Oh, look, Skeletor is upset.
My apologies, Skeletor, but we are in fact talking about He-Man (and the Masters of the Universe!)
The 1980s was a great time to be alive. We had Journey, Michael Jackson's Thriller video, The Nintendo Entertainment System was beginning to pick up steam, Sierra On-Line was still a company, and most importantly we had cartoons. Lots and lots of cartoons. The 80s was the decade when Don Bluth formed his own studio, Disney started doing television animation, Mirakami-Swenson-Wolf gave us a gnarly green fab foursome who became a pop culture phenomenon, and animation companies like Filmation and Sunbow still existed.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe hit the airwaves in 1983 and was a smash hit. And it's no surprise—even today, the original series still hold well as an achievement in art, soundtrack scoring, writing and characterization. At the time it was even better because there was literally no other cartoon like it.
I want to emphasize the characterization, because that's really the strong suit of this series. After a couple of episodes, these characters stop seeming like "types" and start becoming close to you, almost as close as your best friends. To an extent, this is even true of the villains, very few of whom are straight evil and completely lacking in any redeeming qualities—even Skeletor himself. This nuanced portrayal is part of Masters of the Universe continuing power to enthrall audiences, something many cartoons today lack.
Something I retroactively appreciated was the lack of clear "roles" in the storylines. That is, at no point did the writers, the designers or the producers ever say "this character is Role X. Role X is all he can ever do," in fact that's clearly not the case at times. Take Orko: sure he's funny, but he's not limited to just providing laughs. Throughout the course of the series, we see him mellow, serious, thoughtful, mournful and even depressed! I can only think of one character in cartoons today who has that kind of range.
I would love to go on, I really would. There are so many little things about this cartoon that add up to a great and wonderful whole. The hard part is that a lot of those little things are really hard to explain, like the subtle use of gestures to suggest feelings or thoughts, or the fact that it's Teela and not He-Man dueling with Skeletor in that picture there. I like that because its yet another example of the "no clear roles" thing, but I don't think many people would understand me if I went on about it. Maybe as you watch, you'll start to understand.
But now I've gotta talk about some criticisms. Even though He-Man is probably as good as American animation will ever get, it's not perfect. One stand-out quality of this series is its moral idealism and its pro-society values. In He-Man's world, people were generally good, and only did evil out of either fear or corruption, but when they decided to do the right thing they were always capable of doing great things—whether or not they had powers (indeed, He-Man rarely succeeds on his own and often owes his success to his unpowered friends or the uncalled-for assistance of some passerby or particularly heroic little boy).
Okay, that's all well and good, but sometimes I feel like they go overboard with it, and let the morality dominate the story, to the point where it sometimes causes situations to be incredulous or character reactions to come off as stilted, their dialogue as preachy. It doesn't happen too often, but it is grating when it does.
Another issue is the animation. Contrary to popular belief He-Man was actually quite an expensive series due to Filmation's policy against outsourcing, and you've got to commend them for standing by their beliefs despite the costs, as well as for the times it allowed them to do beautifully-animated sequences such as the death of Evilseed. But this stance necessitated a lot of cost-cutting and this sometimes causes the visuals to be done in ways that rob scenes of the impact they could've had. It also means you'll be seeing a lot of the same rotoscoped sequences time and again.
Personally, my biggest issue is the voice acting. The mainstay actors—those who voiced Adam, He-Man, Skeletor and other series mainstays—for the most part do an admirable job. But the bit-part characters are another matter. King Randor sometimes does great, sometimes not. The one-shot characters completely take the cake, as they often sound like they're just reading lines from a cue-card while performing an accent.
That being said though, I consider it a sad state that shows of He-Man's calibre, positive idealism and open-world nature have sunk out of vogue in the decades since, in favor of darker and more edgy cartoons. However, the recent unexpected success of a certain colored horsies show makes me think that cartoons like He-Man may come back into vogue, and like Herman Melville's Moby Dick, He-Man will rise from the ashes and take its rightful place as a classic of animation! It's not just a hope, it's a strong possibility!
Here, in my opinion, are the five "best" episodes:
1. The Diamond Ray of Disappearance - As the pilot episode it serves as a decent introduction to the series. Note that most copies of this episode are missing about a minute of footage, but the episode still makes sense without it.
2. The Curse of the Spellstone - For the concept of the "Creeping Horrak," a vine which covers homes until the inhabitants suffocate. There's surprisingly little sugar-coating, making it one of the more intense episodes.
3. Teela's Quest - For an example of a great character-focused story that doesn't hinge entirely on the heroes stopping a villainous plot. Back in the day this was the episode that sold many on the series.
4. Evilseed - You know how every cartoon nowadays has an episode where the hero and villain have to team up to beat a different villain? Well, they're all just second-rate knock-offs of this story. He-Man did it first and did it better.
5. Into the Abyss - I personally think this one is notable because it gives a more nuanced understanding of how Adam and Teela's mind works. It's also the only episode that has no villains whatsoever, which is pretty unique for an adventure series.
And now here's five "iffy" episodes—episodes I don't think are necessarily that great but which have their share of fans.
1. The Arena - Because it shows an all-out attack that downplays the goofier characters, it tends to come off as darker than most episodes. Personally I thought it was a little dull but your mileage may vary.
2. Quest for He-Man - Has its fans because its one of the few episodes that shows He-Man unmitigatingly getting his butt handed to him, but the rest of the episode is too much on the silly side for my tastes.
3. Origin of the Sorceress - Backstory episodes are always seen as deepening the mythology, though sometimes they can be more "information" than "fun to watch." It is kinda neat though, that it introduces ideas that would later be expanded in She-Ra: Princess of Power.
4. The Dragon's Gift - Is notable because the conflict hinges on an extremely gray moral issue with no easy answers, versus the black-and-white most cartoons have, but some critics think the ending comes off as too much of a cop-out.
5. The Problem With Power - I'm only placing this here because I haven't watched it in awhile.
You can find many of these episodes on Youtube and the entire series is available on DVD.
It seems to me that, now that I've done He-Man, there is a certain other, girlier cartoon that I need to cover...
...And while I'm at it, a few words could be spared for the 1990 remake...
...Or the 2002 one...
... Maybe soon?