Looking back at Clone High

Mark looks back at Phil Lord and Chris Miller's ahead-of-its-time animated MTV series, Clone High...

Previously, on a very special episode of Clone High…

“Way, way back in the 1980s, secret government employees dug up famous guys and ladies and made amusing genetic copies. Now the clones are sexy teens and they’re gonna make it if they try.”

So goes the theme tune to Clone High, the MTV animated series that ran for one season from 2002 to 2003. As a concept for a TV series goes, there’s a hell of a lot of mileage in doing a teen drama featuring the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Joan of Arc, John F Kennedy and Cleopatra in school together.

The series was animated in the style of Genndy Tartakovsky’s hand-drawn animated series, such as Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, with stylised character design and slightly more limited movement, making it a particularly nostalgic treat for fans of that era of TV animation, but there’s more than one reason to go back and discover this hidden gem.

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Clone High was masterminded by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who’ve subsequently gone on to make a series of stealth attack masterpieces out of unlikely sources, from Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (a film of a 34-page children’s book) to 21 Jump Street (a reboot of a slightly implausible 1980s cop show) and most recently, The LEGO Movie (a film made out of LEGO!)

Their latest, 22 Jump Street, takes the undercover antics of detectives Schmidt and Jenko into college. It’s been a huge hit since its advance opening in the UK last Friday and it looks set to do well in the US too. Despite that success, Lord and Miller have (perhaps only half-jokingly) said that their whole movie career together has merely been a pitch for a second season of Clone High.

In retrospect, Clone High very much feels the kicking-off point for some of the stuff they were doing in 21 Jump Street, making a hell of a statement about both teen movies and buddy cop action flicks.

Clone High arrived right at the point when dramatic shows about the trials and tribulations of teenagers were hugely popular on American networks. For instance, over at Cartoon Network around the same time, the crew behind Batman: The Animated Series were asked to look into making “teenage Batman”, a concept the showrunners eventually wrangled into the far-better-than-it-sounds Batman Beyond.

Lord and Miller didn’t have the Dark Knight on their side, but they could always hang their pitch on what Abe Lincoln was like as a teenager. If it were only a parody of shows like Dawson’s Creek, Clone High would have been bang-on with its spoofing of “very special episodes”, covering issues such as drug addiction, finding prom dates and the inevitable “tonight, someone dies” episode. But as in all of their movies since, they added a whole different dimension by also include teenaged versions of different historical icons.

Sure, the show is funny, but the two of them have a knack for developing action from characters, rather than vice versa, and much of Clone High is about the central characters feeling pressured to live up to expectations, with more historical weight than their live action contemporaries. These poor kids all have super-famous precedents to follow, and they each react to these in quite eclectic ways.

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Abe is basically the protagonist of the show and he’s in exactly the perpetually indecisive and nebbish mode that you don’t associate with the Sixteenth US President. When we first meet him, he’s just chuffed to have grown over the summer and grown a little facial hair, which he thinks will help him seduce the promiscuous queen bee Cleopatra.

In the meantime, he’s completely oblivious to the affections of his best mate, Joan of Arc, whose direct line to divinity seems to have been supplanted by “cynical goth chick voices” in her clone’s head.

The two of them are sometimes accompanied by Gandhi, a kid with ADD who just wants everybody to like him, but the love triangle between Abe, Joan and Cleopatra is the series’ arcing storyline, with Abe too horny for Cleopatra to notice his best friend’s obvious unrequited love for him. Most of the characters wind up standing on a random jetty and staring out to sea at one point or another, but this is the main source of all the friction.

Elsewhere, characters like JFK have bizarre misconceptions about the legacy they have to live up to – the young jock aspires to be as close to the “macho, womanising stud who conquered the Moon” as he can possibly be.

The other major regular characters are Principal Scudworth and his robot butler Mr Butlertron, (voiced by Lord and Miller respectively) who usually have their own B-plot going on as Scudworth plots to steal all the clones away from the Secret Board of Shadowy Figures (yep, the Big Bads behind the scheme are really called that) and put them in a Jurassic Park-style attraction called “Cloney Island”.

The series was executive produced by Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, so aside from Will Forte as Abe, most of the cast are alumni of the medial sitcom. Zach Braff, Donald Faison, John C. McGinley, Sarah Chalke and the inimitable Neil Flynn all have various roles throughout the series, and Sacred Heart guest stars Nicole Sullivan, Michael McDonald and Christa Miller have regular roles as Joan, Gandhi and Cleopatra respectively.

