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A League by Any Other Name

TV Wasteland examines the new JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED series. Do too many heroes make for too little storytelling?

By David Michael Wharton     December 13, 2004


The heroes of JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED.
© Cartoon Network

Cartoon Network's JUSTICE LEAGUE really hit its stride in last year's second season. Bruce Timm and his writers seemed to really be getting handle on characters such as Green Lantern and Hawkgirl, who didn't have the benefit of their own prior animated series to break them in. They began taking these characters into territory wholly unique to their animated continuity, for example by fostering a romance between the militaristic Green Lantern and the equally brusque Hawkgirl. Season two boasted no real clunkers like the ones that made season one uneven ("War World" anyone?), and the writers seemed to excel at the two-part, hour-long story format they had adopted.


So it was somewhat ominous when the third season was heralded not only by the addition of UNLIMITED to the show's moniker, but by primarily self-contained one-off episodes and the expansion of the League to include nearly every character from DC Comics history. The prospect of characters never-before seen outside the comics page given animated life was exciting, but would these drastic changes muck up the delicate chemistry that had the second season firing on all cylinders?


Well, yes and no. Midway through season three, JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED may not be the fine beast that its predecessor was, but that's not all a bad thing.


First off, it's just plain cool seeing that many lesser-known DC heroes onscreen. Everyone from the Crimson Avenger to freakin' Bwana Beast has put in an appearance, and while some of them amount to little more than background filler on the League satellite, episodes such as last week's Atom-centric "Dark Heart" have featured dozens of heroes in action at once, even if only a small handful of them actually have speaking parts. The downside of this is just what was predicted by many naysayers all along: the core group of heroes that we've come to know and love for the first two seasons are given less time to shine. This has been harder on some than others: Batman still gets all the best lines (for instance, "Ultimatum"'s perfectly delivered, "Mine are bigger than yours.") and Superman is always on hand to break things real good, but poor J'onn J'onzz has been reduced to the League equivalent of Charlie from CHARLIE'S ANGELS, stuck up on the satellite and coordinating all the fun stuff down below. And I don't think poor Flash has even popped up once, which may or may not have anything to do with voice actor Michael Rosenbaum being preoccupied with another balder, evil-ler DC character over on SMALLVILLE.


But the trade-off is that the writers have flat-out nailed every new character they've introduced, both in characterization and in voice casting. They won quite a bit of good will from me when "Initiation" introduced Green Arrow, one of my favorite of DC's line-up, and he was not only appropriately gruff and unimpressed with the League's intimidating reputation, but they even managed a moment of him gawking at Black Canary's fishnets. Hawk and Dove worked just fine for a pair of characters I'd never particularly cared about, and their episode was made even better by casting WONDER YEARS brothers Fred Savage and Jason Hervey. The version of The Question, perfectly voiced by Jeffrey Combs, was brilliant: a hilariously paranoid cross between Batman and Fox Mulder with an unnerving fondness for bubblegum pop. And I will forever be grateful to whoever is responsible for the masterstroke of casting SCRUBS' John C. McGinley as the Atom.


Furthermore, the writers seem to be using the transition to self-contained episodes as an excuse to be a little more experimental and quirky. We've seen an episode focusing on League also-ran Booster Gold, who ignominiously gets assigned to "crowd control" with Elongated Man while the League big guns battle evil sorcerer Mordru. Then, to add insult to injury, Elongated Man gets pulled into the battle, leaving Booster alone with his humiliating assignment. Oh, and everyone keeps mistaking him for Green Lantern (despite the complete lack of green anywhere on his uniform). Then, in a twist reminiscent of classic BUFFY episode "The Zeppo," he manages to save the world entirely on his own, but no one notices. It may not be the intensity and drama of season two's "A Better World," but it's an episode completely in keeping with what makes the Booster character work. The only thing that would have made it better is if he'd been teamed up with Blue Beetle.


And that's not even touching on the episodes where Batman sang a torch song or where the League fought a team of thinly veiled references to the b-listers from CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS.


So yes, this season is different. A little quirky. Slightly eccentric. But still sporting a fairly impressive batting average. And any season that features not only a stellar adaptation of Alan Moore's classic Superman tale "For the Man Who Has Everything," but also an ep scripted by comic scribe extraordinaire Warren Ellis, I'm gonna have to count that as a success.



Keep your head and hands inside the television, folks...


 


MONDAY, DECEMBER 13


LIFE OF LUXURY (7 PM CST, ABC) Because watching the opulent lifestyles of those more fortunate than yourself just never gets old.


