Sunday, June 4, 2017

Kenan & Kel, Reviewed

Kel, get me a can of spray cheese, a phone book, and an electric guitar, and meet me at the swimming pool. Now, come on, Chumpy!

But....but, Kenan? How am I supposed to find a guitar that's electric? And why are you calling me Chumpy? It's demeaning, Kenan! KENAN?! AWWWWWWW, HERE IT GOES!!!!!!

This would have come out earlier, but for some reason, everything I originally wrote down was deleted. Anyway, my reviewing break is over and now I have to relearn how to do this. I don't really know where to go from here except reviewing Raven's Home when it premieres on July 21. I mean, I have to do that. It would be illegal not to and I wouldn't even be able to forgive myself if I didn't. Maybe Unknown has some ideas for what I could do. I figured I should ease my way back in by reviewing a show I know very well, Nickelodeon's Kenan & Kel.

Normally, with these reviews, I would just focus on a particular episode, but a lot of what I say about "The Tainting of the Screw" or "The Lottery" or "Attack of the Bug Men" could be said about 95% of the series. So, for the first time, I'm going to analyze a show as a whole and name some of my favorite episodes and favorite moments along the way. For those of you who are unaware, Kenan & Kel was the original Drake & Josh, right down to the four seasons, the TV movie where everything is darker for some reason, and Dan Schneider's involvement. The show starred Kenan Rockmore (Kenan Thompson) and Kel Kimble (Kel Mitchell), two teens from Chicago who constantly got themselves in ridiculous situations. Whether they were being held up by a psychotic clown with a weird sneeze, getting locked up in a restaurant freezer, or climbing the Sears Tower, Kenan and Kel were always together to get in some kind of mess. You can refer to the theme song (performed by Coolio because back then, Nickelodeon knew how to cater to their audience without pandering to them) for confirmation of this. The show ran from 1996 to 2000 and is now remembered as one of Nick's most iconic shows.

Watching this series now, it is really alarming how much of it is better than pretty much all of Nickelodeon's current live-action content. And it's not like the show was aiming for much to begin with. Kenan & Kel had a simple concept, with simple characters and simple stories. But it was what Kenan and Kel did with those stories that made the series so memorable. The two had a genuine chemistry that they originally developed on All That, and it was that same chemistry that won the network over and scored them their own show. The series never needed anything more than Kenan and Kel playing off of each other because they were so skilled at it: Kenan was wisecracking, a schemer and someone wanting to get an advantage in life any way he could, while Kel was dimwitted and hyperactive enough to want to go along with Kenan's schemes. If Kenan needed to skip training the new employee at his job so he could get the last issue of Skunkator to complete his collection at the annual comic book convention, it was happening no matter what. Both actors also capitalized on their comedic strengths: Kenan was more deadpan and frustrated while Kel was louder and accident-prone. When these two personalities collided, it created many memorable episodes.

It is really something how these two were able to do what very few shows can do now, including Dan Schneider's current work: Be funny. I know that isn't a foreign concept, but with everything you see these days, you would think comedy is rocket science. But with this show, it wasn't. The premise was simple, but Kenan and Kel's charisma, their stage presence, and their comedic timing elevated the series to something special. Another person that deserves a lot of credit here is Schneider himself. When I was younger, I didn't realize it, but looking back, these Nickelodeon shows with Dan's name in the credits had a special air to them. They weren't like the average kids show. They had wit and charm and the comedy would remind you of something you would see on The Simpsons or Seinfeld. It's that kind of writing style that helped influence my own, and when it was used to its fullest potential, it became instantly memorable. "Wherever we go, I don't want it to be France." "Why not?" "Because it's full of French people." I'm paraphrasing here and that exchange isn't even from Kenan & Kel, but that's the kind of dialogue that you would never hear anywhere else but a Dan Schneider show. Maybe in Scott Fellows' shows, but I don't think Nickelodeon has ever liked him as much.

Okay, there are a lot of positives with Kenan & Kel at the end of the day. Despite that, the very reason the show worked is the very reason why it became infuriating by the end of season three. Shows tend to lose a lot of their charm after a couple seasons because the writers/producers realize they can only tell the same stories so many times. You know what happens. Characters become broader and less human, plots start becoming more ridiculous, cast members are added, some cast members are reduced to smaller roles. As good as Kenan & Kel was when it was on its A-game, it could be downright awful to watch at times when it was having an off day. And I have the facts to back this.


