Saturday Morning All-Star Hits (Netflix)
Written by Kyle Mooney, Ben Jones, Dave McCary, and Scott Gairdner
Directed by Ben Jones & Dave McCary
Nostalgia is one of the most dangerous sentiments people can have, made even worse when an entire society becomes regressively lost in it to avoid confronting present-day problems. Unfortunately, America is currently a society obsessed with nostalgia, with each generation suckling at memories from their childhood and yearning to return to that state of unknowing. “Make America Great Again” implies a better time, and even those who wear this proudly do so without acknowledging that it would not have been better for adults in their economic class. The pull of nostalgia is most potent during times of societal collapse and is one of the many tendrils of fascism that very slyly closes around the throat of the future. Kyle Mooney and co-creator Ben Jones have managed to create a streaming series that bathes in the aesthetics of nostalgia but doesn’t succumb to the lies that it was better “back then.”
Saturday Morning All-Star Hits is the name of a fictional 1980s/90s animated kid’s television block hosted by surfer twins Skip and Treybor (both Kyle Mooney). This duo start out like any other inane hosts of the era, introducing a bevy of cheaply produced cartoons often designed to sell toys and accessories. However, it becomes clear very quickly there’s something off as the cartoons presented in the show display some very adult themes. Randy (a parody of Denver the Last Dinosaur) is about a dino-dude going through a tough break-up because he won’t get help for his alcoholism. The Create-A-Crittles follows a yuppie ad-man who gets his inspiration from a quartet of magical beings that live in his garage, drawing inspiration from Care Bears and Alvin & the Chipmunks. These are just two of the many parodies that paint the series much darker than it appears on the surface.
What makes SMASH an even more engaging series is when the creators decide to break the mold. After four episodes of the same structure, we suddenly get episodes that build on the lore the show has established. Between cartoons, we get commercials for fake products but also celebrity news centered around a Blossom-analog and the personal drama its star becomes involved in. There’s murder, a manhunt, careers are built and fail, and we experience it all through fragmented VHS recordings complete with tracking issues. Every time a recording ends or starts, we briefly glimpse home video footage from the period that I suspect comes from Mooney and/or Jones’ real childhood homes. The implication is of fragments of childhood breaking through memories of pop culture. It’s something I have experienced, having forgotten a lot of my dysfunctional upbringing but being able to recall in great detail all the films & shows I watched.
I don’t think anyone watching SMASH will feel that the good old days were better. Instead, it will recall the playful nature we viewed things with but counters that by dropping some severe adult concerns into our laps. There’s a throughline of brothers feeling inadequate in the shadow of their more successful siblings. Skip & Treybor are the most obvious, but we’re eventually introduced to a Joey Lawrence-type and his brother, where sibling rivalry spills over into a hyper-violent cartoon about pro sports athletes. This adds a creepiness but doesn’t dilute the show’s deep humanity, similar to Mooney’s feature debut Brigsby Bear.
SMASH isn’t just a case of dirty jokes in what appears to be kids’ cartoons. There’s something deeply unsettling, a growing dread that builds the further you get into the series. I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as horror, but it certainly had the potential to go that route. I had similar thoughts before watching Brigsby Bear, looking for something darker than it likely is. I think Mooney is making what he feels most comfortable with, and I prefer that over whatever my personal interpretation of a trailer or piece of marketing. He seems deeply concerned with reconciling that sense of wonder we have as children, particularly in the face of mass media, with the difficulties of growing up. These cartoon shows sell a false image of life, and we can see that if we honestly revisit them rather than putting on rose-colored glasses.
I don’t see this as being a series that should continue. SMASH is a story that should remain as unresolved as its finale presents. It adds to the messy nature of growing up, where bad blood simmers between people, and we don’t get neat & tidy conclusions in our relationships. I hope Mooney continues exploring this anti-nostalgia space, finding ways to play with audience expectations and go beyond just the surface level of bright & shiny cartoons that enamored us as kids.