Assuming an Audience’s Level of Maturity: Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (TV Showcase #28)

I have only fond memories of watching this show while it was still airing. So fond, in fact, that I bought the first season to see if I’d still like it. And I did. Part of it was the memories of enjoying the show so much. But part of it is also something I hadn’t observed until this second rewatch of the series. After watching season one, I went on to watch all the other episodes too, and the show never really declined in my opinion. Why am I raving so much about a kid’s show, and a Cartoon Network production at that? Let’s take a quick visit to “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends”.

“Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” (FHIF for short) started in 2004, created by Craig McCracken (who also created “The PowerPuff Girls”). The show ran for 79 half-hour episodes over six seasons, ending in 2009. The show was about a boy named Mac, who lived in a world where imaginary friends were actually real once they were created. Mac’s mother wanted Mac to grow up, so Mac was forced to give up his friend Bloo to a foster home for such imaginary friends. But as long as Mac comes to see Bloo every day, Bloo won’t be allowed to be adopted. There were other regularly appearing characters as well, and the whole show had a great dynamic of personalities and friendships. But why was this show so good? How does a cartoon stay on the air with a committed audience of children for five years?

What FHIF did really well has to do with the title of this Showcase: they assumed the audience’s maturity. What that means is that the target audience in this case was children, probably 8-12 years old, who were reaching the age in which they’d either begin to mature or become ignorant, depending on how they were treated. And unlike “Chowder” or “Uncle Grandpa”, FHIF took both of these aspects into account: the childlike tendencies and the ability to mentally grasp more mature concepts.

FHIF stuck with a canon and didn’t really contradict it that I can remember, and there was frequent manipulative speech, all in fun and a joking matter, but very implicit nonetheless. In this regard, the audience had to wrap their minds around what the characters meant by these things and track with the swiftly-moving story. Additionally, FHIF used old-fashioned items, styles of humour, and references to move the show along. For instance, Mr. Herriman’s silent film (complete with 1920s reel camera), the imaginary friend who was clearly modeled after Groucho Marx (and who used his style of jokes), and references to things as obscure as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or as popular as Ghostbusters— all of these things spoke to the more mature side of the audience, and even if they didn’t fully grasp every concept, that didn’t stop FHIF from treating them like they were smart rather than talking down to them.

But FHIF never lost sight that kids were the target audience, and though they should be treated like they’re smart, they’re still kids, and they enjoy seeing humour that speaks more to their age group. Now, childish humour doesn’t have to be dumb by any means, and FHIF showed that well. Characters would have crazy chases, downward staircases within Foster’s Home would lead upwards, Mr. Herriman would get his just desserts for being so rigid about stuffy rules all the time, and Bloo would always try and get ahead of everyone and wind up getting them all in trouble (Bloo is quite like Dr. Smith from “Lost in Space”, which also partially targeted children for the audience). There was a balance, and it was very well maintained.

So, if nothing else, “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” demonstrates the balance between maturity and childishness within an audience of children. And while “Adventure Time” and “Phineas and Ferb” seem to do this well now, “Foster’s Home” will always be the prime example in my mind. What do you think?

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