For whatever reason, the writers thought it would be hilarious to have Kel become mentally retarded. You know, to the point where he is aware he screws things up but doesn't really care enough to fix them, or even question himself as to why he does them. There's this small moment in the season three episode "Skunkator vs. Mothman" where Kel says Chris' name backwards. Chris (Kenan's boss, played by Dan Frischman) tells Kel he makes his head hurt, and Kel says that this is what makes his head hurt. He then proceeds to hit himself in the skull with a bottle and fall to the floor. That's the joke. It's just Kel intentionally hurting himself. It really sucks when shows begin to emphasize the stupidity of characters after a while, because then they stop being exaggerations of everyday people and turn into exaggerations of themselves. A lot of season three episodes are like this because Kel's stupidity goes way too far, to the point where I'm not even convinced that he knows what his name is. The first episode of the season, "Fenced In," is a bad sign of things to come. In this episode, Kenan and Kel scheme to be ahead of time for their dates to the movies with two girls, who are tired of being stood up or waiting too long for their dates to show up. Along the way, Kel drops his yo-yo that he bought for his date through the bars of a fence, and Kenan decides to get it. Kenan ends up getting his head stuck in the bars (which are clearly made of rubber) and after some initial struggling, Kel walks around the fence to get the yo-yo. When Kenan asks Kel if he knew he could do that the whole time, Kel says that was his plan in case putting Kenan's head through the fence didn't work. See, if Kel just realized that he could have walked around the fence, it would have been funny. But him being aware of that the whole time, and deliberately inconveniencing his friend for something that wasn't even worth it to begin with is just dumb.

At some point, Kel just stopped getting into trouble with Kenan and became the cause of it. Or, in some cases, he would make the problem worse. And in some cases like "The Raffle," probably the worst episode in the series and a discount version of "The Lottery," he did both. Stuff like that makes it harder to laugh because you're just wondering why Kenan hasn't killed Kel, or didn't listen to his father when he talked about how destructive Kel was all the time.

Speaking of destructive, that's a trend that would pop up in later episodes: Kenan and Kel somehow destroying everything in their path whenever there's some kind of task. You know, things like Kel breaking things at the bakery or the jewelry store when the job is just to get stuff for Kenan's mom's birthday party. This wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't such a recurring theme but they did it so much, you wonder why anyone trusted Kenan and Kel with anything. At one point, they were just two people who life screwed over no matter what happened. After the first two seasons, there was a shift in which Kenan and Kel screwed themselves over, and they would deserve consequences because it was impossible for them to accomplish anything without getting in trouble. Granted, this is mostly because of Kel, but it's not like Kenan ever tried to take matters into his own hands. Even the look of the show changes after season two, since it was filmed at Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando for the first two seasons and then moved to Nickelodeon on Sunset in Hollywood. Just something to keep in mind.

Despite those problems, Kenan & Kel is still a very entertaining show in 2017. The jokes, on-screen chemistry and performances by the two leads were more than enough to make the show age well. These days, it seems like everyone is just throwing material at the wall and seeing what sticks. It's not really about making timeless entertainment and taking kids seriously. It's just dumbing down the product because this is what people believe kids want to watch. And when there aren't many choices, kids will end up watching these shows and they will make the ratings spike, which will make network execs believe they are doing something right. The pilot episode of Kenan & Kel is enough to put most kids shows today to shame, and that was 21 years ago. At the end of the day, this show is not only one of the best things Dan Schneider's name is attached to, but also provided many memorable moments, iconic catchphrases, and served as the prototype for shows like Drake & Josh (which is Schneider's masterpiece by default because as far as I know, he didn't create Kenan & Kel himself). Not many live-action kids sitcoms get to leave behind any kind of legacy because a lot of them come from the same mindset, but Kenan & Kel remains as a shining example of what someone could do when they treat young audiences like they matter, and remember to actually entertain them. There is a reason why Game Shakers would be completely unwatchable if it wasn't for Kel Mitchell.

Here are some of the show's best episodes if you've never seen it before, or maybe you want to revisit the show and find some episodes you never paid attention to before:

"Pilot" (season one; July 15, 1996)
I'm serious about this. Most pilots are meant to establish the show's world and because you have to get to know who everyone is, things can get awkward and slow-paced. But some pilots not only set the tone for the rest of the series, but present the series in its best form. This is one of those pilots. Everything about the show (you know, minus the trends that would pop up later) can be found in this one episode. You could tell they had a clear mind of what they wanted to do with from the beginning, and the comedy never stops. The scene near the end where Kenan and Kel have to remember the code line the police gave them ("The chipmunk has pneumonia") is one of the funniest scenes in the whole series ("The cricket has........a, petunia!!!" "Mama say mama ma mamakusa.").

"The Tainting of the Screw" (season one; August 17, 1996)
"I......DROPPED THE SCREW......IN THE TUNA!" Enough said. This episode is just plain fun to watch. It's not even like you're watching a TV show, it's just your best friends screwing around and someone was recording it that day. Moments like Kenan doing a rendition of "La Bamba" and Kel's ham fantasy ("I enjoy ham") are things that take a certain amount of talent and style to pull off. Imagine Henry Danger doing scenes like that. Are you throwing up in your mouth yet?

"Doing Things the Hemingway" (season one; August 24, 1996)
Okay, these are literally the first three episodes but they truly are some of the best the series had to offer. At one point, Kel actually had a brain and he wasn't a complete moron, just eccentric. And Kenan actually questioned why he spent so much time with him. Kenan and Kel deciding to walk up the steps of the Sears Tower is a really classic story in my eyes, and once again, full of great jokes.

