesn’t just get pissed-off because he’s supposed to and Leonardo is far from being an emotionless robot. All of them have strengths and weaknesses, and for the most part, they also feel like teenagers.
Of particular enjoyment for long-time fans were all of the little easter eggs and throwbacks inserted into this series. Metalhead was brought back as a robot constructed by Donatello. He looks fairly similar to the old one, only much smaller. There’s even a spot during the episode were one of the bran-like Kraang latches onto his head, which I have to believe is a nod to the original action figure’s sculpted brain. The leader of the Kraang also inhabits a giant robot body and the antenna on its head evokes images of Krang’s body from the old cartoon. Little things like that go a long way towards pleasing the older fans and trying to spot them is part of the enjoyment in watching the show for me. The Technodrome is also introduced during the season finale, and the long-awaited Splinter vs Shredder confrontation takes place as well. There’s a big reveal in the season finale that I think anyone familiar with the franchise saw from a mile away, but it was still done well and, despite being predictable, is actually a new direction for an old character.
From an artistic standpoint, the show animates quite well and is far superior to the DC CG cartoons currently airing on Cartoon Network. The city streets of New York remained pretty barren for the whole of season one with some signs of life in the finale, but otherwise the show looks good. I like the fact that each turtle has his own shape and anatomy instead of basically looking exactly like the others with the exception of the mask.
All in all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a good show that strikes the perfect balance between action and comedy. The story-telling was also better than could be expected and the writing staff will have a hard time topping season one. Its start reminds me quite a bit of the 2003 cartoon which, for me anyway, fell off quite a bit in the second season and seasons to follow. Hopefully this show doesn’t meet the same fate. Because season one was spread out over so many months, the wait for season two to begin is actually a fairly brief one as its set to kick off in late September. This version of the Turtles may not be violent like the originals, or say “Cowabunga!” like the old toons, but they have a chance to go down as the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles yet!