Why is the Jem cartoon so great? How does it stand out among other cartoons of it's time? What advantages did it have compared to them, and probably to today's shows aswell. Can this be nailed down to specific things? I think part of it can be.
To showcase this I'm going to make comparisons to some other great 80's cartoons. I like those cartoons alot aswell, and all of them of course have advantages compared to Jem aswell. But here's some things I think made the Jem cartoon great and which was handled better in Jem than in the other cartoons.
1. The Jem cartoon has great songs, written by professionals and sung by talented singers who took their job seriously, aswell as presented with fantastic music videos. It was an ingredient of the Jem cartoon that couldn't quite be compared to by anything another show did, atleast not in the sense of offering their audience an artistic feature with pure enjoyment for the ears and eyes.
In most other 80's cartoons where there are either regular bands or a certain episode with bands, like G.I. Joe or Ducktales, they couldn't even bother to make one decent song, nor make more of a music video than the band standing on the stage throughout their performance. And as for the cartoons that actually did include atleast one somewhat wellwritten song per episode, I can't find a single one that had music videos that can even begin to compare with any of the ones in Jem. Barbie and the Rockers? Josie and the Pussycats? Archies? Chipmunks? Good ones, but not really anywhere close to Jem.
2. Each character has very well designed and also very individual looks in terms of faces, expressions, makeup, haircolors, hairstyles, fashions and what not. Even if the cartoon had been in b&w it would be easy to tell them apart. They didn't just color them differently or give them a different symbol, like the Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers.
3. Jem has nice messages all through the cartoon without ruining the fun, and without making them too obvious or forced. Instead of making a big deal out of making it a big part of each episode just to pose an example, Jem lives her own life and acts as a good role model all along. And then of course there are a few episodes entirely made about messages, which is infact how the show managed to avoid making them too obvious in the rest of the episodes.
4. Jem characters have realistic complex personalities for a cartoon, compare it to Barbie and the Rockers and you
will see what I mean. You can't sort Jem characters into stereotypic characteristics like good, evil, clumsy,
dumb, scared, and so on. Even secondary characters seem to have more heart and personality to them, rather than
emotionless carriers of a certain task. In Jem there are no silly mascot-characters or dumb creatures
who are just there as a comedy relief and annoyingly end up in such silly troublesome situations.
Okay maybe Kimber and the Starlight girls had their moments in certain episodes.
But in Jem, the characters look like normal people, rather than humorous. Even the secondary characters in
the Jem cartoon didn't look silly because he sold hotdogs, or strange because she was from another
country. In Jem they spent alot of time on creating logical character models even for the secondary characters.
In other cartoons, it's more obvious who is good vs. evil, and so few characters are given a personality, they just seem to appear and say their line and then they are forgotten about. Whenever there's a new kind of creature in He-man it seems they all look so alike and move stiffly in groups. In He-man it's always the same characters who do the most stupid things to end up in trouble, like Orko and Teela.
5. There are complex and good reasons for Jem's secret identity. They don't ask us to buy the secret identity without explanation. First Jerrica owns half the record company Starlight Music and needed to compete in the battle of the bands without a conflict of interest to save the Starlight foundation. She can't tell anyone about Synergy because the equipment could fall into wrong hands and be used for evil purposes. She flirted with Rio as both personalities and waited too long to tell Rio so she fears he would feel hurt.
The only reason for most secret identities in other cartoons is the need for a private life I guess, but usually not even that is mentioned.
6. There are limits to Jem's "strengths" and "abilities". Synergy can't project everything, and Holograms are after all just 3D images and can't be touched. Christy Marx wrote especially in the Jem bible about not overusing Synergy' abilities. There's no magic! The cartoon overall has alot of realism, other than the very futuristic technology of Synergy, even if the characters of course can end up in the most crazy situations and have too much luck.
But there are no limits to what He-man can do, as far as strength anyway. If he has trouble pushing a smaller item in one episode, he still manages to push an entire mountain in another. Or they will just bring in a friend from nowhere, or... there's magic! She-ra has a magic sword that can turn into anything. And let's not even get into Superman, he can do anything. The man is super!
