"The Child is father of the Man."
I indulge in a good deal of fluff here on the blog, but every now and then I tackle weightier subjects, such as this month's tenth anniversary of the indomitable, indefatigable, and inimitable SpongeBob Squarepants. James Parker profiles the cadmium yellow phenomenon in this month's Atlantic Monthly.
As Parker argues, no cartoon character has been more characteristically American than Spongebob--both buoyant and irrepressible, his greatest passion is serving up the Krabby Patty, a variant of that most quintessential American product. Spongebob is either stupidly naive or uncorruptibly optimistic, depending on how one views him; inherently blind to limits, he somehow winds up being pardonable owing to his basic good will. Like our preferred conception of children, he is deeply but innocently egotistical and a boundless generator of entropy, yet he is ultimately incapable of vindictiveness.
If Spongebob embodies the can-do, entrepreneurial spirit, the absurdly acquisitive Mr. Krabs correspondingly reflects the reckless greed than which he, unlike his fry cook, ought to know better. Yet Krabs is fallible, not vicious, and as such serves as a father figure for his young charge. He forgives Spongebob his frequent trespasses, and is forgiven in turn. Their nemesis, the menacing but miniscule and maladroit Plankton, is more bad uncle than real villain--as his chief aim is not destruction but theft of the Krabby Patty's secret formula, the greatest danger he poses is perversion of the business ethos.
The ludicrously stupid starfish Patrick, Spongebob's faithful companion, is a useful foil to the latter's misadventures; while Spongebob makes many mistakes in a large and complicated world, Patrick reminds the young viewer that he has, at least, come a long way from primal idiocy. The curmudgeonly Squidward embodies that most scary and puzzling quantity to the child, that adult world that is immune to his charms (and he is a figure to which the viewing parent may well relate). Yet even he, of course, is more long-suffering than threatening.
As Parker notes, the series borrows some of the hallucinatory dynamism of the 1990's Ren and Stimpy Show, but domesticated for a mainstream audience. Absurdity and breakneck speed constitute the pulse, but the show avoids decadence inasmuch as hard work, ingenuity, and allegiance to friends and colleagues will finally prevail. Over the top, dripping with excess, yet unapologetic and deeply moral, Spongebob Squarepants is a snapshot of contemporary American culture. And I don't think I can stand another episode.