BENNY & JOON (7 PM CSN, WGN) Believe it or not, Johnny Depp plays a loveable eccentric.


NEW UFO REVELATIONS: CHINA'S ROSWELL (7 PM CST, History Channel) Focusing on something known as the "Dropa Stones." Which I think is what Indiana Jones was after in TEMPLE OF DOOM.


THE HEBREW HAMMER (7 PM CST, Comedy Central) A Jewish detective goes up against the evil son of Santa, who is plotting to destroy Hanukkah.


THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (7 PM CST, TCM) One of the last enjoyable movies Meg Ryan made before she injected silly putty into her lips (YOU'VE GOT MAIL) was based on this 1940 flick.


LEGEND OF EARTHSEA (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi)

Before he directed the LORD OF THE RINGS, Peter Jackson made THE FRIGHTENERS.

The first part of Sci-Fi's adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's beloved fantasy series, starring Iceman and Lana Lang.


KURT AND COURTNEY (8 PM CST, Trio) Courtney Love tried to block this documentary's release, since it apparently suggests that she was partly responsible for Cobain's death. Then again, if I were married to Courtney Love, I'd probably shoot myself too.


CSI: MIAMI (9 PM CST, CBS) "Addiction." A wealthy young woman is shot after leaving a posh restaurant, and suspicion turns toward her relatives. Or possibly Courtney Love.


 


TUESDAY, DECEMBER 14


REBEL BILLIONAIRE: BRANSON'S QUEST FOR THE BEST (7 PM CST, Fox) The contestants head to Morocco, where Branson feeds them individually through a wood chipper and fashions a decorative collage from their bits. He then launches his personal stock of tactical nuclear missiles and plunges the earth into Armageddon.


I WANT A DOG FOR CHRISTMAS, CHARLIE BROWN (7 PM CST, ABC) Say, that's a coincidence; we just got a dog for Christmas. Named Dargo. Yes, after the FARSCAPE character. And my wife named him, thereby defeating her persistent insistences that she is not a geek.


NCIS (7 PM CST, CBS) "Chained." A search for stolen Iraqi artifacts ends with Tony handcuffed to a thief he helped escape during an undercover operation. I smell a buddy comedy!


FANTASTIC VOYAGE (7 PM CST, WGN) I'm sure this is great, but I'll always have a soft spot for INNERSPACE.


DINNER FOR FIVE (7 PM, IFC) Jon Favreau sits down with Martin Scorsese himself.


HOUSE (8 PM CST, Fox) "Damned if You Do." You know what we don't see enough of on television? Stigmatic nuns. Well, tonight's episode will remedy that.


AMAZING RACE (8 PM CST, CBS) The remaining teams are killed during the first wave of Richard Branson's global nuclear strike.


VERONICA MARS (8 PM CST, UPN) "An Echolls Family Christmas." I'm hoping this will be the week that I can finally watch Enrico Colantoli, who plays Veronica's P.I. dad, and not be disturbed by the fact that he also played the lead Thermian in GALAXY QUEST.


VIDEO GAME AWARDS (8 PM CST, Spike) Including a presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Q-Bert.


LEGEND OF EARTHSEA (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) The second and concluding part.


NYPD BLUE (9 PM CST, ABC) "Bale Out." Guest-star and future Batman Christian Bale comes out of the closet. No, not really.


SCORSESE ON SCORSESE (9 PM CST, TCM) If you didn't get enough of him on DINNER FOR FIVE, here he is again.


 


WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 15


THAT '70S SHOW (7 PM CST, Fox) "Winter." The guys preoccupy themselves with toys Kelso "borrows" from a toy drive.


LOST (7 PM CST, ABC) "Pilot."

Shawn Ashmore plays the novice wizard Ged in THE LEGEND OF EARTHSEA.

Your chance to see the opening chapter of the island tale the way it was intended: as a single two-hour block, rather than split into two as it was originally aired. (Repeat.)


THE WEST WING (8 PM CST, NBC) "Impact Winter." According to the plot synopsis on the official site, apparently NASA warns the Bartlet administration of a potential asteroid strike. When did this show turn into DEEP IMPACT?


BIG MAN ON CAMPUS (8 PM CST, WB) In tonight's episode, the show's producers spend 45 minutes scraping the bottom of a barrel. (Series Premiere)


PROOF POSITIVE: EVIDENCE OF THE PARANORMAL (7 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Ghosts and telepathic infants and a guy who claims that his body emits electric fields that short out household appliances.


