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Sonic Jam - "Sonic The Hedgehog" (aka Sonic SatAM)

In 1993, Sonic was at his first major peak of popularity. He was outselling Mario. He'd redefined the platforming genre. He served as the very embodiment of 90's x-treme 'tude. The little guy was riding high on success, and as with anything that's even remotely successful, Sonic-branded merchandise and spin-offs started piling up like useless side characters.

And as with most successful things geared towards kids, Sonic got a cartoon series. Actually, he got two cartoon series, marking the start of what would end up being a particularly lucrative bunch of adaptations. One of them was complete and utter gutter trash that I loved when I was seven.

The other is one of the actual best pieces of Western television animation that was put out in the 90's. Let's talk about that one first, huh?

When DiC went about adapting Sonic for the small screen, they initially went with a wacky children's show that was full of silly sight gags, repetitive cartoon antics and schmaltzy "Sonic Says" sections where Sonic gave kids life lessons on everything ranging from playing in dryers to sexual harassment. ABC, who the show was being marketed to, said "that's no good" to putting it on Saturday mornings. So, instead, DiC put another Sonic show into production. Something better. Something more in line with what ABC wanted.

Something faster, if you will.

Simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic's Saturday morning debut was something that came completely out of left field for kids in the 90's. Up until then, we didn't know a whole lot about Sonic, despite him being everywhere. He was a blue hedgehog, yeah. Maybe he had a little bit of an attitude. He also had a fox buddy who flew around. His enemy was a doofy-looking dude with a mustache. That was pretty much it. Due to the nature of platforming games, and really, most games in general, at the time, there wasn't really space for a comprehensive lore surrounding an anthropomorphic animal.

With that in mind, it's hard not to look at what the crew behind SatAM, as it's usually referred to, cooked up and think, "how in the hell did you pull all of this out of thin air?" I say this because, frankly, the narrative of the entire show feels like a crazy fever dream of narrative complexity and dense lore that seems out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon, let alone in one about Sonic the fucking Hedgehog.

You know. This guy.
You think I'm kidding? Let me lay this on you: a maniacal industrialist has enslaved an entire world. He's quickly turning every inch of the Earth-like Mobius into a factory, and kidnapping animals to cruelly experiment on and turn into robotic minions. Despite the bad guy having technically accomplished his goals, for the most part, a determined but undeniably small group of guerrilla combatants try to perpetually engage him in small skirmishes, with the hopes of holding onto what little life and autonomy they have left. It's basically a story of man against machine, but the machine's already pretty much won, and man's most likely living on borrowed time.

Except "man," in this case, is a collection of talking animals known as the Freedom Fighters, led by the intrepid and resourceful Sally Acorn. Their biggest secret weapon is Sonic himself. Here, he's portrayed pretty much how he was always advertised: cocky, rude, fast, and a bit of a douche, all told, but still generally doing the right thing. Also, he's voiced by Urkel.

"Did I go fast?"
I know, it's weird, but it was the 90's. Things happened. Weird things. Also, y'know... He actually, uh... He actually kind of did a good job, to be honest. It's not my favorite take on the Blue Blur, necessarily, but it's far from my least favorite, and his performance kind of fits with how Sonic was portrayed at the time. If anything, it's actually kind of impressive, if you think about it. That the kid who was known for being a nasally dork could actually pull off surprisingly emotive performances as a talking hedgehog. 

And emoting was needed because, lord, SatAM wasn't afraid to go some weirdly dark directions. Sonic gets tricked into falling in love with a robotic clone of Sally, and this emotionally crushes her. Sonic's Uncle Chuck gets turned into a robot and is essentially left behind to die. The robust cast of supporting character routinely clash when it comes to how to wage war against Robotnik, Love, loss, and the ethics of guerrilla warfare are all distilled down to 30-minute chunks and given the occasional burst of goofy humor and one-liners to keep kids from going all Robert Smith or Roland Orzabal on Saturday mornings.

It is strange watching this show in 2016, too, because it feels like a spiritual predecessor to what we see in a lot of kids' shows today. Nowadays, it's pretty easy to see Finn struggling to grasp the nature of existence in Adventure Time, or the long-term effects of homophobic societal norms in Steven Universe, but in the early 90's, cartoons were generally just kids' stuff. Even the more "serious" shows often shied away from dealing with anything too heavy outside of "so-and-so is going to destroy the city/world/whatever" and "this one lady's been kidnapped for reasons."

I mean, granted. That last one definitely happened sometimes. But not nearly as much as it could have. So... progress? I guess.

Too busy getting shit done to be kidnapped. Well. Most of the time.
I'm not trying to say that Sonic the Hedgehog was some deeply profound work of art, as it's still a Saturday morning cartoon for children, but it's a good deal deeper and more transgressive than its contemporaries. Dumb lines like "gotta juice" and "I was rootin' and scootin'" are juxtaposed against the larger and darker narratives mentioned above. Women were rarely damsels, and were generally shown as just as capable, if not more capable, than the male characters. The world was depicted as one that had already been essentially destroyed, instead of one that could be saved from destruction. It was fresh. It was different. And, in my opinion, it helped set into motion a trend in children's entertainment that we're still reaping the benefits of today.

Like many things that pave the road for future works to follow, however, it was a bit ahead of its time. Its positive reception and popularity are both almost exclusively retroactive, thanks to a dedicated cult following who haven't stopped gushing on the internet about it since the late 90's. SatAM lasted a measly 26 episodes, thanks to low ratings and direct competition with the smash-hit Power Rangers. By rate of comparison, that's 41 less episodes than Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and even 14 less than Sonic Underground, both of which are debauched orgies of animated mediocrity. 

Yes, the literal only good work of Sonic-based American animation is the shortest and ends on a cliffhanger.Good times.

But putting bitterness about its premature death aside, the fact remains that the 26 episodes we did get were nothing short of amazing. Sure, it was goofy sometimes, and yeah, the animation wasn't always the best, and Bunnie Rabbot's voice is definitely super obnoxious, but those are minor gripes when looking at the big picture. That big picture is that Sonic The Hedgehog wound up not only being one of the best bits of Sonic-related media in franchise history, but also turned out to be one of the very best American children's shows put out in the 90's. It's funny, thrilling, and addictive, and still holds up over two decades later.

You might be wondering why I haven't gone into deeper detail about the supporting cast, narrative arcs, etc. That's because, good readers, I see Sonic the Hedgehog as something of an embryonic piece. Yes, it stands on its own, but it also set into motion a sprawling canon that's still being expounded upon today. Of course, I'm talking about Archie Comics' Sonic series, and later in the series, I'll get into that throughout several write-ups.

But first, I guess I should get back to talking about video games. Next time, Sonic becomes a pinball and stars in a writhing fuckpile of a game!


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