7. Jem and Jerrica don't look so much alike that they had to overdo how boring Jerrica is compared to Jem, to differentiate the two. Not certain how alike Jem and Jerrica would be wearing the same hair and makeup though. And sure, Jerrica feels herself she could be more fun. But she is not stiff, strict and boring like Clark Kent. Nor lazy, weak and clumsy like Prince Adam. He-man and Adam look so alike, and Adam has just as gigantic muscles as He-man. So does Clark Kent and Superman, but atleast Clark wears glasses unlike prince Adam.
8. There are alot of episodes that aren't standalone in the Jem animated series, meaning the episode doesn't
need to end by undoing everything that happened in it. Jem is a series with lasting changes,
additions and updates.
One reason was of course the new dolls by Hasbro which the cartoon was based on needed to be showcased,
which forced the cartoon to introduce new groupmembers and friends, who needed to reappear so their doll would
But on top of that, the writers seemed to communicate with each other
according to what had happened in stories and what characters had been introduced, and they would re-use each
other's characters, even characters that weren't written into the Jem Bible. In Jem there's not an entire
new enemy or person of a certain profession for each new story.
Cartoons like Gummi Bears, Ducktales and He-man though, most often seemed to reset everything at the end. Even if their whole world seemed to fall apart, every single detail would settle back to normal, and it would be like it had never happened.
9. Jem takes dangers more seriously. There's
alot of action, but also injuries and death and fear of death. And the bad guys see consequences like being thrown out, put
hand cuffs on, having to pay for their actions, being taken away, going to jail and never appearing again and so on.
In series like He-man lots of dangers take place, but no one seems to be scared for their life, only worried about disappearing to another world and things like that.
10. In Jem, the good guys don't always win, even if they find
greater meaning or something like that instead.
He-man always wins. So does She-ra, M.A.S.K., BraveStarr... correct me if I'm wrong.
11. The transformation scenes in Jem didn't take ages.
It was just a click away on an earring and a light would
appear around her and change her. Leaving more time for storytelling.
In He-man, Skeletor should actually have had quite enough time to take over, if the transformation really took that long, and with all that noise someone must have heard and seen it. Or what about Adam seeing a person falling, does he really have time to change into He-man? Or what about Sailor Moon? Jerrica could practically change all of her clothing, put on a pink wig and change her makeup if she was given that much time! And luckily she doesn't need a phone booth to change inside.
12. Jem didn't stay too true to the toy design in a way that made it seem unrealistic or too toylike. The Jem doll's blonde hair is not visible in the cartoon, Jerrica doesn't wear the glasses that the doll and fashions come with, the accessories are barely featured in the cartoon and if they are they look very different, playsets are mostly not featured and luckily work differently from in the doll line, the clothing often doesn't look alike, the earrings don't flash like on the doll.
Some He-man character designs don't make sense other than being action figures, like Man-e-faces switching only his face inside that big helmet is not a very big change. Or what about Dragon walker, Extendar, Leech, Mekaneck, Modulok, SSSqueeze, Tri-Klops? Perhaps some of the action figures were fun to play with, but they needed to be created to appear in a cartoon, or remade in a better way in the cartoon version, or atleast explained better.
13. Although Jem is not a superhero that needs to come around from nowhere, the writers still bothered to give a good excuse when Jem or Jerrica suddenly appeared, and they made the other characters ask suspiciously about it. Eric Raymond made it one of his goals to find out who Jem is, and even Jerrica's boyfriend Rio is very curious and snoopy at times.
While in most cartoons no one even bothers to guess who is behind the secret identity or that two people are the same, and there are barely any close calls. Prince Adam will just walk right into trouble without changing into He-man to begin with, but He-man is always around, even if they went to a far away isolated place, no one knows it's prince Adam anyway. They often don't even bother to explain how He-man got there and where Adam went.
14. In Jem there are barely any re-used cel sequences. Not even in the transformation scene.
What is re-used is of course the intro and ending credits, and some episodes repeated a short version of a
song at the end, but even when entire songs were re-used for later episodes it wasn't with
the same animation.
He-man and She-ra re-uses alot, especially close-ups.
15. The action in Jem has a nice pace. Not too fast, nor too slow. Some 80's shows have alot of stills or moments when only the mouths are moving, perhaps to let time pass without having to animate many cels. He-man seems really slow at times. G.I. Joe is sometimes so fast it's unwatchable. Or maybe it's just me.
