JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS:
Behold, the embodiment of the entire 1980s.
The Transformers is the mightiest toy-selling cartoon of all time, and G.I. Joe is probably the best overall, but Jem will always have my heart. See, where alot of these shows come from the epitome of animation that was the ’80s, very few of them actually LOOK “’80s”. Sure, there’s Ghetto Blasters (better known as Boom-Boxes these days…. or iPods or something), and there’s instances of hair scrunchies and ugly pastel and neon colours everywhere- NONE of those shows really EXEMPLIFIED that era. Jem does.
Want multi-hued punks? Giant mowhawks? Pastel mixed with zebra print mixed with FREAKING NEON? This show had RELENTLESS barrages of ’80s music and dress, this show freaking WAS the ’80s. And of all the ’80s toons, it’s the one that’s most critically underappreciated (I think because it was targeted towards girls, most of whom had the nerve to actually grow up and not obsess over their childhood) in the modern era.
But rest assured, this show was GREAT. There was fighting, attempted murder (The Misfits, in a truly ’80s concept as an EVIL music band, literally did things every episode that would be illegal in every country in the world), uber-peppy ’80s synth-pop from the Jem gang, awesome (and actually kinda modern) selfish punk-rock anthems from the Misfits, hot chicks (Kimber and Jem were BABES in every sense of the word. Kimber was gorgeous and cute, but Jem was unimaginably hot), overly dramatic outbursts from characters just to get certain plot points across, etc. Everything wonderful exists in this show. It’s just over-the-top dated nonsense and crazy plotlines.
The show was created by Hasbro to sell their new Jem & the Holograms line of fashion dolls, in an attempt to mimic both Barbie AND the success of the boys’ toy-line cartoons (He-Man, G.I. Joe,, The Transformers, etc. made money like GANGBUSTERS- all were inspired by Kenner’s success with Star Wars toys). She was originally going to be called “M”, and she was the secret identity of a normal music executive (giving girls both the “Rich Boss” fantasy life, and the “Famous Rock Star” fantasy life)- naturally, Secret Identities were still big at the time (He-Man also features a character with a Secret ID for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON). Once they realized that you couldn’t trademark a LETTER, they switched it to “Jem”, and figured on a concept of holograms being her gimmick.
They got Christy Marx, a well-thought-of writer of boys’ cartoons (mostly G.I. Joe), to work on the entire cast and concept from that point- Marx actually did some research on holographic technology (naming the characters after eminent scientists in the field), and constructed a show that would appeal to girls (romance, adventure, travel, rich people, etc.), while also keeping the boys interested (attractive girls, action & excitement).
The line-up of characters itself is something. You had your classic Superman/Clark Kent/Lois Lane love triangle going with uber-babe Jem, plain alter-ego Jerrica Benton (one of my favorite TV names ever), and the Lois-inspired dolt Rio Pacheco, the purple-haired guy who almost never saw Jerrica & Jem together (despite Jerrica being Jem’s MANAGER), and yet never put two and two together- sure they projected a Jem hologram once in a while, but COME ON, they never even SPOKE to each other. Jerrica was a bit “Everygirl” even though she was rich and owned a record company.
Jem was pure fantasy fulfillment for girls; this perfect woman was the idol of millions and the target of romantic attention from scores of men… though she had all kinds of identity problems and was always busy in real life (an oddly realistic bend on the idea, much like say, Spider-Man). Kimber was great as an impetuous foil in the Holograms team, always screwing things up and moving the plot along as only an overacting 18-year old kid can do. Aja, Shana and Raya… were basically just add-ons to make it a group. I mean, Aja didn’t even DO anything till the end of the second season!
But the Misfits… Eric Raymond was the slimiest, dirtiest ’80s-era corporate slug of a villain EVER. Pizzazz was a bad girl straight to the bone, almost pure evil and selfish, except when absolutely necessary (such as showing a rare moment of love for her uber-rich father, and a sad backstory of her own). Her extreme tantrums and levels of violence are still hilarious today, especially when she reacts to guys shooting her down by trying to kick their asses.
