Some might call such a plan...truly outrageous.
Back in the 1980s, after conquering the world of toys with G.I. Joe and Transformers, Hasbro scored a good foothold on girls toys with My Little Pony. Feeling cocky, Hasbro decided to go after the queen of girls toys: Barbie. Their creation: Jem, a fashion forward pop star.
Since Hasbro already had an animation division hard at work pumping out cartoons for all their aforementioned franchises, work began on a Jem cartoon. Veteran animation writer Christy Marx was given the task of creating a mythology for the toys, personalities for the characters, and running a cartoon about them. She has become widely acknowledged as the creator of Jem. And her creation wound up being one of the greatest cartoons of the 1980s.
The set-up: Jerrica Benton, head of the record label Starlight Music, and runs the charity Starlight House, which is a foster home for orphan girls. But, Jerrica leads a double life. By night, she is Jem, the world's most beloved pop star and Starlight Music's #1 artist. She accomplishes this transformation through the power of Synergy: a sentient AI designed and built by her father. Synergy is the world's most advanced holographic projection technology, able to create the most realistic of holograms. Thanks to the holographic projectors concealed within Jerrica's earrings Synergy is able to holographically transform Jerrica into Jem. To preserve the secrecy of Synergy and make sure the technology doesn't fall into the wrong hands, Jerrica's dual identity must be kept a secret.
Only four others know this secret: Jerrica's oldest and dearest friends who form Jem's backing band, the Holograms. (Seriously, the fact that Jerrica and Jem have the exact same entourage of the exact same four people really should have tipped someone off.) We have:
Kimber - Jerrica's little sister. Perhaps the most musically gifted of the group, as she's frequently portrayed as the main songwriter. She occasionally fills the "bratty little sister" trope, as she occasionally gets frustrated and throws a tantrum for not getting her way.
Shana - The fashionista of the group, as she designs most of their stage costumes. She suffers from confidence issues, as we see in several episodes, when she's up for major fashion awards, she gets rather nervous. She plays drums in the first season, but moves to backing guitar in season 2 when the band hires....
Raya - Shana temporarily left the group when she landed a gig as personal fashion designer to a movie star, leading the Holograms to hire a new drummer. In the 2-part episode The Talent Search (which is highly prophetic of American Idol and its ilk), the Holograms hire Raya. She's rather shy and a bit overwhelmed by her sudden fame, but is a gifted drummer.
And rounding out the Holograms is Aja, on lead guitar. Aja's a bit of a blank slate. We never really learn her defining character trait. Some episodes refer to her as a tomboy, but it's not like we ever see her out in the garage fixing up a hot rod or anything like that. She's almost like The Bass Player in That Thing You Do! Not much of a personality...they just play bass.
Now if Jem was created to take down Barbie, that means we need our Ken, and we get that in the form of Rio. The boy next door, having grown up right next to Jerrica, he's an electronics wizard and Jem's road manager. Remember, he doesn't know about Jerrica's dual identity, so while he's in love with and deeply committed to Jerrica, he always finds himself mysteriously drawn to Jem. Most of the time, though, Rio comes across as jealous jerk.
This is best shown in the episode Glitter and Gold, in a famous moment where he loses his shit on Kimber because she's stringing along two different guys. Jerrica then changes her mind about revealing her secret to him, and in his frustration, he drop kicks a house plant across the room. He can't choose between Jem and Jerrica, but he's more than willing to clean the clock of any man who may look at either of them twice. I didn find, though, that he kind of redeemed himself in the two part episode Hollywood Jem. Once again, Kimber is stringing along two different guys, but rather than lose his shit again, Rio acts more like the kindly big brother, offering advice and support as Kimber navigates these matters of the heart.
But at the heart of every great drama, there is conflict, so Jem and the Holograms needs a rival band to do battle with for pop chart supremacy. Enter the Misfits, who are constantly coming in second to Jem and the Holograms, and will lie, cheat, and steal their way to the top of the charts. For our Misfits, we have:
Pizzaz - The leader of the bunch. Coming from wealth, she is spoiled and vain. As she establishes early on, having money isn't enough, she wants fame.
Stormer - Filling out the kid sister role on the Misfits. She's not evil, she's just too naive to know better, and is frequently bullied into going along with the rest of the Misfits.
Jetta - Introduced at the start of season 2, Jetta is a compulsive liar, always telling tall tales about her childhood in the UK and being close friends with the British aristocracy.
