Children’s television in the 1980s was utter garbage, because there was never any need for it to be better. Executives figured out early that kids were stupid, writers were always named shit like Terrence and said obnoxious stuff about act breaks, and satisfying story-arcs don’t sell toys anyway – fucking Real Grappling Hook Action sells toys, Terrence. Writing for a kid’s show used to be a punishment job for somebody’s shitty nephew. But see, it turns out adding total apathy to greed with no second drafts doesn’t just give you trash, it gives you an inside look at the raw madness of a money-poisoned brain worrying at the edges of creativity.
God, it was my favorite era of television.
Today we’re looking at M.A.S.K., a show which had one very simple mission: Give kids another transforming vehicle thing. Please remember, as we go through the episodes – that was their only goal in writing this show: selling a child of the 1980s a plastic motorcycle with guns on it. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. With no further context, if you just set out a display of new gun motorcycles in a 1985 KB Toys, the morning rush would be so brutal you’d have to build a median out of Lite Brites to keep the toy aisle from becoming a Killing Sluice.
And yet the writers of M.A.S.K. tried so fucking hard that they went completely insane from it.
We start off with some standard 1980s cartoon nonsense:
Something about meteors – a villainous plot to steal maybe a meteor, I guess, those suckers gotta be worth something. A third of children’s TV from 1982-1997 was this episode. TVTropes calls this Steal the Meteor and the page gets shockingly racist toward the end. But that’s how M.A.S.K. began, by nakedly aping the nonsense their kid babbled about the plot of a GoBots episode.
We probably should’ve listened to 1980s Children’s Programming when they kept writing episodes about greedy villains using television to hijack our brains and steal our money.
M.A.S.K. quickly ran out of money to rent G.I. Joe tapes for inspiration, so they started freestyling. This is the beginning of the prime era – we wound up with some wild episodes that, to this day, would get you a high five in a Nic Cage pitch meeting. Maybe even a Thank You T-Rex Skull after.
“What if stage magic was real?” That was a very important question to the 1980s, and one they answered in every single show for 10 years. We didn’t take it lightly. There was a two-part Very Special Episode of Punky Brewster where Punky botched the Disappearing Cabinet trick and wound up locked in a fridge. Each week on The A-Team they’d rescue a roguish magician whose tricks were all totally lame until the last ten seconds of the episode, when he disappeared in a cloud of sparkles so we could freeze frame on B.A. Baracus wondering… is there magic in this world after all?
But remixing it so that stage magic is unquestionably real and used for villainy? That’s M.A.S.K. territory, baby!
Hell yeah Kubla Khan’s treasure is hidden inside the Great Wall and only I know the wall’s weakness: Giant scorpions. I’m telling you right now: You get me in a room with Nic Cage, six Chinese investors, and one faulty translator app, and this movie will flop in America but take home $600 million internationally for reasons nobody can ever explain.
Nic’s people passed on this one.
V.E.N.O.M. started off as M.A.S.K.s version of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and man my right index finger is sick of typing this article. V.E.N.O.M. began as an elite agency of evil, but as the show spiraled they were more like if you gave a toddler the keys to a van that transformed into a van with a flamethrower.
No real plans, not even necessarily evil in intent, but the tantrums did result in some war crimes.
Yeah, of course. Get revenge for your childhood with an earthquake machine, I mean, who hasn’t?
Yeah, of course. Run for haha, run for Vice President of the Netherlands with an earthquake machine. I mean, who hasn’t? Not president though, don’t shoot for the big dog’s seat, that motherfucker’s an incumbent with a volcano ray – he’s got this term on lock.
You got this cynical throw-it-at-the-wall writing from every toy-line TV show in the ‘80s. But only with M.A.S.K. did you also get a glimpse at the psyche of the creators. A real insight into the brains of the shitty nephews of Hasbro executives who got banished to writer’s rooms. M.A.S.K. writers had experienced so little of the real world that even the normal parts of their ludicrous synopses were ridiculously disconnected.
Let’s find that mummy, Professor Hillary! Professor Tiffany, you’re on Wolfman Patrol!
It truly became art, watching six brains that had never thought of any part of a story before get forced under deadline to communicate to a demographic they had nothing in common with and no respect for. It was a wonderful mix of condescension, desperation, and the confidence of the very stupid.
“Oh man, what if money got sick with a virus that made it not money?” Some 26 year-old Hamptons Disappointment told a roomful of interns who dutifully wrote that down without a single comment.
M.A.S.K. broke every once in a while to do a comic relief episode, but it was totally indistinguishable from every single other episode they ever did.
Like “Oh no, panda bears are on the wrong island!” can’t be your bar for wacky outlandish premise, when here’s a real one…
“All right, we’ve had enough serious drama with Dutch Earthquake President and The Curse Of Professor Hillary’s Mummy Lover – time for a fun one! Terrence, give me something wacky.”
“S-shit, something about… like vikings. Ships? Sails. V.E.N.O.M. steals every sail from one of those viking countries and they play parachute with a whole city. I don’t know! I need this job, papa said if I don’t leave the house for three hours each and every week he’ll freeze the trust!”
Wait, no, sorry. That’s a serious one. I’m sorry, I’m having trouble finding the line between wacky and sincere episodes in this show where somebody named T-Bob finds Irish treasure at the end of a rainbow.
One weirdly M.A.S.K. specific obsession: Esoteric high-society theft. This is pure Terrence-brain, right here. He really thought kids would understand the stakes of somebody’s prized Lippizaner Stallions going missing:
But of course there’s no consistency. V.E.N.O.M. would spend one episode stealing some kind of billion dollar turbo horse, and the next stealing blankets and mesh.
