Sliding Scale Of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Western Animation
Manchester Black:You think that's it? It's not over, you poncy twit. If you think I'll just go to jail and rot, you're living in a dream world!
Superman:Good. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us into something better. And on my soul, I swear that until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice are the reality we all share, I'll never stop fighting. Ever.
Futurama tends to be down the middle. Several known species of animal are extinct, New York City has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, crack is readily available in vending machines, the universe is threatened on a regular basis, Richard Nixon is president again, the nation’s military is commanded by an incompetent, womanizing Man Child who is more than willing to sacrifice his own men for unnecessary reasons and start a war with a race he hates, hell exists, and is inNew Jersey; and the world’s leading manufacturer in robots, starship fuel, and electronics is an evil, abusive, amoral old hag, it is legal to eat human meat, and racism still exists in one form or another. But there are episodes that show that some of the worst offenders (namely Bender) have a human side to them, that no love goes unrequited, that shows humanity can band together and make significant changes (i.e. being able to give mutants, who, for the majority of the series, were treated as vermin, regulated to living in shoddy conditions in the sewers; the freedom to move about the surface and (possibly) equal rights as surface-dwellers, legalize robosexual marriage, and come to a fair and equal consensus on controversial subjects like evolution.
Avatar: The Last Airbender flip-flops on the scale madly...the mostly upbeat Season 1 gives way to the Darker and Edgier Season 2, with everything up in the air for the majority of Season 3 and the scale sliding like mad between idealism and cynicism. Finally, though it lands HARD on the Idealistic Side for the Grand Finale.
There's a line that parodies this flip-flopping (and the idealistic side) in 'The Phoenix King'.
In fact, a large aspect of the last four episodes centers around deciding whether to end in an idealistic or cynical way. All of Aang's allies and past lives tell him that he needs to kill Ozai (Cynical Ending), but he's convinced he can find another way to end the war without murder (Idealistic Ending).
The Legend of Korra, in contrast, takes all the cynicism that its predecessor left behind and runs with it. The city Aang and Zuko designed as a center of peace and balance? It's as corrupt and crime-ridden as Gotham City. The criminal whose life Aang spared? He abuses his sons so badly in his revenge gambit that they grow into exactly what he wanted in spite of themselves. The sympathetic villainous brothers? They're doomed to hurt everyone in their way, and they die without hope in a murder-suicide when the one with a functioning conscience realizes it. The world-destroying villain? Korra kills him, and his kids don't care. Human nature itself? Violent, xenophobic, and insular note in fact, humanity's immediate reaction to the first Avatar freeing them from their status as effective refugees is to try to slaughter everyone who didn't come from the same city, to the point that Wan died on a battlefield believing he'd failed the world. The nature of the spirits? Essentially the same. Even the romance is designed to show how terrible teenagers are at figuring out relationships. Thankfully, it all works out in an Earn Your Happy Ending kind of way, but the worldview is still one of the most cynical ever chosen by a serious work of western animation.
ReBoot. Bob was always the idealist, strongly against deletion, believing viruses could be turned. Enzo originally idolised him, but after being forced to grow up in the games, he became the cynic of the show. The contrast between them was most noticeable when brain washed guardians were attacking Mainframe. Bob wanted to contain them, Enzo wanted to kill them.
Two of Cartoon Network's shows from 2008 to 2010, Chowder and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, show an interesting contrast. They both have the same core idea: "Main character is a naive kid who drags the older main characters into situations based off his naïveté/stupidity." The contrast comes from the fact that the two shows are on the opposite sides of the scale.
Chowder is an idealistic series. A bright and colorful world where people generally get along happily and the biggest problem is the next food order.
Flapjack, on the other hand, is very cynical. It takes place in a Crapsack World where pretty much everyone is bitter, abusive, and ugly, with terrors abound.