"The Lottery" (season two; September 20, 1997)
This episode reminds me a lot of the kind of stuff that the show would run into the ground later on. But the difference is that Kenan and Kel are human beings with realistic reactions to what's going on around them, and it's straight comedy for a good portion of it. Kenan dancing around making references to The Jackson 5 while Kel is trying to tell him he lost the winning lottery ticket is absolutely hilarious. Actually, that whole scene where they go with Chris to cash in the ticket is fantastic. All three of them are so happy and excited to get the money, only to have all of their hopes and dreams shattered within a few minutes.

 "Who Loves Orange Soda?" (season two; September 27, 1997)
I could recommend a lot of season two episodes, honestly, but I think this one has always been one of my favorites. Kel's unnatural love for orange soda is dealt with for the first and only time, and I love how Kenan is so smug that Kel won't be able to last a week without drinking it. It would have been interesting to see Kel become addicted to another soda, and then Kenan and Chris have to snap him out of it before it's too late but it's not a big deal. Kel's nightmare of having his soda frozen and getting attacked by an orange monster is both bizarre and hilarious. Actually, there's this one scene where Kel is sitting next to a bottle of orange soda and he proclaims not to like it, then he throws it across the room and acts like he just committed spousal abuse. That was hilarious too. The whole episode's hilarious, let's just leave it at that.

 "Bye Bye Kenan: Part 1" (season two; December 20, 1997)
Part two of this episode is actually just a standard episode of the show, but I picked out part one because it was the most emotional episode the show has ever done. Yeah, actual emotion and drama in this episode. The plot involves Kenan's dad getting a new job as a forest ranger in Montana, requiring the entire Rockmore family to move. Of course, Kenan was never going to move for good, but this episode really tugs at your heartstrings and makes you think that things are going to change forever. You know, if you had never seen the episode before. The last scene with Kel looking for Kenan in the empty house, unable to reach him through the walkie talkie, and being forced to leave his farewell gift behind (a blown up picture of the two from their All That days) while a slowed down version of the theme song plays in the background is unbelievably sad. I even felt like crying typing this. The fact that the show was able to pull off serious material like this lets me know that the creative direction really did change at some point, and if it was allowed to mature as it went on, it would have been an even greater show than it already was.

 "Attack of the Bug Men" (season three; November 28, 1998)
Yeah, this is the only episode I'm recommending from the last two seasons. There are others where I had some good laughs or enjoyed some of it, but this is probably the only episode where I felt like everything worked. Actually, "Skunkator vs. Mothman" was pretty damn good, but this is an instant classic. It's just a masterclass in comedy, and for once, the problem was caused by Kenan himself. Becoming too immersed in a board game with Kel, he ends up leaving his living room door open and two burglars take everything. Kenan's facial expressions and attitude throughout the whole episode are absolutely hilarious, and Kel actually didn't piss me off since he was just as hilarious. I don't want to spoil everything, but this is an exact example of what happens when everything's working for an episode. If you don't laugh at Kel's dancing in the empty living room, or Kenan causing an accident at the pizza place to keep his family from coming home, then I have to question who really reads this blog.

Couldn't have said it better myself, Mike. Here I am thinking I'm an expert on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, but you really blow me away. You may be 50% of the team but you make this blog 2,570% better with you. Trust me, after cruising on a string of unbroken A-grades for Andi Mack I should know at this point.

As for the review being deleted...I really don't know what's going on. I've had dozens of reviews bite the cyber-dust without warning, it's something I'm not very happy about with Blogspot. If you remember all the talk about migrating to another service, well that was the main reason why.

And as for options other than Raven's Home...hey, have you heard of this thing called Andi Mack? Apparently I like it so much I keep giving it A-grades.

Real quick follow-ups - yes, I've been trying to keep up with Andi Mack, speaking of which. Yes, we have a winner for our Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 contest (yeah that's another thing that happened while you're gone, we had a contest) and the winner has already been informed that he won. I didn't want to distract from Mike's post by making new ones though so...let's have this one hang at the top for about another day or so.

Thanks, Unknown. I really appreciate it. I was looking at some of my old blog posts here (one of my favorites is the one I did for "Girl Meets Gravity") and even now, I still feel grateful for this opportunity. It's definitely one of my favorite activities.

I saw one of your Andi Mack reviews so I did some research, and I was surprised when I found out that the creator of Lizzie McGuire was the creator of Andi Mack. Knowing that, and seeing your positive reviews, makes me interested in checking out the show for myself.

I missed the contest? Um, I guess all I can say is.....I am Groot? 

3 comments:

  1. Once again, i have nothing to add, i agree. I'm not one to idolize certain older shows because they do have flaws, sometimes the same we complain about in newer shows, but some like this and D&J just work for the most part.

    It is interesting how a lot of these shows tend to get worse over time and for the same reasons. Someone needs to study this further someday.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It really is interesting. I think a lot of sitcoms come from the same line of thinking: Stupid characters, lessons being learned and quickly forgotten about every week. With these shows, it's just really easy to make characters less interesting and turn them into caricatures after a while. It gets hard trying to do things like character development and personal growth after nine or ten years, so to fill up the episode order, a lot of these sitcoms just lose steam and do whatever they can to keep viewers. Even if it runs the risk of making characters less like people and more like joke machines.

      Delete

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