Roxy was perhaps even worse than Pizzazz because she was BORN into a bad life, but that ended up giving her more sympathy. And Stormer… ah, Stormer. Reluctant blue-haired villainesses with hearts of gold are the best. Most of the funny moments in this show came from Stormer saying one thing that was really sweet and the other Misfits lambasting her. And Jetta, the new Misfit? Well she was just hilarious because angry British punk women are hilarious.
And out of all the ’80s shows, this one really holds up in terms of actual episodes quite well (Transformers, He-Man and Thundercats are all far dumber in retrospect, while this show was only KIND OF dumb beyond the core concept). Sometimes you don’t even have to rely on nostalgia to lift the sometimes-goofy plots up.
The drug episode (every ’80s show had one of THOSE, something I well and truly miss) was one of the most realistic and yet the most insane, in that the girl who takes them just takes a few at first, but then keeps needing more and more, until she’s stealing from her friends, just like a real addict… and then she hallucinates like crazy and has a five-alarm freak-out and tries to jump off the roof).
And the episode was SO DEPRESSING. She had been recently orphaned, and loved music but was too shy and uneasy to share it with anyone. And her VOICE!!!… it was the most sad, lonely sounding thing I’ve ever heard a voice actress do. She just sounded SO depressed, not reacting to ANYTHING. I actually felt BAD just watching the episode. Listen and be SAD… And HOW THE FRIG DID THEY ANIMATE THAT HAIR?!? Jem had some SERIOUSLY pretty animation for some of it’s videos (peak Jem animation in the Music Videos is actually the best animation on TV cartoons PERIOD in that decade).
And the “Father’s Day” one is almost unspeakably awesome as well. Circling around some Father’s Day special for their friend Video (all the secondary characters are helpfully named after their jobs, like Danse and Video…), we’re left with Kimber being mortally depressed because she misses her father (whose funeral was in the first episode of the series), with her sister Jem and the others not getting why. Someone who helps her deal turns out to be PIZZAZZ’ own father, who gives us the first glimpse of why Pizzazz is such a controlling bitch.
This gives us TWO payoffs in the end, as Jem & the Holograms perform, and their music video shows Jerrica & Kimber’s memories of their beloved dad (they walk with him through the seasons, ending in winter, as they pass by a tree without him at their side suddenly, and they turn to each other for comfort), and Pizzazz and HER dad having a reunion of sorts (She was LESS than impressed that he led the Holograms to the concert– they were sidetracked of course by the Misfits). This kind of crap you just DON’T GET in modern animation.
The ending season with the Stingers was OK as well. The typical army brat turned relentlessly charismatic singer boy Riot led the furiously hot Minx (sexually-aggressive chicks are TOTALLY awesome, especially in ’80s toons. See Frosta from She-Ra), plus Rapture (who was more one-note), were a bunch of good add-ons to a show that had an already overflowing cast. But still, everyone got their episodes to shine.
Jetta met her family (not a bunch of rich royals as she’d claimed, but the British version of white trash), Shana was mistaken for Jean Lafitte’s bride, Aja fell in love with Stormer’s nice-guy brother, Danse met her long-lost father in Yugoslavia, Video did stuff- EVERYONE got SOMETHING. And out of all the ’80s toons, this is one of the few that actually got a final episode (even He-Man really only got one that was MEANT as a finale, though it wasn’t aired last): with Ba Nee, the Vietnamese orphan, FINALLY meeting her long-lost father, a ‘Nam vet with no memory, in a payoff from an episode in the FIRST SEASON, giving us a happy sendoff with the main character wishing us well.
I’d kill to get the rest of this on DVD, and I’d also love to see a non-bastardized new version of it coming out, though they’d probably screw it up like so many other ’80s shows I loved so very much- this one is PARTICULARLY set in its era.
A pretty good Cast List is featured here.