Rounding out the Misfits is Roxy, and much like Aja, she's a bit of a blank slate. Her big moment comes when she's the subject of a very special episode. In Roxy's Rumble, we discover she's illiterate, and it eventually gets her into a jam that Jem has to bail her out of. Learn to read, kids!
And honorable mention to Eric Raymond, who could probably be considered the fifth Misfit. The Misfits' manager and president of Misfits Music. He was once the protege of Jerrica's father, and the heir apparent to Starlight Music, but after the death of Jerrica's father, Jerrica threw out Eric Raymond for his shady business practices. Eric will not rest until Starlight Music is his once again. This guys lies, embezzled from a charity concert, tried to rig the Indy 500, and even bitch-slapped Jerrica. The #1 question I have is HOW THE HELL IS HE NOT IN JAIL?
But sadly, we soon grew tired of the Misfits' antics, and at the start of season 3, we were introduced to a new rival rock band, the Stingers. The Stingers were a different brand of evil. While the Misfits were cartoon supervillains, whose antics eventually boiled down to petty jealousies, the Stingers were cold, calculating, and manipulative. These villains:
Riot - The lead singer of the Stingers, with an almost hypnotic charm that could get anyone to do his bidding. Highly egotistical. And his interest in Jem and the Holograms is purely romantic, as he figures Jem is the only woman that's right for him. Yup, it's the old "I can have any woman I want, so I want the one that doesn't me" cliche. (On a side note, the voice that voice actor Townsend Coleman comes up with for Riot is spectacular. That's what we call a "panty-dropper." The fact that that voice is also Michaelangelo of the Ninja Turtles and The Tick is a testament to the voice actor's art.)
Minx - Almost the female version of Riot, as she has her sights set on Rio and won't stop until he's hers.
Rapture - A con artist, pure and simple, preying on the superstitious.
The stage is set. The players are in place, and it's time to roll out the greatest battle for pop chart supremacy that raged on Saturday mornings in the 1980s!
The series was always at its best when it focused on our characters and what they would go through to have the #1 album, the best concert, all that stuff. There series always fell apart when they started straying too far into the realms of fantasy and science fiction. As perhaps the worst episode of the series, I'm going to single out Journey to Shangri-La. In this one, wanting a new sound for their group, Jem and the Holograms set out for the mythological city of Shangri-La to study under its musicians. There's magic, and poisoned brambles, and battles with yetis and...yeah. Talk about straying too far from its rock n roll roots.
The best episodes were always the ones that focused on the characters, and with a show were the majority of our heroines were orphaned girls, father issues was a surprisingly recurring theme. A great example of this one is the episode Father's Day. With Father's Day right around the corner, Kimber is thrown into a depression, as it's the first one without her father. While the other Holograms are jazzed about an upcoming Father's Day concert, Kimber gets despondent and withdrawn. It's only with the intervention of Pizzaz's father, and some new insights into Pizzaz's backstory, that Kimber starts accepting the loss of her father. Good stuff.
Another good one is Riot's Hope, where we're treated to the secret origin of Riot and the Stingers. Turns out Riot's father -- hard-ass military man -- never approved of Riot's career choice, and as such, they've grown apart. It's only when Riot's mother falls ill, and Jem starts intervening, that Riot and his father are finally able to come to common ground. Yeah, it's an old story, but in this new light, it works.
I did enjoy when they got into the secret origins, such as the episode Out of the Past, where Jerrica discovers her father's diary and we learn about the creation of Synergy, the final fate of Jerrica's mother, and Jerrica's quest to find her mother's missing master tapes to release a retrospective album. I remember watching this one on TV when I was a kid. At the end, when they finally find the master tapes and the band struck up one of Jerrica's mother's old songs, my brother and I jumped off the couch and cheered.
But the recurring father issues came to a head in the final episode A Father Should Be..... With the way these cartoons were pounded out in the 1980s, its rare that one of them go to produce a proper series finale, and A Father Should Be... is a rather satisfying one. I already mentioned that Jerrica ran a charity called Starlight House, which is a foster home for orphan girls, and as such, the Starlight Girls were recurring characters. One Starlight Girl was a Vietnamese war orphan named Ba Nee, who over the course of the series, becomes obsessed with finding her birth father. All she knows was that her father was a redheaded American G.I. So, Jem and the Holograms decide to focus their efforts on reuniting Ba Nee with her father. Once her father is found (an amnesic vet making a living as a painter), Jem and the Holograms, the Misfits, and the Stingers all declare a truce to throw Ba Nee a kick-ass good-bye party.