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There are some other guest star cameos that date the show slightly. Even if Tom Green and Andy Dick are now far from the casting coups that they would have been at the time, there are some decent guest spots for Jack Black, Marilyn Manson and Mandy Moore (as “Herself?”) Lawrence even roped in his Spin City star Michael J Fox for a guest role in the pilot as Gandhi’s Remaining Kidney, which is surely the most unique credit on his IMDB profile.

Personally speaking, the jockish JFK is probably the funniest character in the show, voiced by Chris Miller himself with a deliberately exaggerated impression that makes The Simpsons’ Mayor Quimby sound underplayed. He’s especially good in the show’s tenth and very best episode, Litter Kills: Literally, in which his hitherto unseen best friend, Ponce de León, is killed off in a shower of hilarious foreshadowing.

The episode lampoons that most cloying teen drama trope of killing someone off, with the joke being that Poncey has never been seen in another episode before he’s dramatically (and violently) nixed in a preachy pincer movement of “live every day as if it’s your last” and “don’t litter, because it might actually kill you.”

Of course, the controversy that looms over the series is its most eclectic character. Apparently inspired by stories of Mohandas Gandhi’s early social life, before he became the iconic pacifist that we all recognise, Clone High’s Gandhi re-styles himself as “G-man”, a party animal whose extroverted nature still can’t disguise what a dork he is.

Caught up in a separate furore over a tasteless Maxim magazine photoshoot involving the beloved leader’s image, the character sparked outrage in India and in early 2003, protesters including members of parliament went on hunger strike over what was seen as an insulting depiction of Gandhi. MTV quickly apologised and started thinking about how best to avoid this sort of thing happening again.

Despite a couple of contingency pitches for season two that didn’t include the G-man, (either omitting him and never mentioning it, or alluding to the idea that he was a clone of Gary Coleman instead) the combination of controversy and poor ratings led MTV to decide against airing the five remaining episodes at the time. The show that replaced it in its timeslot was Punk’d, the Ashton Kutcher celebrity pranking show that went on to be a huge success and arguably gives us more due cause to roll out the “This is why we can’t have nice things” wagon.

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Unfortunately for us, the series ended on a typically ridiculous and unresolved cliffhanger (which we won’t spoil here) that could have led to new territory in following seasons. Lord and Miller still carry a torch for the series though and have said as much while doing press rounds for 22 Jump Street – while their current TV deals at Fox and Lawrence’s current TV deal at Warner Bros might get in the way of a second season, a movie is apparently still on the cards.

For their part, they have a very good sense of humour about how certain episodes of Fox’s The O.C, which started a little while after Clone High, did many of the things they had parodied, but completely straight and with much greater popularity.

Miller told Film School Rejects: “In that first season [of The O.C.], they had, like, four episodes that had the same storyline structure as ours, and people kept emailing me saying, “Oh my god! Can you believe this? It’s the same thing as Clone High!” But they were ripping off stuff from the same source that we were ripping stuff off, so of course it was the same story.”

To look back on Clone High, it feels only slightly ahead of its time. Prime time animated sitcoms came back in a big way when Seth MacFarlane restarted production on Family Guy and his stable of shows and we now have culture of online discourse where children’s animated shows like Adventure Time and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic can find a devoted fanbase outside of its intended audience. You have to wonder how well the series might have been received if it had only come along a few years later.

For now, the complete series is available to download from the US iTunes store, if you’re reading this in the States. As for DVDs, if you can’t wait for someone to release a shiny new special edition “complete series” set with a handy “From the makers of 21 and 22 Jump Street” sticker on there, then we encourage you to do a little creative international shopping for the original set online and check this one out if you can, because it’s well worth it.

In mocking the event episodes of more generic live-action teen shows, there’s a clear tongue-in-cheek reason why every episode of Clone High dubs itself “very special”. Ironically, on account of its short-lived run, they look even more special in hindsight. The one season we got is a genuinely clever and thoughtful forerunner to the rest of the Lord and Miller canon to date and its cult popularity foreshadowed (even if it was overshadowed by) the success of numerous animated series which have come along since it went off the air.

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