The Core of the Show:
Essentially, Jerrica Benton is left as the owner of her father’s company, Starlight Music, and runs Starlight House, an orphanage for young girls (just in case you didn’t know she was a GOOD GUY). When co-owner Eric Raymond (her father’s old business partner) schemes to take it all over, and uses a new band, The Misfits, as his big stars, Jerrica takes the secret identity of “Jem” (no reason is ever given for this, nor why she’s apparently an amazing singer and her friends are all musicians) and forms “Jem & The Holograms” with her pals Aja & Shana, and her sister Kimber. Jerrica’s boyfriend Rio is their all-purpose roadie-type, and soon becomes attracted to Jem (why Jerrica never told him in the first place is never mentioned).
They win a big contest, get a fancy Mansion, and go on to a successful career. Meanwhile, Raymond and the Misfits frequently scheme to take Jem down a peg- they have the merciless, egotistical leader Pizzazz, rotten Roxy, and sweet-natured by weak-willed Stormer. Every episode features the Holograms going on some tour, entering some contest (Fashion, Music, etc.), or doing some big one-off concert (usually for charity)… and the Misfits tag along to wreak havoc and steal thunder. Frequently taking EXTREMELY ILLEGAL MEANS to do so! Raymond’s henchman Zipper downright threatens lives at various points. Raymond also uses the genius inventor Techrat for his schemes. Meanwhile, the Holograms engage in tons of charitable events, teach children about the Magic Of Reading, rescue failing Radio Stations, etc.
The Starlight Girls show up frequently, and are the focus of many stories- many are attention-grabbing nuisances, and a few are a bit punkier and rebellious. Ba Nee is the innocent one (searching for her American G.I. father), the black one is the responsible one (OF COURSE), there’s Ashley (attention-seeking) and Dierdre (rebellious)- both blondes, etc. Marx would openly-regreat creating SO MANY girls in a DVD Commentary- they just filled the house with a HUGE cast (there’s at least twice as many characters as they could possibly use- some take up nearly the same role).
Partway through the show, the Holograms add Raya (completing a Task of Tokens with a Latina), and the Misfits add Jetta in response. After this new Status Quo’s been around for a while, the STINGERS arrive- a bad-ass act of blondes, they’re headed by the sexy piece of man-ass Riot, the manipulative Minx, and the con-woman Rapture. This throws a wrench into things- the Stingers become Raymond’s headlining act, Minx lusts over Rio, and Riot lusts over Jem.
Some of the episodes are COMPLETELY insane: this site features an incredible commentary on some of the most insane ones. Roxy overcoming illiteracy, men trying to murder the girls over a music feud, TIME TRAVEL, a Lost City in the Himalayas, Jem saving the President of the United States, and more. The fact that they equaled G.I. Joe and The Transformers in insane episodes despite having a MUCH more grounded concept is impressive in and of itself.
So What Happened?:
Despite being quite popular as a TV show, Jem was done in by that ancient enemy of everyone: it didn’t earn enough money. See, while people dug the show, the DOLLS were another matter. Mattel, the dominant doll-maker in the industry, responded to this threat (Jem, being Girls’ Dolls, competed directly with Barbie) by releasing Barbie and the Rockers to COMPLETELY steal Jem’s thunder. And it worked.
As a result, Jem only survived for a couple of years, releasing 65 episodes (which is a pretty solid number, equaling most popular shows) and then vanishing off the face of the Earth. By contrast, G.I. Joe and The Transformers, Hasbro’s OTHER Cash Cows, lasted for a veritable eternity- the Joes eventually faded away until 2000 or so, but there’s been a TF reboot every couple years since the 1980s, and Japan started making their own, which transfered over here quite often, too!
Meanwhile, Jem was hard to come by. As it’s not an action franchise, and Mattel was too powerful an opponent, they never got a Reboot Toyline (I’ve seen toys for every other big ’80s franchise in stores for years- even Thundercats got a short-lived reboot!), never got an updated modern-day series, and the eventual 2015 movie was a massive box office bomb.