Interestingly SpongeBob SquarePants is a similar concept that slowly drifted from one to the other. The show was originally cheerful and vaguely sentimental with SpongeBob being somewhat relatable and most of his bumbling being treated sympathetically or as Laser-Guided Karma to meaner spirited characters. After the creator Stephen Hillenburg left the series, however, the humor slowly became darker and SpongeBob also became more insane and the consequences of his constant stupidity often shown to be harrowing and life destroying for innocent people. Other characters like Mr Krabs also became far more malicious (and unlike before didn't always fall victim to karma).
Daria is very much on the cynical side but occasionally shows some optimism. The bulk of the cast are concerned wholly with their appearance and popularity. The Show Within a Show on Daria is called Sick Sad World.
Family Guy is like Seinfeld compared to The Simpsons being Married... with Children. Some of the characters only serve to be chew toys for the others and like Seinfeld, no learning or hugging allowed and there are barely any heartwarming moments, and Peter is outright abusive towards Meg and at times Chris. The Simpsons however is generally more idealistic as far as satire goes since there are some meaningful episodes which shows the bonds of the dysfunctional family and how despite how bad Homer's life is, he will never truly betray Marge and their marriage.
To be fair Family Guy's cynical phase is largely a result of Flanderization. Prior to that, despite it's obvious dark shades there was a fair amount of whimsy and innocence with the characters at least having visible lovable and sympathetic aspects. Peter was more a brasher Kindhearted Simpleton who genuinely cared for his family and nearly always felt bad for his actions in the end of each episode. There were also some vaguely realistic spotlighting in the relations of the family eg. Lois confronting Peter about his lack of passion and appreciation, which he merely thought she already knew.
Total Drama started out as a fairly idealistic parody of reality shows in its first season, with a few cynical moments and individual Downer Endings. In its second season, though, things took a turn for the cynical end. Tropes like the Satellite Love Interest were Deconstructed brutally, and the cast turned into a pretty good example of Black and Gray Morality. Season 3 can be considered somewhat a Reconstruction, returning to the formula of the first season with some things from the second lurking in, and the series now lies at the center of the scale.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is all things considered a very idealistic show. It should be noted however that the My Little Pony franchise as a whole is extremely idealistic, and FIM is actually quite cynical by comparison to the earlier incarnations of the franchise.
Nevertheless, the show does have its fairly idealistic morals and aesops, and values the Power of Friendship über alles. Still, it does occasionally go out of its way to point out that many problems cannot be solved by smiles, sunshine and random songs (like others).
It usually falls on the cynical side of the spectrum when it comes to the big bads. Out of the four of these over the first three seasons, only Nightmare Moon and Discord, via Fluttershy, in Season 3 have proven redeemable by the Power of Friendship. The others have been either destroyed or banished. Smaller, one-episode bullies usually just take off without learning a lesson, with The Great and Powerful Trixie the only one to turn up again and undergo some character development thus far.
In short, it's cynical in that the setting contains many dangers and unsavory individuals, but it's idealistic in that said problems can always be solved as long every as everyone is willing to work for it.
Phineas and Ferb is possibly the most idealistic cartoon of the century. The writers adhere to the rule of "no evil characters", meaning that the show's biggest recurring villain is the resident Butt Monkey/partial Woobie whose biggest wishes are to rule the tri-state area and be a good father, and the worst one, a Drill Sergeant Nasty who pretty much brainwashed the main characters was just a dream. However, this comes off as clear proof of Idealism is not Bland, because this is where it gets all its charm.
By contrast, South Park is quite far down on the cynical side of the scale, taking place in a small town hell where horror abounds and has enough squick and offensive humor that no one is innocent or spared.
And it gets more cynical once social satire replaces the funny side of everyday life.
It's worth noting that while the show is very cynical in general, there are several instances that shed some idealism in the world. The Movie, "Stick of Truth" video game, "You Have 0 Friends", "Crack Baby Athletic Association", and a few other examples all contain a happy ending showing that while the show is raunchy, dark and vulgar there does lie a number of instances that are heartwarming.