Let’s talk about Ben Ten.
Ben Ten is one of those shows that I have abhorred, from its very inception, with an almost mythological hatred. Everything about it irked me. The ‘kids’ that never really acted like kids. The stupid catch phrases. The constant ‘plucky boy teases uppity girl’ dynamic of the two main characters. The whole thing seemed like a transparent attempt to sell toys.
Even the concept seemed thin. Young boy and prodigal twerp Ben Tennyson encounters a weird bracelet called The Omnitrix. Ben puts it on, as children do when they find smouldering bits of jewelry in glowing craters, and promptly can’t get it off. He soon discovers that if he fiddles with The Omnitrix and then whacks it, he turns into one of ten cool super powered aliens.
Cue the crime fighting.
For some reason, he spends all of his time traveling the country with his grandpa and his brainy yet bratty girl cousin Gwen. Adventures ensue. Young Ben Tennyson frequently saves the day through a churlish remark and an ill advised poop joke while in the form of a pigeon-monkey-swamp monster.
The crowd goes wild.
You can see why I preferred even ‘The Batman’ cartoon to Ben Ten on a slow Saturday Morning.
All of this made life more difficult for me when Ben Ten’s sequel came out, a series set several years in the future called ‘Ben Ten: Alien Force’. Like its predecessor, Ben Ten has an Omnitrix, and there is much crime fighting.
And now I can’t get enough of it.
Aaaaugh, and thus the hair tearing. I have principles, dammit! Just because the characters have aged a few years doesn’t make the concept any thinner, doesn’t make the banal banter any more tolerable. The animation is still wooden, the characters are still flat. Why am I suddenly obsessed with the misadventures of teenage Ben and Gwen, now with the addition of Gwen’s bad boy love interest, Kevin Eleven?
I am not even lying my friends his name is Kevin Eleven.
I think it’s because Ben Ten has finally fallen successfully into its target genre, a subset that I like to call ‘Dream Fiction’. See, there are essentially two classes of children’s programming. There are cartoons that appeal to kids because they can see themselves realistically in the main character’s role. Shows like Teletoon’s ‘6teen’ or ‘Total Drama Island’ or even Spongebob Squarepants, all depict average ‘adolescents ‘ doing believably adolescent things. The other class, the Dream Fiction class, depicts a life that kids wish desperately that they were a part of. This shit is everywhere. Pokemon. Teen Titans. Avatar: the Last Airbender. YuGiOh. Ninja Turtles. All of these shows have protagonists that kids would either like to BE or would like to be friends with.
When Ben Ten was originally put on the air, the titular brat had the wrong balance of average and extraordinary. He was too obnoxious and immature to be someone that his audience looked up to as a hero, but his life was too strange and dangerous for the audience to feel any empathy for his situation. Nobody wanted to be Ben Ten, and nobody had anything in common with him.
However, when the sequel began airing, the character had made fantastic leaps in his heroic believability. He was still flawed, yeah. He was a kid. He often screwed up and there was an aura of immaturity around him, but he had dropped most of the impish quips that made me want to punch his younger self. He was less cocky, more awkward, and still a part of daily adventures that hold his audience’s interest, even while he wonders What Girl To Ask To Prom. The show’s creators finally found the balance they shot for in the beginning, and the show has become wildly popular.
Also, they gave the brainy cousin magic powers. I could write a whole essay on the powers given to girls in cartoons, but suffice it to say that I think all of her glowy purple demon whatsit is awesome enough to defy stuffy cultural criticism, although I want to be clear that if I wanted to I could get all analytical on this show. When talking to Laura about it, she mentioned the dynamics between Ben and his folks, and the numerous ways Gwen’s boobs add to her character development in the sequel to the original. I’d rather keep this brief though, and keep my focus on Ben’s transition from Douchewad Twerp to Passable Human Being.
Ben Ten: Alien Force still isn’t my favorite show on the air. Like I said, even though the basis of the characters has improved a great deal, the dialogue and the animation are both a bit gawky and stiff. However, its shortcomings don’t stop me from turning it on every Saturday Morning and giggling every time Ben turns into HUMONGOSAUR and yells “HUMONGOSAAAAAUR” like a Pokemon from Hell and tramples on some unsuspecting alien envoy from Jupitard or The Endless Void Of Nothingness or whatever. At this point, it is just quality entertainment and I am able to enjoy it without my inner nine year old saying, “Well, come on, even I think this is stupid, and I liked Transformers Animated so that is saying something.”