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Arts and Culture News

'He-Man': An Appreciation of a Childhood Cartoon

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Why did we, dear listeners, waste those precious childhood hours watching such terrible TV shows? Why? And how is it they still can snag our attention if we happen to catch them in reruns? Sam Anderson is a contributor to the online magazine Slate, and recently he discovered a new DVD set of a truly awful kids show that did change his life.

(Soundbite of TV show He-Man)

Unidentified Announcer: And the master of the universe.

SAM ANDERSON reporting:

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of standing, at 6 years old, in front of the family TV and making myself an extremely solemn promise. No matter what happened in my life, no matter where I ended up or who I married or how my tastes changed, I would never stop watching He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

(Soundbite of TV show He-Man)

Unidentified Announcer: By the power of Grayskull.

ANDERSON: The cartoon was my great healing myth. He-Man, a half-naked, steroidal, Aryan beefcake, strode into my life at a moment of intense crisis, just after my parents' divorce.

(Soundbite of TV show He-Man)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character): We are proud you are on our side.

Mr. CAM CLARK (Actor): (As He-Man) Thank you, your majesty.

ANDERSON: My life-long commitment to him was a childish attempt to drop some kind of anchor in heavy, existential seas. Unfortunately, the promise turned out to be hard to keep. He-Man was canceled after its second season, and I moved on to other cartoons.

But a small part of me never forgot that promise. I felt like I had betrayed that desperate little boy.

(Soundbite of music)

ANDERSON: Now, more than 20 years later, I've had the chance to renew my vow. Thanks to a newly released DVD set, I'm in the midst of a second He-Manhood.

Re-watching He-Man the show was instant time travel. It hit me like a big, muscle-y Proustian Madeleine. The show is vacuum-sealed in 1983. The moment I heard its heroic, trumpety theme music, I felt again what it was like to be four feet tall, devoted to catching grasshoppers, ashamed of my chronically runny nose, and eager to escape from the inscrutably messy adult world into the clean moral lines of He-Man's home planet, Eternia.

The show, it turns out, is not quite the singular artistic triumph I once thought it was. It's a badly animated, low-budget scramble of every sci-fi and fantasy franchise that preceded it, from Star Trek to Conan the Barbarian. Plots usually adhere to the Bond formula. Villains take short breaks from marathon sessions of maniacal laughter...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDERSON ... to hatch the most transparent evil schemes, which He-Man foils while tossing off bons mots like a drunk uncle.

(Soundbite of laser gun)

ANDERSON: Despite its crass badness, I enjoyed rewatching it on many levels. He-Man kept reminding me of Ronald Reagan, and of the cheerful, pop-cultural naiveté that seemed to reach its term limit around the same time as the Gipper. Today's cartoons have become carriers of adult attitudes and ideas in the era of the Simpsons and South Park and TV Funhouse, whose ambiguously gay duo picks up on the hilarious accidental homoeroticism of He-Man perfectly.

(Soundbite of TV show He-Man)

Unidentified Man #2: (As Character) Adam. Duncan. I called you in to tell you that I have made the choice for my honor guard escort.

ANDERSON: Even our kids' programming is self-conscious and ironic. SpongeBob would have mocked He-Man until he cried. It's a very long way from here to Eternia.

(Soundbite of TV show He-Man)

Unidentified Man #3: (As Character) I see.

CHADWICK: Sam Anderson is a freelance writer living in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.