Kids TV has evolved. From its earliest days children’s entertainment was heavily episodic. Nearly every story was self-contained and rarely would events from one episode carry over into the next. Part of that was because of episodes rarely being rerun. If you missed an episode, you were pretty much out of luck if the story was serialized.
Around the 1980s things began to change. Series like Robotech helped pioneer kids entertainment whose stories could carry on from week to week. Watching all of the episodes was pretty much required to fully enjoy the entire series.
The ’90s saw this trend grow with Gargoyles, X-Men, Beast Wars, ReBoot, and more. It wasn’t the norm but slowly storytelling was evolving. In the 2000’s more and more shows became tightly serialized, with Avatar: The Last Airbender being the most critically acclaimed one of all. Even series that could be enjoyed week to week had light elements of serialization where the show would slowly grow and change over time including Teen Titans, Code Lyoko, Justice League Unlimited, and more.
Nowadays serialized kids TV shows haven’t exactly become the norm but they’re the ones that garner most of the critical and fan attention. Steven Universe, Adventure Time, Voltron: Legendary Defender, and Gravity Falls have all earned hardcore fan bases that bring in huge crowds at conventions, sell tons of merchandise, and spark heated discussions online.
Even if episodic shows tend to be more popular, with series such as Nickelodeon’s The Loud House scoring big ratings, they tend to get passed over by older fans in favor of serialized series. Many feel episodic one off plots are more suited to gag humor for little kids. Dumb fart jokes, endless pratfalls, or nonsensical plots. That isn’t to say those are always bad things but to many older animation fans episodic kids cartoons aren’t worthy of their attention.
Cartoon Network’s We Bare Bears is. It uses episodic storytelling to its full advantage and crafts adventures that are perfectly suited to the format.
“The Library” features the three titular bears, Grizz, Panda, and Ice Bear trying to help their human friend Chloe study but inadvertently give her a sugar rush that makes it ten times harder to study. Chaos ensues. If you’ve ever stayed up late in a college library studying for exam, you’ll find some extremely relatable moments here.
“Coffee Cave” finds the bears opening a coffee shop but when they can’t handle the amount of business Panda and Grizz give Ice Bear caffeine despite his warnings, turning him into a coffee obsessed killing machine.
“Yard Sale” has Ice Bear watching a pregnancy work out video. What more do you need to know?
Daniel Chong, creator of We Bare Bears, believes the lightheartedness of the stories lends the series to being more episodic and traditional. “It gives us more flexibility in some ways when we write,” he says.
Chong believes that the trend of more serialization comes from writers and artists growing up with Japanese anime, which was often more heavily serialized than American series. “I didn’t grow up with that as much,” he explains. “I grew up with more one off episodes and then everything just restarted at the beginning of every episode and (We Bare Bears) is me taking from my childhood a little bit.”
The problem with some episodic series, such as Miraculous Ladybug, is that you can see a deeper story just under the surface that could be greatly expanded with serialization but for whatever reason the writers aren’t allowed to take it furthur.
We Bare Bears on the other hand was expressly created to live in the comedic episodic format. The Bears biggest goal is trying to make friends and find acceptance in a world of humans. The show just wouldn’t be the same if it were serialized.
While We Bare Bears is episodic that doesn’t make writing it any easier. In fact, episodic TV has its own challenges.
“The biggest problem now,” says Chong, “is that we’ve written almost a hundred episodes at this point and we’re trying to not be redundant and not tell the same story. We are trying to find new ways to push the stories and push these characters that don’t grow that much. They stay in stasis because it’s episodic.”
In the We Bare Bears writers room the team will often get frustrated with their new episode ideas being too similar to old ones.
“We don’t want to tread over similar waters. That’s been the biggest challenge,” Chong explains.
Even if the series is produced to be episodic, some light elements of serialization have made their way into the show. Chong and the writers do track certain characters growth; such as the villainous, internet fame-obsessed Nom Nom, the reclusive bigfoot Charlie, or the overly confident Ranger Tabes.
“We’ve slowly been softening (Nom Nom) a little bit,” Chong says. “He hasn’t been as aggressive to the Bears. With Grizz he’s got an odd couple relationship. They can exist together and it doesn’t become horrible every time.”
Charlie, who was once too afraid to be seen, is now best pals with the Bears and can even be near humans sometimes. So long as he’s in a trash can, as seen in the recent episode, “Private Lake.” Charlie and Ranger Tabes have also begun to cross paths as well, bringing the supporting cast closer together.
The series’ Baby Bears plotline, where the show will sometimes have an entire episode dedicated to the bears as babies, features a light ongoing storyline as well. Chong sees these episodes as, “a more serialized thing. We see how they journey on their own and eventually we’ll someday answer how they met. Their single stories have an order we’re writing them in.”
Even with that, Chong says We Bare Bears will never become as serialized as other series. “Overall we’re still keeping it episodic but we’re slowly keeping in mind things we grow with and characters we want to evolve slightly.”
If you haven’t taken a look at We Bare Bears because it’s an episodic series, we highly recommend you give it a shot. Just because it’s meant for kids or it doesn’t have an ongoing arc shouldn’t keep you away. Chong explains that, “we make it for everybody. For the kids we try to make the story and their adventures kind of broad and goofy. For adults we add a lot of inside jokes to a lot of internet and modern references. There’s a lot of great verbal jokes that the writers and story artists put in that should be interesting for adults to watch alongside with their children or on their own.”
We Bare Bears airs on Cartoon Network.
With a big bear hug and a smile, Shamus Kelley will be there. Follow him on Twitter!
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