You know, it's amazing how often the military pops up in this show. Riot's father worked in Army Intelligence, Ba Nee's missing father. And since this was made by Hasbro - the makers of G.I. Joe - I keep lamenting that they missed a great opportunity to do a G.I. Joe crossover. How kick ass would it have been if Ba Nee's father was Flint, or Snake Eyes?
How about if I rattle off my 5 favourite episodes?
#5: The Fan -- The first one I watched when I discovered the series on Netflix. I remember watching it when I was a kid and finding it creepy as hell. A Jem superfan offers a reward for the true identity of Jem, and the Misfits decide to cash in. So the Misfits kidnap Jem and put her in an exact replica of Starlight Mansion, with actresses playing the Holograms, in the hopes that Jem will eventually let her guard down and reveal her true identity. But the little inconsistencies begin to drive Jem mad. Holy guacamole, it's a paranoid's nightmare come true.
#4: The Bands Break Up -- Some good character development here for Kimber and Stormer. Both being the "kid sisters" in their respective bands, they both get tired of getting pushed around a storm out. They wind up in the same club, where the emcee goads them into jamming on stage, and Kimber and Stormer discover they make a pretty good duo. So, they quit their respective bands and try to set out on their own. But before long, they're in over their heads, and realize they've still got some growing up to do. It's kind of like a coming-of-age tale for these two girls.
#3: The Day the Music Died -- Dear god, this one is amazing. It seems like every cartoon in the 1980s had to have at least one episode that showed us the nightmare that would happen if our heroes gave up the good fight and the villains won the day. This is that episode for Jem. A stressed-out and overworked Jerrica/Jem allows Riot to whisk her away on an impromptu vacation to Mexico. Without Jerrica's leadership, Starlight Music falls prey to a hostile takeover by the Misfits, the remaining Holograms and Stingers are merged into a Misfits supergroup, and the Misfits proceed to run Starlight Music into the ground. This one is so freakin' amazing to show the Misfits finally get everything they wanted, and then get bogged down with the paperwork. And that fact that so many characters in this one break the fourth wall and talk to the camera to explain what the hell is going on almost turns into a VH1 Behind The Music spoof. It's brilliant.
#2: Glitter and Gold -- Jem comes back from a long absence to take down the Misfits in a record store chain's Glitter and Gold competition. So much rich character stuff in this, as Rio and Jerrica's relationship is finally explore in depth, and our first exploration of the Jerrica/Jem dual identity and what exactly it all means. I blogged about this one pretty extensively when I caught it on TelelToon Retro a year and a half ago, so I won't repeat myself.
#1: Midsummer Night's Madness -- Holy wackadoo, this one is fantastic. You need a program to keep track of all the romantic entanglements. While in Greece for a music festival, Jerrica has a blow-up with Rio, and Jem gets tired of Riot's advances, so Jerrica/Jem has Synergy whip a third persona, Jamie, she can use to escape the drama. But then Rio finds himself mysteriously drawn to Jamie, Riot decides he wants Jerrica, and things get so needlessly complicated as you start losing track of who's romancing who. They didn't do much exploration into the Jem/Jerrica dual identity and what makes the two different. This is pretty much the only episode that freely explores that, as it's stated early in that Jerrica is a workaholic and Jem is more carefree and fun loving. Jerrica learns more about herself through the experience, we learn more about the character. I was laughing, I was cheering. It's just so good, you guys.
You might have noticed the music videos I sprinkled throughout this article. That was one of the main gimmicks of the show. Since music videos were all the rage and it was the rise of the MTV Generation, each episode boasted actual music videos by Jem and the Holograms, the Misfits, and the Stingers (and occasionally the Starlight Girls). The songs never got any kind of an official release, but many of the toys back in the day came with a cassette that contained two or three songs from the show.
And this concludes my little nostalgia trip for Jem and the Holograms. It seemed right at home there on Saturday afternoons, sandwiched between G.I. Joe and Transformers. It taught me the values of kindness, generosity, and friendship, and 10 year old me learned something very valuable.
Girls make me feel funny down there.
Seriously, there's this one episode where Jem is in a track outfit and she's got her hair up and...yeah.