GHOST HUNTERS (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Wrapping up the first season of this addictive show, the guys head to Maine to investigate an allegedly possessed woman. (Season finale)


THE WIRE (7 PM CST, HBO) "Middle Ground." I've never seen an ep of this critically lauded show, but I've heard so many good things, I feel like I should mention it. In the meantime, I'll try to catch up via Netflix.


CSI: NY (9 PM CST, CBS) "Night, Mother." Mac and Stella investigate a woman who was killed via a wooden stake to the chest. Perfect opportunity for an ANGEL crossover, if only the WB hadn't cancelled it.


HISTORY VS. HOLLYWOOD (10 PM CST, History Channel) Putting the fact and fiction of THE AVIATOR under the microscope. I dunno whether it's historically accurate or not, but it's a damn fine film.


SOUTH PARK (9 PM CST, Comedy Central) I dunno if you saw the recent "Stupid Spoiled Whore" Paris Hilton episode, but I still marvel at the things this show gets away with. It warms the heart.


DRAWN TOGETHER (9:30 PM CST, Comedy Central) "The One Wherein There is a Big Twist." The roommates mutiny in an animated manner.


NICK & JESSICA'S FAMILY CHRISTMAS (9 PM CST, MTV) No.


 


THURSDAY, DECEMBER 16


THE O.C. (7 PM CST, Fox) "The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn't." The guest list for Seth's Chrismukkah party causes problems.


CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (7 PM CST, ABC) I wonder how many times total this has been aired? Not that I don't want to see it aired another 20,000 times in the future.


MODERN MARVELS (7 PM CST, History Channel) Investigating the technology that makes candy bars. But I bet they still can't tell me what's in a Twinkie.


THE APPRENTICE (7 PM CST, NBC) My interest in this show was fired long ago, but if you're still following it, here's tonight's season finale.



DRAGONHEART (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) An okay movie featuring a truly impressive dragon.


 


FRIDAY, DECEMBER 17


ALIEN (7 PM CST, Bravo) Wash the bitter taste of ALIEN VS. PREDATOR from your mouth with the original.


POPEYE'S VOYAGE: THE QUEST FOR PAPPY (7:30 PM CST, Fox) Paul Reiser co-wrote this new tale of the sailor with the substance-abuse problems. And Kathy Bates voices the Sea Hag.


JINGLE BALL ROCK (8 PM CST, Fox) Person-I-couldn't-care-less-about Ryan Seacrest hosts a night of music featuring many other people I also couldn't care less about.


OFFICE SPACE (9:30 PM CST, Bravo) Make sure you're properly adorned with "flair" before you tune in.


THE OMEN (10:30 PM CST, AMC) Prepare for Christmas with a little Antichrist-mas.


 


SATURDAY, DECEMBER 18


THE FRIGHTENERS (6 PM CST, Sci-Fi)

The heroes of JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED.

Before he was painting Middle Earth upon our movie screens, Peter Jackson was making this underrated flick.


REMEMBER THE TITANS (7 PM CST, ABC) If not, you can refresh your memory.


JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED (7:30 PM CST, Cartoon Network) "Wake the Dead." Solomon Grundy returns from the grave and Hawkgirl returns from her self-imposed exile in Dr. Fate's tower.


PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Sci-Fi not only revives two horror franchises that didn't particularly need resurrection, but it sics them on each other. Hoorah.


 


SUNDAY, DECEMBER 19


MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE (6:30 PM CST, Fox) "Hal's Christmas Gift." Hal is determined to find the right gift to put everyone back in the Christmas spirit. I bet it doesn't work.


ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (7:30 PM CST, Fox) "Afternoon Delight." Lindsay hunts for men at the company Christmas party, while Michael and Maeby dabble in karaoke.


IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (7:30 PM CST, TCM) The classic comedy about a band of eccentrics trying to beat each other to a buried treasure.


MY BIG FAT OBNOXIOUS BOSS (8 PM CST, Fox) Mr. Todd has the contestants create garbage sculptures and then sell them to unsuspecting art patrons.


DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (8 PM CST, ABC) "Come Back to Me." A moment of silence for poor Mrs. Huber, if you please.


BOSTON LEGAL (9 PM CST, ABC) "Hired Guns." Chase defends a woman charged with murdering her unfaithful hubby, and Shore is held hostage by the enraged father from a child-custody case.


 


We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.




TV Wasteland is our weekly Television column. Some members of the Justice League were consulted for the writing this article.


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