16. In Jem, characters don't rely on a crystal ball to see what the others are up to, nor a sneaky creature that flies away and eavesdrops. In Jem there's all kinds of media, which enables the Misfits to show up wherever Jem is. The writers bother to give an explanation. Although the bands do accidentally stumble upon each other quite a few times aswell.
In He-man, Skeletor seems to be able to see anything though, from anywhere, at any time, through that crystal ball thing. Which means he should really be able to see He-mans transformation even! But of course that never happens.
17. In several cartoons and shows with secret identities, we never get to see the character change
back to their regular self, because no one ever thought about what takes place during the
re-transformation. In Jem we see this a whole lot, sometimes twice within a short period.
We rarely see characters in other cartoons change back from their secret identity. She-ra changes back some times though, even if behind a tree.
18. Jem has alot of action, but usually manages without weapons and extraordinary vehicles. There were vehicles in the Jem cartoon, but they weren't magical, weren't alive, couldn't talk, couldn't change into anything, couldn't fly, didn't have weapons and wouldn't show up by themselves from nowhere, nor suddenly in one episode do even more things that fit the occasion perfectly. Transformers, He-man and Thundercats come to mind. Jem had the Rockin' Roadster though, it was simply a car, but as boring as it may sound to stick to realism in that sense, it was included in a lot of action.
19. Jem didn't make use of most of the commonly overused themes that most other cartoons are directly based upon. Many of those cartoons are very entertaining and well written still, but nontheless their themes are very recognizable. Whether it's about a kingdom with a princess or prince, highschool students, mystery solving, mutants/monsters/cyborgs/robots, based on mythology or another classic story, or just a world filled with talking animals and cute pets. Or maybe all in one. Sure some of these things appear in one or two episodes of Jem, but it's not a needed ingredient for most episodes of Jem. Infact it's almost surprising how well Jem manages to avoid those things.
20. Having said Jem doesn't contain many common themes as a base, then what does it contain? Is it just a boring world with no obstacles and challenges, like in Barbie and the Rockers? Do the Jem characters just talk amongst themselves and go out and pick flowers or worry about the weather? No, Jem does have alot of interesting stories, action, enemies and obstacles. Barely ever a dull moment. It contained many different stories, most of which didn't feel forced.
21. Infact, Jem is not forced to contain action to make an interesting episode. Many action shows though just make it easy for themselves, by creating one-dimensional characters who show up and are evil for no apparent reason, and then the entire story is about the trouble they cause and how the hero tries to undo it and save everyone. They had no time for discussion or thinking, no direct interaction between characters, no personalities and realistic personal life, no explanation of how they get from one point to another, because they are just there and ready to fight evil. In Thundercats this was so obvious, but they got around it by always including an extra scene at the end of each episode, where things had calmed down and they talked about something and laughed. In Jem, this was incorporated into the stories, and we got to know them as the episode went along. And I think that is a big advantage for Jem.
22. Jem takes place in a realitybased world, on earth, at present time (or it was during the 80's atleast). The Jem writers had to stick to reality somewhat, and couldn't just invent how something worked differently to fit the story, like the characters being on another planet or dimension, or had access to all kinds of technology from the future, or other kinds of creatures from the past.
Unlike He-man, She-ra, Lady Lovelylocks, Dungeons & Dragons, Ninja Turtles, Jetsons, Flintstones, My Little Pony, Visionaries, BraveStarr, Thundercats, Defenders of the Earth, Rainbow Brite, and this list could be long.
23. Jem had suspense for each episode, but also quick rewards for the viewer in seeing a resolution to trouble. There was no goal that was hunted forever and never reached. There was no promise made in order to hook the audience to keep watching the series, about struggling and getting closer and closer, to one day maybe reach their goal. Like finding a mysterious lost location like in the Mysterious cities of gold, or hope to get transported back to their own dimension like in Dungeons & Dragons, finding a missing person like in alot of anime series, a source of power, money, fame or unrequited love. In some cases, cartoons that had something like that, never reached their goal before the cartoon ended, and if they had done so, there would be no reason to continue the story anyway since it was so based around that "goal".
