Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Dear Journal": Doug's Thematic Arc (With Fantasy and Reality) From the Beginning

December 7, 2014

WRITER'S NOTE: "Doug" originally ran for four seasons on Nickelodeon from 1991 to 1994, before being picked up by the Disney channel for three new seasons from 1996 to 1999. This blog post, as well as my recent one (which you can read here) and future posts soon to come, focus primarily on the Nickelodeon series. My intention is to get back to what originally made the character (and show) so unique and endearing. The following post focuses primarily on themes from the original season (1991-1992).

"That's me." Trademark introduction to each episode
The success of "Doug"s original run on Nickelodeon was a result of its originality, its quirkiness, and its sincerity. Prior to the early nineties, some cartoons such as "Charlie Brown" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" were based on comic-book source material. Nickelodeon, however, was seeking out original ideas, and then-executive producer Vanessa Coffey came across a goldmine in the late 80s when she met with "Doug" creator Jim Jinkins, who had originated the character through doodles as well as an unpublished book titled "Doug Got a New Pair of Shoes."

The originality of the show came from each character's distinct personalities (which I'll discuss in my next post), a completely idiosyncratic score (cue Skeeter's quirky mouth sounds and Mr. Dink's wacky theme music), and a clever and creative writing team that wasn't just targeting kids. More importantly, the series wouldn't be what it is if not for Doug's narrative role as a writer (er, journalist) in his day-to-day experiences. This is what makes his journal essential, as it's obviously a tool for him to record and reflect on the lessons and messages he and others learn every day.

In an interview with the Huffington Post this past summer, Jinkins emphasized the importance of having a thematic undertone in each episode. "The priority for me was always the story. If we could play the track and laugh and have a solid message, we knew we had a good episode." Jinkins also mentioned how he addressed each "kid issue" at the top of each episode script during production. "It sounds a little self-righteous, but I always knew there was going to be a moral foundation to the series."

Porkchop (left) and Doug open the door to the "Honker Burger"
for the first time.
From the beginning, as Doug and his family move into a "new town [with a] new school [and] new friends," his personal feelings about this new chapter in his life are clear. The first season encompasses various examples of the fear of embarrassment and feeling like an outsider. Such examples include being duped by the town bully Roger into catching a local mythological "neematoad" to be a town hero, fear of what his sister Judy might do or say about him during a school visit at an assembly, and even what his school pictures could look like on account of self-awareness over his "big nose."

To escape some of these circumstances (or at least try, and occasionally help others from their own), Doug creates alter egos in his daydreams, which sometimes have an effect on the real world (and not just the other way around). In one of the first episodes, for instance, when gossip circulates through school that the science lab blew up, fingers point to Doug due to his volcano project at the science fair, and he considers going on the run as an Errol Flynn-/Zorro-type named "Jack Bandit." Another case involves Doug's ever-popular superhero counterpart Quailman, as he tries to save secret crush Patti from the clutches of "Klotzilla" (a Godzilla manifestation for Roger, as he pesters Patti in school one day to help him with a class report). And then there's a case where Doug accidentally hands in a doodle he made of his teacher, Mrs. Wingo, and imagines what secret agent Smash Adams (a James Bond parody) would do to get it back.

"Wa-na-na! Jack Bandit!"
"Strange visitors from the planet Bob": Quailman (right) and Quaildog
Smash Adams, Secret Agent
As mentioned in my last post, Doug often escapes into these Walter-Mitty-esque daydreams (i.e., imagining himself as the hero or being somebody he isn't) and imagines the best of a possible situation or the alternative worst-case scenario of what said situation could result in or lead to. Some would argue that this habitual daydreaming and perceiving makes Doug a crazy character. (One blog, titled "Doug Funnie is Crazy," devotes itself to criticizing assumed psychological aspects of the show.)

But remember, these characters are kids. (Eleven-year-olds, to be exact.) Kids who experience life and go through the worries and challenges and emotions that come with it. Who didn't worry, as a kid, about whether or not their school pictures would turn out alright, or whether they would embarrass themselves on stage at, say, a talent show? Or whether somebody they had a crush on would like them in return, or whether they would need to say goodbye to a friend soon? And who didn't worry they might be laughed or scoffed at because of the way they dance, or the way they look (e.g, facial features like a nose), or by what they wear (e.g, shoes)?

In spite of these circumstances, Doug does learn from them for better or worse. He often receives encouragement and support from his friends, including what makes him (as Patti puts it) “one-of-a-kind”. Indeed, Doug does journal, "If you're not you, then who are you?" (a great moral in remembering what it means to just be you). Also, Doug and his friends learn together, after a baseball game in another episode, that though we may apparently lose at something or some things sometimes, we can still feeling like winners when we stick it out.

With that in mind, Doug exemplifies many times what it means to be honest and to make the right decisions--difficult, but right--sometimes for others, and not just for himself. A great example occurs during a "Bluff Scout" retreat where Doug makes the wise choice not to embarrass a fellow scout, even though that person embarrassed him many times before. (“He may be a pain, but he’s still a Bluff Scout.”) He makes a similar choice to be there for his sister when she visits for an aforementioned school assembly. And when a best friend, who may potentially move away, decides to prevent himself from doing so by moving in with Doug, Doug assures his friend that he needs to be with his family, yet remembers what's important in life including taking advantage of the time we have with friends. 

"And journal, I'll let you know how it turns out."