Terrence did not know what poor people valued! It’s like he got yelled at for being out of touch after the horsey episode so now he’s swinging at the wind, “poor people like… quilts! Mesh! Wait! They love doors!”
Stay tuned next week, kids, when V.E.N.O.M. strips the copper wiring out of a disused community center! They find a ping-pong table with only major water damage – in your face, M.A.S.K.!
Who could forget the thrilling episode where an entire villainous agency got together to steal the ashtray change from a babysitter’s used Saturn?
The stakes vary so wildly: It’s either replacing all of the planet’s water with Lipizanner Stallions or it’s stealing Billy Meyers’ new retainer. V.E.N.O.M. seems less like an evil organization, and more like aliens who got brain damage from a crash landing and now they’re trying to relearn basic morality in a world they don’t know they don’t belong to.
But don’t worry. M.A.S.K. found its footing eventually! It didn’t take them long to hit their Eureka moment. Of course! It was there the whole time! This show about cars that kind of transform is really about… protecting indigineous people across the globe! From themselves and their own ignorance!
Damn, that’s a good shenanigan in that thumbnail! That’s worth a zoom and enhance.
God, I can taste that freeze frame. Some dude named B.U.C.K. or Laser Hound says like “Oh, Professor Demolition – he’s made a monkey of you!” And then they laugh and we’re out, having earned it. Having earned our ending.
The problem with M.A.S.K. proclaiming themselves protector of indigineous cultures both living and dead was that the writers weren’t willing to research anything about anything. Normally, that’s actually fine…
Better, even: Kids are stupid, they don’t know you’re making up a race. And you don’t have to take wild guesses at the delicate history of an aborginal people who really don’t need to show up in a cartoon for latchkey suburban kids that have every good GoBot already. It’s a win-win.
But M.A.S.K. does not stick to fictional anthropology.
And that means every ethnicity other than White Protestant is actually magic, but so fucking bad at it they also need a truck with wings to save them.
“Every culture is hiding a secret treasure!” Is one of those cute lessons to teach kids, but it loses some charm when you stop, look them dead in the eye, and say “no really, it’s there. Let’s go get it. Let’s go take it from them and god help them, Margaret, god help them if they try to stop me and the flamethrower I mounted in the back of my station wagon.”
Hey you know what Native Americans need to see more of, in pop culture? White people rolling up on the reservation in battle wagons!
Ah, shit. I’m sorry, this is so easy to do: Slip into applying modern morality to past media. This was the 1980s – if you got out of any action show without the team going undercover as natives, that was a win. There was a Very Special Punky Brewster episode where she got trapped in a fridge and hallucinated a rapping devil played by Andy Gibb in blackface. It was a nightmare decade. This show is mostly harmless.
I didn’t want to bring M.A.S.K. to condemn it, I wanted to bring it because of its childlike naivete about the world: Sure the natives of fictional Mongo Pongo have never seen a plane before and they tried to feed their children to its engines to calm its fury. You, the writers, invented them. You can say whatever you want. Also the Inca don’t care that you’re using their sacred temples as a set piece for a Cadillac with a harpoon-gun to fight a Fiat that’s half-boat. They’re too busy being dead and their priests are chasing Scooby Doo through a hot dog stand.
Those superstitious Singaporeans? I was a dipshit kid watching this. I had no reference for Singapore. I probably did think it was an island where they threw spears at helicopters. But here’s Singapore in 1980:
I know Terrence was a thin-skulled child and was never allowed to leave the poolhouse for his own safety, but he has a job writing children’s shows now. You need to let him use the encyclopedias even if he gets so excited by the topless aborigines that he has a trademark Vanderburg fainting spell. Look, I know I just made that up but holy shit, wouldn’t that perfectly explain everything about M.A.S.K.?
Freed from the tyranny of basic research, M.A.S.K. starts getting wild with ethnics that need saving. We got unfrozen caveman ethnics…
Zoom and enhance. The artist calls this work “The British History Museum Dilemma.”
We’re unfreezing ancient Incan priests one episode, and the next we’re zipping across the world to raid MacGuffins from the very real aborigines of New Guinea.
Somewhere around the 30th episode I get the feeling M.A.S.K. is just fucking around with us, seeing what the limits are. How far they can get out into the garden before the shock collar goes off. You think that’s a dog metaphor, but no – that’s still Poolhouse Terrence.
Haha, incredible. It’s been 37 episodes and they’re so out of ideas that it’s every idea. Frightening aborigines! Flying rocks! No! Holographic projections of flying rocks! Those idiots! They think it’s god! Their god, Mimi! Who has a secret treasure! But don’t worry, at the end Brad saves the day with his hocus pocus mask. Brad with his guitar!
No, come on.
Is that scene exactly what I think it is?
Yes, it is exactly that.
Every M.A.S.K. plot starts with two things too many and then adds eight more, trying to overload the Buy Center of a child’s brain with confusing and contradictory information. It’s a classic CIA Fake and Break technique.
Then the writers rush out half a draft, set it in a “primitive” village like Portugal, and count on the failure of the American Education System to get them to Season 2. And it worked! I had like eight M.A.S.K. toys and I do not know where Singapore is.
That’s the best episode yet.
It brings up such a clear mental picture, doesn’t it?
You can see it in your head:
Some ‘80s jerk with a villainous mustache-
Those big chunky Ray-Bans-
The natives flee in terror-
As he pulls off some wildly offensive Ooga Booga mask –
To be like “the fools!”