So, Jem didn't promise you would get something, and then let you watch another and another episode and still never receive it. Jem invented new stories and obstacles each time. Sure there were ongoing stories that weren't resolved in Jem, but in Jem you weren't promised a resolution and the entire series didn't depend on it. The closest thing you can get to an unreachable goal in Jem is whether Rio would ever find out Jem's true identity, but it was not presented as something that was planned to happen, but rather the other way around usually.
24. Jem was a story-driven and dramatical cartoon, full of characters with unique background stories and personalities, with different opinions, preferences and humor aswell. But Jem didn't have the need of constant humor though, nor grabbing attention by shocking the audience with overviolence, blood, sex, profanity nor completely unrealistic turns of events.
I like cartoons like The Simpsons, where they can make up an unusual and perhaps silly story and then make it work by filling it with often very funny jokes. But the story in most humorshows like The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park, isn't based on developing believable characters, and we don't care enough about the characters to find it exciting, but the theme is rather tied quite closely and mostly to humor. Remove the jokes from some of these cartoons and there's barely anything left worth watching. Nothing that would hold up that kind of popularity of the show atleast. It's perfectly fine for a show to be based on humor, and storytelling vs humor are of course both admirable talents. But while I find The Simpsons funnier than Jem, I personally find most respect in a cartoon that needs to rely on it's storytelling and following a plan for it's characters, like Jem.
25. In Jem there are usually no quick fixes in stories that are always saved for the very last moment, when the characters are in big trouble and suddenly come to their right senses. Watching Jem doesn't make you go: "Come on!!! Why don't you do that right away?".
In Thundercats they put up a sword towards Mumm-Ra and he reacts negatively and changes back to a mummy when seeing his own reflection, if I understood that correctly. Synergy can be a tool for rescue, but is used from the start, and only sometimes comes with a better solution in the end, usually when they have more information. But the thing in Jem is that they want to use Synergy sparsely to not reveal that it's holograms. Any reason not to use the reflection of the sword on Mumm-Ra right away?
26. In the Jem cartoon you are usually treated to a new story or twist for each episode and with many different turns of events. Perhaps all are not completely unseen kinds of stories in cartoons, but atleast they didn't entirely repeat stories by always setting up the episodes the same way and with the same resolution at the end.
In some cartoons, like the Thundercats, it often seems to be more or less the same story, someone steals the sword, or some good character becoming controlled by an evil one, or some character is just evil because they are fooled by Mumm-Ra. Also He-man and M.A.S.K can be quite repetitive storywise. Of course there are great exceptions aswell in those cartoons. Jem does suffer from the same thing somewhat though, when it comes to things like not reaching a concert in time or risking losing a contest, but even in the few episodes that are tied around those themes, it's mostly just a small part of the story at the end.
27. Jem was not forced to introduce new toy products in every episode. In Jem it wasn't as obvious as in other cartoons, because sometimes it was just a new fashion and it didn't affect the story. Only a few times there were stories in Jem that were somewhat based around a new product like the new Glitter and Gold Roadster, or new characters. But in Jem they always put it in second place, made it fit in fine, and really did a good job creating another main story around it, rather than forcing it in there in the same way with every product. It was never like a toy commercial in Jem, like "here is something new, here is what it can do, look at it from every angle, the whole story is about this, and how this new thing saves the day".
An example of this would be He-man, but even in He-man they didn't always introduce all their toys, like the character Stinkor for one, who was never shown at all. Perhaps some toys in toylines like He-man, were too toylike to make a story of, but then Jem had some of those products aswell, like the Star Stage or the KJEM playset.
28. In Jem there aren't alot of big inconsistencies or blooper episodes that speak against important characteristics that are known about the characters. Sure it seems like Roxy can read in the episode Scandal, Kimber calls Jem her sister a couple of times, and we get two different stories on how Riot met Minx. But never something very obvious that ruins or changes things, like Rio suddenly knowing about Jem, like "Hey Jerrica, maybe it's time to contact Synergy and change into Jem". In He-man for example, the Sorceress can suddenly leave the castle in human form in one episode. In Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends they create two entirely different stories for Videoman, and on top of that, he is evil in one and good in the other (btw, Christy Marx actually wrote the first one of those episodes, where he is evil).
