ONE SEASON WONDERS: MTV’s Downtown

The 1990s was an exciting time for animation.  Cartoons reigned supreme from the box office to the living room.  In addition, the ’90s ushered in a genre of animated storytelling which had previously been unable to find its footing in mainstream culture: cartoons for adults.  When a little ‘toon on FOX called The Simpsons became a sleeper hit in 1989, every network wanted its own version of the series.  Most early attempts were met with poor reviews, and quickly axed.  A few managed to garner positive attention, and developed cult followings, particularly those produced by MTV.  Among the station’s lesser-known cartoons (basically every cartoon that wasn’t Daria or Beavis and Butt-Head) was a tasty little slice of Gen X pie called Downtown.

Downtown premiered in the summer of 1999, and chronicled the escapades of a circle of mostly 20-somethings and older teens living in Manhattan.  The show’s central character is Alex, a geek who has recently moved out of his parents’ house, and desperately wants to shed his toy-hoarding tendencies.  His best friends are despondent Jenn, and Goat, the resident weirdo who knows everyone.  Alex’s love interest is goth gal Serena.  Feisty Chaka, Alex’s little sister, leads the pack of adolescent characters – dreamy Mecca, wannabe player Fruity, and laid back tagger Matt.

Positive reviews from critics, and an Emmy nomination for outstanding animated program in 2000 could not keep the show on the air, however.  Many of the show’s fans attribute poor marketing on MTV’s part to the series’ cancellation after its thirteen-episode first season.

I didn’t become acquainted with Downtown until about 2001, when I was in my first year of high school.  At that time, YTV (Canada’s answer to Nickelodeon, more or less) was airing reruns of the show at the ungodly time of 1 a.m. on Saturdays.

Growing up in a Ukrainian Catholic family, I was raised to believe that swearing made you evil, and that babies came from Heaven. Merely hearing “the f word” uttered by one of my degenerate classmates was enough to cause me to go into anaphylactic shock. Shows like The Simpsons and South Park, with their comical child abuse and proliferations of  profanity, were strictly verboten in our household.

Nonetheless, Downtown appealed to me, because in spite of its intended audience, it was relatively “clean”.  Sure, I caught the allusions to sex and drugs, but the references were neither frequent nor blatant enough to scare me away.  I immediately identified with snarky Jenn, wanted to look like Serena (a desire which may have subconsciously influenced my later penchants for rings, leather, slate-grey nail polish, and aubergine-hued locks), and my soft spot for Alex had a tremendous influence on my taste in men over the next few years.

While Downtown has been off the air for over ten years, it remains one of my all-time favourite shows.  I loved watching it in my teen years because it made me feel grown-up, but I appreciate it even more in my twenties.  Although it’s animated, Downtown may have presented audiences with one of the most realistic and honest portrayals of young adult life in the history of television.

In developing the series, creator Chris Prynoski would visit Manhattan’s lower East Side, and record conversations with people he met there.  Episode plots were then based on these anecdotes.  In addition, many of the residents to whom he spoke were recruited to provide voices for the characters.  They were literally people off the street, and their lack of vocal training allowed characters’ speech to flow realistically.  By using non-actors, Prynoski also ensured that aurally-inclined viewers would not recognize someone’s voice from a kids’ cartoon on the WB, further enhancing the show’s naturalness; these weren’t cartoon character voices, but “regular people” voices.

The “actors” were also encouraged to improvise many of their lines, resulting in the characters’ use of more fillers like…well, “like”, “um”, and “uh” than audiences are used to hearing on scripted TV. Much of the dialogue is lost when characters interrupt and talk over one another.  These disfluencies may be off-putting to those who long for razor-sharp writing, but they highlight the fact that the show reflects how real people actually speak.  The improvisation of script also results in a very natural delivery of amusing lines that aren’t contrived for maximum LOLs.  Viewers aren’t going to be bowled-over with laughter, wishing they were as witty as the main cast; they probably already are, or are at least friends with people who are.

Regarding the episodes themselves, their titles are mostly nondescript.  With easily relatable names like “Train Pain,” “Hotel Bar,” and “Night Shift,” viewers are able to recall their own experiences of taking the wrong train with friends, or working late. These are everyday happenings that hardly merit being the focus of a television episode. However, the playful banter they’re punctuated with reminds audiences that often, the funniest times in your life are those spent doing mundane shit with your buddies. While the idea of a show about “nothing” had already been exemplified by sitcoms such as Seinfeld and Friends, it was a novelty in animation directed at older viewers.

The dynamic of the core cast feels sincere without the audience needing to see it evolve.  Whereas many TV shows throw characters together so that friendships develop over the course of the series, Downtown’s relationships are already firmly established.  Viewers listen to (and watch via flashbacks) Alex and Jenn’s shared recollections of highschool, and Chaka and Mecca talking about where they went the other night.  There’s never any sense that these characters stop existing once the credits roll.  Their exchanges are so casual and realistic, that we feel as though we’re listening in on actual conversations.

Through its varied and colourful cast, it’s clear that Downtown does not glorify one subculture at the cost of another.  Playful jabs are taken at Chaka’s club-hopping, Alex’s toy collecting, and Serena’s goth lifestyle; no one is spared.  Each character has their own niche, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t all co-mingle.  This fluidity between subcultures is illustrated by Goat, who embraces a sleazy biker attitude and wardrobe, but isn’t too proud to venture out and try new things.  He’s as comfortable on his hog as he is donning a red onesie and going to a trendy club, or attending a comic book convention. The show is totally objective in its depictions of its characters, and maintains an air of realism without choosing sides.

When discussing shows that aim to satirize various facets of society dominating the television landscape (this has generally been the case since The Simpsons premiered, especially with regards to adult animation), it’s difficult to know what to make of a program like Downtown, which viewed everyone with a neutral eye.  It had no agenda, no heroes, no villains.  “People just hanging out and talking” is a pretty accurate description of the series. It didn’t provide us with a lot of social commentary, but it sure as hell painted a much more realistic portrait of young adult life than the protagonists of Friends or 2 Broke Girls do.  Not that I’m trivializing the cultural significance of such sitcoms.  The horse community was severely under-represented on primetime comedy shows prior to the premiere of 2BG this past fall, for example.  Still, I think we could do with a few more Goats on TV.

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5 responses

  1. That was such a vivid and true example of what Downtown all about. Truly enjoyed this. This show was such a part of me growing up! Even down to the late night Saturday night YTV ritual… Thank you for the eye opening incites into Downtown. So gooood!

    • Aw, and thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed my rambling. If I recall correctly, my Friday night/Saturday morning ritual consisted of Home Movies on YTV at midnight, The Maxx on Teletoon at 12:30, and then back to YTV for Downtown at 1.

  2. Pingback: 22 Things to Watch When You’re Not Feeling Well | The Story of Rei

  3. This cartoon is great! I just discovered it, but i’ve read about it a few years ago (maybe two) i never checked it out though, which is too bad. But the soundtrack, art style and scenes are just so.. genious! And i like how the cast is multi-racial, unlike Daria, where there are only.. two black kids in their school.

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