Life in Pink Part 1: The Show

The 1980s was a truly outrageous time, and nobody was truer or more outrageous than Jem: patron saint of pink pop perfection. She was beautiful, glamorous, talented, loved by men, envied by women and able to belt out a perfect dance/pop song on a whim. In other words, she was everything a young gay boy dreamed of one day being. Over 65 episodes of animated television, stacks of white cassette tapes, and countless dolls, fashions and playlets, Jem saved the world with the power of music…and sometimes, that was quite literally true.

Jem was essentially a superhero. All the elements were in place: a secret identity, arch-enemies, deceased parents, innocents to save. She might not have had superpowers, but neither did Batman. Like Batman, her powers were her own skills, as well as a pair of impossibly sophisticated hologram projectors disguised as a pair of earrings. Don’t underestimate her just because she has pink hair and likes to sing songs about love and friendship.

The show itself was a unique blend of music, fashion, romance, action and adventure. When it first aired, it was originally sandwiched in-between two “boys” cartoons, so it was necessary to make it glamorous enough to get girls to watch, while also exciting enough to keep the boys from changing the channel. Head story editor Christy Marx had previously worked on traditional “boys” cartoons like G. I. Joe, and she infused the show with a pulp serial energy. Most acts of the show ended with cliffhangers, usually involving one of the main characters in immediate peril. There were car chases, explosions and kidnappings, as well as romantic intrigue and corporate drama. Let’s see Barbie handle THAT.

Of course, the most memorable aspect of Jem was the music. Jem was a singer, after all, and the early episodes focused strongly on how she and the Holograms fought their way to the top of the music charts. The music video interludes in the show were hardly gratuitous, and the music was exceptionally written. Each song had to sound like a potential pop hit, and in most cases, the writers only had about a minute to do it in. The skill put into the music, both the writing and performing, is actually quite amazing, especially when compared to the rather tepid state of current pop music.

Talent was in abundance in all aspects of the show, however. Besides the solid writing by Christy Marx and others, the animation was often remarkably detailed for the time, especially in the music video interludes. It also featured one of the best voice ensembles of the era, including a number of voiceover luminaries, like Susan Blu, Charlie Adler, Wally Burr, and Cathy Cavadini. Jem herself was voiced by Samantha Newark in her first major role, although Brita Phillips supplied Jem’s singing voice. Newark proved to be an amazingly versatile and talented performer, and she infused Jem with massive amounts of personality and charisma. Likewise, Patricia Albrecht did the same with Pizzazz, Jem’s “arch-enemy,” able to go from screaming riot grrrl to calm and collected in a heartbeat.

The voice cast was able to easily convey the often complex nature of the characters and their situations. No one character was wholly a good girl or a bad girl. Each one had admirable virtues and identifiable flaws. Kimber of the Holograms was very talented and creative, but she was also prone to bouts of immature petulance. Stormer of the Misfits was deep down a kind and caring person, but she was also so lacking in self-confidence that she was easily manipulated by the more aggressive personalities of her bandmates. Nobody was more complex, perhaps, than Jem herself, split as she was between her mysterious public persona and her true self as the more down-to-earth Jerrica Benton. Jem and Jerrica were often treated as completely separate entities, even by Jerrica herself and the Holograms. Jerrica’s boyfriend Rio had relationships with both Jem and Jerrica, and even though they were the same person, both relationships had extremely different dynamics and chemistry. Never mind that Jem/Jerrica seemed to actually encourage this rather idiosyncratic schizophrenia. A college thesis could be written about the psychological intricacies of the main characters.

The show itself evolved from its origins as Hasbro’s answer to Barbie into a rather unique entity in its own right. The first season of the show focused squarely on the Holograms’ budding popularity, and the majority of the plots involved a great deal of corporate intrigue as Eric Raymond and the Misfits tried to find ways to undermine both Jem and the Holograms and Jerrica Benton’s control of Starlight Music. The profits of Starlight Music went to fund the Starlight House for foster girls, so the stakes were always rather high for the Holograms. It wasn’t just a matter of scoring a number one album. The show wasn’t afraid to address social issues, either, including a two-part episode (“The Music Awards”) that also served as a public service announcement about runaway youth.