29. Jem characters are a little older than the main characters of most other cartoons, and Jem's storylines are a little more mature. It's about jealousy, relations, the hard work of running your own company, injuries, death, and handling drugaddiction, among other things. Many other cartoons though featured a younger main character who we got to see grow up (in some cases) and learn how to be a hero and learn important lessons in life. Like Thundercats, Sailor Moon, Lady Lovelylocks, Rainbow Brite, and My Little Pony.
Some cartoons suffer from the assumption that they need to relate to their audience especially in age. The fact that Jem doesn't (unless you count the Starlight girls as main characters) has proven to give Jem an unexpected advantage of holding up well over time, and is one of the reasons it's completely watchable as an adult for more reasons than nostalgia. Many other cartoons may contain things that are considered adult, like mentioned before: action! Sure it's a serious matter with dangers and all that comes along with it, but action is nontheless a simple and somewhat repetitive formula that can always easily catch interest, reach a fanbase and be recreated with new stories. But Jem handles many more realistic subjects with a more sophisticated tone to it's viewers, and doesn't talk down to it's audience.
30. An advantage Jem has in common with other cartoons, over live-action shows, is that there are no episodes in cartoons where it needs to save money by having the characters stay within a closed location like a cage or hide in a room, and just talk amongst themselves for several minutes and try to come across as analytic or poetic. Animation costs the same price to produce regardless what the characters do, and regardless of where the story takes place. So alot more is possible in cartoons. Jem didn't take advantage of this possibility by overdoing it's episodes with unrealistic sudden events like too many holographic projections by Synergy, but Jem episodes could take place anywhere. Unlike live-action series like the Sarah Connor Chronicles that barely had any terminators and they usually sat in the dark talking, or Lost, or StarGate where they often had adventures in forests on earth because it made the scenery cheaper.
Those are all for now. And some of these weaknesses of the mentioned shows are more obvious and some less, and we all like those shows just as much anyway. And some of you may not agree the other shows mentioned handled things so badly. But either way it's TV-shows, easy to love but also easy to pick on. It's all for entertainment. And oh, if I overused He-man as a bad example, it's because I recently watched through the entire series. It's certainly not worse than any other cartoon mentioned.
So let's be fair, let's look at some of the weaknesses of the Jem cartoon.
1. The cartoon made too little use of Synergy. In many episodes, one of the main things about this cartoon, the
holographic computer, is practically left out! And even if Jerrica changes into Jem, we sometimes don't get to
see the transformation, since Jem suddenly just appears in the next scene.
Maybe the doll sales would have gained on overdoing the transformation scene, almost something like He-man and Sailor Moon, which would have probably marketed the line better.
2. The Jem cartoon changed the look of the characters so many times to more resemble the look of the dolls, like
adjusting makeup, haircolors and clothing for later episodes, and still not resembling the dolls alot to make them sell
well enough. Infact, since the makeup looked so very different in the cartoon, compared to most dolls, and when the
cartoon characters even wore fashions that weren't released in the doll line, the only thing that matched the dolls was
their name and hair color.
Atleast He-man always wore the same thing (and he was probably considered fashionable on Eternia).
3. There are perhaps too many leading character roles in Jem, too many bandmembers to give lines and personalities.
I would definitely not get rid of any of them! But I can understand that
some writers completely exluded some main characters from their episodes, and concentrated on a few at the time.
Infact Christy Marx has said herself that she might had created less Starlight girls if she had created the show today.
I know cartoons like He-man (yeah I keep referring mostly to He-man) had even more characters, but most of them were more like secondary friends introduced one at the time, and returned whenever a story called for it.
4. Jem may beat most cartoons when it comes to beautiful animation, especially with it's music videos. But some cartoons like He-man, had the advantage over Jem of having some really nice animation for realistic movements of the characters' bodies. I'm sure some of it must have been based directly on real life people as models (which I think the Jem intro had though). And although Jem had some absolutely beautiful work done for backgrounds (you know the art that is seen behind the characters in the cartoon, like rooms, buildings, the city or something for the music videos), cartoons like He-man, She-ra and BraveStarr probably had some of the most amazing and creative background art you will ever find.