The show’s second season took a detour from that and instead became more of an adventure story with a more typical comic/cartoon dynamic. Both bands would get engaged in highly unusual situations, sometimes highly contrived and sometimes simply outright bizarre, from adventures in Aztec ruins to a Renaissance festival that takes itself WAY too seriously, even an episode involving time travel (no, really). However, season two also had some of the most psychologically fascinating episodes. “Scandal” showed the nastiest sides of the Misfits, while Jem ended up getting gaslighted in “The Fan.” New characters were also introduced: Raya, the Holograms’ new drummer, and Jetta, the Misfits’ new saxophone player. Raya, sadly, was never fully developed as a character, but Jetta proved to be a dynamic new personality that shook up the Misfits’ tenuous sisterhood.

The show truly came into its own during the third season, which makes that season’s brevity all the more unfortunate. A new band, the Stingers, arrived to really throw a wrench in the show’s established harmony. Forcefully glam-slamming and Euro-trashing their way into the show, the Stingers helped return the show to its music industry roots as Jerrica and Eric fought to sign the Stingers to their respective labels, and radically altered the dynamics of the show’s relationships. Pizzazz is immediately besotted with lead singer Riot, so we get to see an entirely new and extremely vulnerable side of her. Riot himself makes a beeline for Jem, adding a new twist to what was already a two-person love triangle. Riot’s bandmates Minx and Rapture were also rather dramatic personalities in their own right, and they proved capable of shifting alliances and sympathies with ease. The fact that both of their singing voices were supplied by disco legend Vicki Sue Robinson also ensured that the Stingers’ music was some of the best and most colorful the show had ever had, and that ended up raising the bar for both the Holograms and the Misfits.

Sadly, Jem‘s fortunes and fames were inextricably tied to the popularity of the toys it was associated with. Sales of the dolls declined during the show’s third season, meaning that the show also had to come to a rather abrupt end. The final episode gets the show to the conclusion it was heading for anyway, but it happens far too quickly and without showing some of the necessary steps to get there. It’s still one of the show’s most compelling episodes, but it wraps itself up just a bit too nicely. What should have properly been a two-part finale was condensed into one episode and feels more than a little rushed.

Jem lives on, however, in the hearts and minds of us all. Us, of course, meaning 30-something Fanboys (and Fangirls). Shout Factory’s recent release of the complete series on DVD proves testament to the show’s staying power. The set is exquisitely packaged, at least a dozen times more attractive than Rhino’s previous release, with beautiful art and plenty of shimmering pink. It’s clear that a great deal of care was taken in putting the set together with a focus on longevity: the box the DVDs are stored in is solid as can be, far more durable than the thin paperboard the Rhino set came in.

The episodes themselves are about the same as they were in the Rhino set, and they’re presented as well as they could be. It’s a shame they weren’t cleaned up a bit, but the audio is in pristine shape and the video looks just about the same as it did back when it first aired. While Shout Factory plans on releasing the seasons individually, the bonus disc available in the box set is worth the price. It features hours of interviews with the voice cast and creative team behind the show, recollections from Jem fans of both genders, and a number of the original toy commercials. The commercials were taken from whatever sources they could find, usually fan-made recordings. One of them even has the old VHS time stamp at the beginning. The only advantage the Rhino set has is that the commentary tracks on those discs weren’t transferred over to this one. However, the extensive interviews more than make up for it, and convey roughly the same information.

Those of us who grew up with Jem almost to a person remember it quite fondly over 25 years later. With Shout Factory’s new set, it’s “Showtime, Synergy!” all over again and the perfect time to introduce new fans to the show. Next week in “Life in Pink,” we’ll talk about the show’s influence and legacy, from Lady Gaga to Leg Avenue and everything in-between. This is, of course, “Only The Beginning.”

Be sure to check out all of FBOTU’s truly outrageous Jem coverage here.

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and is truly, truly, truly outrageous.

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